SUMMITVILLE, Ohio — As a boy, Henry Bergfeld grew up around sheep. His family raised sheep on their Westmoreland County farm in southwestern Pennsylvania, and so did many of the local farmers.
In fact, one of his first jobs was shearing sheep, and he traveled to various farms in the area, offering to shear sheep for a few bucks.
But he found his real passion in the beef barn at the county fair: Black Angus.
“I saw these black cattle that I really liked,” he said, so in 1952, he bought his first heifer for $475, with money he had raised from sheering sheep. The heifer later gave birth to a bull calf, and the calf became his first beef steer project.
From that point, his love of the Angus breed was born. He not only showed cattle, winning various contests along the way, but he also became a well-respected judge of cattle.
He won a district judging contest in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and the contest judge, a Penn State beef specialist, encouraged Bergfeld to study animal sciences at Penn State University.
At first, Bergfeld found college life difficult, particularly the studying and academics. But with some help from the staff, and his determination, he completed his degree and graduated in 1963.
One area where he did excel — not surprisingly — was the college’s livestock judging team. The team enjoyed several high placings at contests across the country, and individually, Bergfeld won at least three major contests, including the Keystone International Livestock Exposition, at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
But more than winning, he also made friends and industry connections that have lasted a lifetime.
On Jan. 23, at the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association annual awards meeting in Columbus, he received the Beef Industry Excellence Award. The award recognizes his lifetime commitment to the Ohio beef industry.
Bergfeld was nominated for the award by former Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Fred Dailey.
Dailey, who raises cattle near Mount Vernon, met Bergfeld in the early 1980s, when he was manager of the Summitcrest cattle farm, of Summitville, Ohio. Dailey said he was quickly impressed with Bergfeld’s knowledge and ability to manage such a large operation.
“Anyone who can manage a ranch that’s over 20,000 acres, and three different states, and have some of the top cows in the country — you’ve got to be impressed with,” Dailey said.
Today, Bergfeld is “probably one of the top five cowmen of the United States,” and well-recognized internationally, Dailey said.
But his reputation — and the reputation of the cattle he managed — took time to build.
After college, Bergfeld worked three years for Stewart Brothers Seeds, of Greensburg, Indiana, where he helped manage the company’s beef herd. He continued to win cattle shows, and soon found himself getting job offers, one from a ranch in New York, another from Michigan State, and a third — which he accepted — at the Summitcrest Performance Angus ranch, in Summitville, Ohio.
Bergfeld met Fred Johnson — proprietor of the Summitcrest ranch, at a cattle show in 1965, and in 1966, Johnson offered him the job of farm manager. It was a job he would hold for the next 39 years, helping the operation grow from about 250 head and one location, to additional ranches in Iowa and Nebraska, and at one time, as many as 2,500 head of cattle.
Bergfeld already knew a lot about beef and even a fair amount about crops, but becoming manager at Summitcrest was a big step.
“For one thing, I was younger than the main core of the help,” Bergfeld said. “I had to gain their respect.”
And, he had to do something about demand. He knew Summitcrest could produce as good of cattle as anyone, but to appeal to the western states’ cattlemen, they needed to get involved out West.
So, over time, Summitcrest expanded to include farms in Iowa and Nebraska, producing and selling cattle in those states, and building its name among western producers.
But another big step was improving the consumer demand for quality Angus beef.
Other breeds were competing with Angus at the time, and Bergfeld and his cattle friends knew they needed to raise the bar.
“We all knew that we had carcass quality the other breeds couldn’t compete with,” he said.
In response, key Angus producers at the time, including Mick Colvin and Harold Etling, of Wayne County, formed Certified Angus Beef — a brand that distinguished high quality Angus beef.
Although the CAB brand took a few years to catch on, it ultimately became the largest and most successful brand of beef in the world, providing a solid marketing opportunity for quality Angus cattle.
As a past CAB board member, one of Bergfeld’s biggest accomplishments was helping to keep the organization headquartered in Wooster, Ohio — where it stands even today.
Drug testing. Other major achievements included working with Dailey, to establish the state’s first major livestock show drug use program, and working to establish the Ohio Beef Expo.
The drug use policy helped level the playing field for livestock exhibitors, and became model legislation for other states.
Bergfeld helped form the Beef Expo when he was president of Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. He knew Ohio had an opportunity to showcase eastern states’ cattle, and the show continues to grow today, “above any expectation.”
And, of course, Bergfeld helped improve genetic quality of the Angus breed.
When he started, everything was based on show results, and what you could visually determine about the cattle. But over the years, the Summitcrest herd became a leader in genetic recordkeeping, EPDs, and the exporting of Angus embryos.
At one time, the herd was also a national leader for “pathfinder” cows — a program that distinguished the best cows, based on multi-year sets of data.
Today, Bergfeld and his wife, Dona, live on a ranch that borders the Summitcrest farm — known as Pine Hill Farm. The couple keep about 45 head of Angus cattle, and are still active in the Angus beef industry.