Some may call it a trailblazing enterprise with a strong commitment to stewardship and productivity, but if you ask owner Jerry Huth, he’ll crack a smile and say it’s more of a “4-H project run amok.”
Of course, that would be underplaying his accomplishments. Over the past 60 years, Jerry Huth of Huth Polled Herefords in Oakfield, Wisconsin, has developed a strong reputation for high-quality genetics; profitable, productive cattle; and a progressive approach to stewardship opportunities. Most recently, Huth and his partner in S&H Livestock Enterprises, Josh Scharf, were recognized on a national stage as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) regional Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP) winners, an honor presented to farms and ranches undertaking stewardship efforts unique to their environment, landscape and resources. As regional winners, Huth Polled Herefords and S&H Livestock Enterprises will be considered for the national NCBA Environmental Stewardship Award during the organization’s legislative conference in late April.
What’s so unique about these partners’ approach to stewardship on the farm?
What has become Huth’s life’s work wasn’t always an assumed career path. Huth didn’t get his start as a born-and-raised farm kid.
“It all started in the early '60s,” Huth says. “My dad was already two generations removed from the farm when he got me started in 4-H. The farm we’re on today came up for sale in 1964. My dad bought it then, and I bought it from him less than a decade later.”
That experience of finding his way to the farm rather than being born into it would be repeated decades later when Josh Scharf, a childhood friend of Huth’s sons, started helping on the farm in the summertime and taking on increasing responsibility throughout high school and college.
“I thought I’d be teaching or translating,” says Scharf. “I always enjoyed the farm but definitely didn’t know it would be my career. After working a different job out of college, and seeing the needs of our family change, I approached Jerry about coming back to the farm. Eventually, that turned into a partnership.”
And so in 2019, a partnership was born between two “unlikely” farmers who weren’t born into agriculture but found their way into it and never looked back. S&H Livestock Enterprises grew the numbers from Huth Polled Herefords’ 100 cows to a total of 150 across both operations.
Huth and Scharf both prioritize learning as a key to their success.
“Things evolve over time,” says Huth. “In my generation, we had a whole different way of grazing and working cattle. Over the years, we’ve seen Bud Williams’ system for handling cattle, Temple Grandin’s approach … new thought processes that weren’t there when I started. We have to stay on top of those things to ensure we’re making the best possible decisions.”
Scharf praises Huth’s attitude on continued education for his employees.
“Jerry makes sure I’m continuing my education in the business,” he says. “He sends me to conferences, shares articles and is a great mentor to me and to our longtime employee, Chuck.”
To Huth, learning and exploring new trends in the industry are essential elements to long-term profitability and stewardship goals.
“What we’re watching today and what we’re watching over the next 10 to 20 years will involve a lot of change,” Huth says. “There are things we’re only beginning to discover or really pay attention to at the farm level, like how our actions impact wildlife and organisms that we don’t even see, and the impact of our industry’s outputs on the greater population.”
Making the time to read up on current research – for example, studies from the University of California – Davis about the benefits of seaweed in cattle rations to reduce methane production – keeps Huth open-minded about opportunities to try new things and make incremental improvements.
Ahead of the curve
Along the way, Huth’s commitment to staying up on the trends opened a door to a great partnership opportunity with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), a partnership that serves local public lands, wildlife and their herd.
“Jerry read an article saying DNR was considering grazing some of their land and needed partners to help manage the properties,” Scharf recalls. “We worked with them to create a long-term contract allowing us to graze and manage that land for them. We were one of the first people in Wisconsin to do so.”
That was six years ago. Today, Huth and Scharf’s cattle graze 130 acres of public land, which has been transformed from untamed, woody vegetation measuring 12 feet tall to an abundance of clover, warm-season grasses and other legumes that cattle love to graze.
“Now there are a number of people we know who are grazing their herds on public land and seeing very favorable results for wildlife and for cattle,” says Huth. “It’s been a great example of how we can work in conjunction with a number of different agencies – federal and state – to create beneficial land for livestock and for wildlife.”
A holistic approach
The ESAP recognition from NCBA has shone a spotlight on Huth Polled Herefords and S&H Livestock Enterprises for their progressive mindset toward environmental stewardship. They emphasize, however, that there is more to being “sustainable” than implementing rotational grazing and buffer strips.
“It’s about the broader picture,” says Huth. “Of course, we want to be great stewards of the environment. We also need to make decisions that are financially feasible on both a short- and long-term basis. We need to be cognizant of social sustainability: Are the practices we’re implementing acceptable to the people driving down the road? And we need to take care of our people in a way that makes them want to come to work every day. Employee retention requires that people enjoy what they do and find it fulfilling.”
Because of this outlook, they make efforts to provide positive experiences for employees and local community members.
“When we start calving in May, it feels like a local attraction,” Scharf says. “People stop in to check on the cows. If they drive by and don’t see the cows in the pasture where they were the day before, they’ll pull into the yard and ask where they are.”
Huth and Scharf are willing tour guides and advocates for the industry and continue to invest in stewardship practices that improve their herd, the environment and their employee and community relationships.
“At the end of the day, I appreciate the recognition, but I don’t think we’re unique,” Huth says. “I think we’re representative of what beef cattle producers are doing in America. Sometimes we don’t tell our story well enough, but the vast majority of beef producers are doing a fantastic job.
“Who better to be stewards of the land than cattlemen?” he continues. “We’ve learned that if we take care of the land, the land takes care of us. And the same goes for our employees and our community. That’s a type of stewardship any cattleman should be able to get behind.”