MIKE THIEL, TEXAS LONGHORN RANCHER

Turn off the country road into the long gravel driveway. Pass the large sign on your right that reads “Churchview Cattle Company” and to your left a bright red barn. At the end of the driveway lies a small, cozy farmhouse. Walk into the kitchen of the house—it’s covered in wood from top to bottom, giving it a real homey feel. Mike is sitting on a bench, taking off his cowboy boots and hat. You’ll tell by the dirt on his pants that he has put in a hard day’s work being a Texas Longhorn Rancher.

I’m 57 years old. I was born and raised here right in the home place right where I’m at. Growing up we had a bigger family. There were eight kids and my parents. We had a dairy farm at the time—we milked cows. My father at one point when the kids got bigger, he started working off the farm, so kids did a lot of the work: milking cows, taking care of cattle, cleaning barns, bailing hay, helping planting and filling silos.

My dad, even with him working off the farm, he did most of the fieldwork. As we got older between the kids, everyone took turns getting up in the morning to milk, to help milk at night, and stuff like that. My oldest brother is 10 years older, then my youngest sister is probably about six or seven years younger. So as time went on the older ones would do the heavy work and everybody had chores. Then everyone just graduated to the next level of work whether it be loading wagon or milking or stuff like that. My mom was always there. She was a stay-at-home mom. Farmed…and she drove tractors for bailing.

The farm itself has been in the family since 1870. It was homesteaded by my great grandpa John Thiel. For the most part they always milked cows and it was different—then you milked by hand. I think when my grandpa took over there was maybe 13-14 cows, plus pigs, and chickens, and selling eggs, and stuff like that. When my dad took over they had about 30 cows. They had pigs until about the mid ‘60s. My mother raised chickens for meat—usually a couple hundred a year to sell to the public. At the time, she butchered them and us kids would help. Then as we got the farm, the fifth generation, we were only milking cows.

It was quite a trying time back in the ‘70s, early ‘80s. Out of 45 cows the one year, we probably had 10 or 12 abortions due to Leptospirosis. And in the following year we had a few more until we had it settled out and stuff. That’s quite an issue when it comes to your milk production. You lose calves. The mental stress of that when it’s going on… Yeah that was probably about the worst time. Until ‘89 we had about 45 to 50 cows and by that time we sold the cows, switched over to beef cattle, and that’s about where we’re at right now. We had seen longhorn cattle at horse events for the rodeos and ropings and stuff like that. My wife had seen cattle on route to work and would see a herd of them here or there. We just investigated into it and thought that was something that we wanted to try.

If you split it up for the size of operation, we have about 30 breeding cows plus young stock and it varies. Before we sell cattle for the feed—for the feeder sales—we could be up to 60-70 head at a time. Just guessing spreading it out, the busy times and the light times, probably averaging about 3 to 4 hours a day with this size operation, throughout the year. Right now we got about 35 head in the breeding program, plus there is some 25 plus calves, so now we are talking 65 head, couple bulls, so where talking about 65-70 head right now. Yeah that’s a small operation. That’s a large hobby farm or that’s a small operation. Part-time.

The way we set it up the cattle get checked every day. We have to make sure that there’s always water, checking that morning and night. The cattle get fed, and they have access to hay 24-7. I have to move feeders, it’s called bail grazing, depending on the weather. I’ll have to move them once a week or every few days to move new bails. That varies from week to week, that’s a couple hours a day just checking. In the winter you have to deal with the snow and ice and stuff like that for feeding them. Then in the spring you got calving and we rotational graze, so we spend time getting fencing ready for the pastures. Once that’s set up cows get moved about every second or third day depending on the season. Once you’re past calving, it’s getting the bulls out for breeding, and in fall weaning time, and then we are back to winter.

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The dealers tend to deal with the big farms—everything is mega-sized so it’s $10,000. I could use a piece of equipment that you can no longer find because of the size of it—something small like a new manure spreader something that I want to spend $2,000-$3,000 on. I’m not very fond of confinement with a lot of animals altogether. If you have a disease outbreak, which it could happen, it goes through real fast just because the numbers. There’s a lot of people that say they’re not family farms but, most farms in this area and even the large dairies, there’s families there—three, four, five different families plus all the employees they hire.

Everything comes down to the dollar when you can buy commodities, different feeds and stuff like that by the semi-load. You’re just saving hundreds of dollars a ton probably for every load and when you can ship volume it makes a big difference. You get a better price for it if they’ll have to make one stop to fill a semi tanker instead of two or three or four or more. The economics there are just a necessary evil in our economy.

We’re licensed to sell off the farm, which the county comes out once a year and inspects. When we were doing quarters and halves we were sometimes taking in six or eight head in at a time to get processed. We have to take it to state inspection plants and they have it labeled that’s how we take care the processing of the beef. Then you pick it up a couple weeks later cut, wrapper, labeled, frozen, and ready to go. It’s (the price] been close to the local markets just because of the fact when it comes to selling individual cuts and stuff like that we’re about probably 30 minutes away from the bigger city, out in the country from Green Bay, Appleton, Shawano areas.

We’ve had customers who’ve come out, but for the most part most people want convenience. They want to drive five minutes and pick up their meat. We sold the majority of it in quarters and halves and ground beef. For the most part we push it and promote quite a bit. We will send out newsletters two-three times a year to customers and we had a mailing list at the time. The last ones we sent out was probably to one hundred plus people. It’s not like we didn’t promote it, we just found out that people want it simple. When it comes to driving—stuff like that—a lot of people say they want this meat, “I want it,” but when it comes down to it they wont drive that 30 minutes to come get it.

We did sell individual cuts at one point and had some processed, snack sticks, hot sticks jalapeno sticks, summer sausage, jerky, brats, chuck roast, rump roast, and all the different steak cuts, liver, tongue, heart, and soup bones, everything. It’s the best beef there is. Longhorn is a very lean beef. It’s just the breeding and the people tell me “oh it’s tough” and stuff like that. When you put a longhorn steak on you don’t just throw it on and walk away. You cook it at a lower heat, You turn it more, probably more than a normal steak, and if you cook it right it’ll be as tender as any beef you have ever had.

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I like cattle, I’ve been around cattle for 50 years. I don’t know if you want to say you have a bond with them, but you respect your cattle. I really enjoy the nature part of it. In the summer when you’re moving them from pasture to pasture in the grass… Even if I’m out in the middle of the snowstorm in the middle of winter moving bails, moving the feeder to feed them, and it’s 20 below zero I enjoy it. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a couple friends that do a lot of traveling to Longhorn events, to sales, and to some shows. Usually three or four times a year I’m on road trips with these guys. We have a good time. We’ve been to Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and went to Las Vegas to a fancy sale. We just have a good time together and I probably wouldn’t have been off the farm much if it wasn’t for those guys.

Everyday is a happy day [chuckles] it’s just the day-to-day, living in it. People say they’re living the dream, well I love what I’m doing and when you like what you’re doing it’s not a job. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned with my Christian faith, I believe everything comes from my God whether it’s the rain that makes the grass grow and keeps the cattle healthy, I have to trust a higher power than myself to make this, to run this operation. It’s not me it’s the God that I serve.

— Eric Spranger

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