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One Farm, Three Families

Pricey prairie pasture wasn’t an option, so the Gronewolds put cows under cover to grow their operation.

By Des Keller

| Photos by Christy Couch Lee

Ashton Gronewold always liked the idea of joining his parents’ farming operation. Although he left home to attend college in Missouri and then worked briefly as a petroleum engineer in Oklahoma, the west-central Illinois prairie called him back.

Yet, while Ashton’s desire to farm with his father was in ample supply, a simple truth remained: The family’s 1,600 row-crop acres and 150-head cow herd weren’t enough to sustain the goal. In order to return, additional income would be required. 

While paying the bills as a full-time seed salesman, the now-32-year-old pondered the possibilities. “We looked at custom hog buildings,” says Ashton, who played football in college and was even invited to try out for the Chicago Bears, “but we’ve always been cattle people.” 

Adding to a cattle herd typically requires more pasture, which can be both difficult to come by and expensive to purchase ($3,500 to $5,000 per acre around the Gronewolds’ hometown of Carthage, Illinois). A business acquaintance, however, offered Ashton an alternative to additional acreage—a so-called “monoslope” cattle barn.

Bovine Barn

As the name implies, a monoslope barn has only one slope to its roof. Positioned to take advantage of seasonal climatic conditions, the barn’s naturally ventilated design allows a livestock producer to keep a herd in one place, under roof, instead of out in pastures. Ashton found a receptive audience in his father, Merlin, who, over the years, has enjoyed raising cattle and was interested in getting his son back on the farm.

Ashton jokes about securing financing. “Our banker had never heard of that sort of thing [the monoslope], so he went along with it,” he says with a laugh.

Completed in December 2016, the 100-foot-wide and 252-foot-long barn allowed the Gronewolds to double their herd to more than 300 mama cows. The herd is split roughly in half with alternating calving seasons. Pregnant cows stay under the monoslope through calving, then cows and calves rotate to pasture.

The herd expansion created the income needed to get Ashton back on the farm full time. Even better, Ashton’s sister, Brooke, and her husband, Evan Davidson, also joined the business. The move has been a dream come true for Evan.

“I was kind of hoping they would make room for me,” he says with a smile. He had previously worked as a truck driver, and today, he primarily hauls grain and takes care of cattle chores through the week. Brooke performs administrative and bookkeeping work for the business.

“This has worked out pretty well, really, having both [children] back on the farm,” Merlin says. “Everybody kind of likes to do certain things, and they gravitate to those jobs.” In addition to Evan’s and Brooke’s duties, Ashton mainly handles seed purchases and the farm’s agronomic plan for growing corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. Merlin maintains the cattle herd’s feed rations and schedule of any vaccines.

Side-Job Supplement

Despite the success of the monoslope cattle barn, the cattle and crops alone don’t generate all the income needed, or desired, for three families. Ashton and Evan both maintain side businesses that benefit either them individually or the farm as a whole.

The Gronewold farm relies on a number of pieces of AGCO equipment, including multiple Massey Ferguson tractors and a Gleaner S67 combine.

Ashton continues to sell seed independently, though he doesn’t have a lot of time for sales calls in the spring and fall when in the field himself. He relies on past contacts for the business, gaining new customers via word-of-mouth. Ashton also is one of 10 owner-investors in a new meat locker in Carthage. The hope is to be able to market some of the family’s cattle locally. “I’m a fan of eating locally, and I think there is a premium product we can offer,” he says.

Evan grows pumpkins and watermelons for sale from the farm and at local markets. “The pumpkins, in particular, have become good sellers the past couple of years,” he says. “Everyone in Carthage loves them.” 

Evan and Brooke maintain several beehives and sell honey at the new meat locker. They also care for 30 ducks that roam free during the day but are penned at night. The ducks’ eggs are sold primarily to a local bakery where the large, rich, dark-yolked eggs are in demand for breads and pastries.

“Everyone has chickens, and I thought ducks would give us a kind of specialty that’s different,” Evan explains. “So far, it has worked out pretty well.”

After the growing season, father, son and son-in-law spend time operating a field-tiling business. In addition, as part of the family’s cattle business, they allow some of their cows to be implanted with embryos that contain desirable herd traits from other livestock companies. Because these operations don’t have to own or manage the breeding stock, they pay the Gronewolds a premium for calves produced in this manner—nearly double what the family would receive for one of the farm’s conventionally bred calves.

Gronewold Family Growth

Asked how the next decade might play out, all three men speculate that a second monoslope barn might be a possibility for future expansion. And they are always in the market for new row-crop acres to purchase or rent—depending on the price.

“We have some farms with a lot of acres where it would make sense to build another barn,” Ashton says. “I would say that barn is the best thing we’ve done recently. I don’t think the meat industry is going away.”

Ashton’s 5-year-old son, Haxton, is part of the next-generation-in-training, often trailing along with his dad or his grandfather to check cattle or ride in the pickup. When asked what his grandfather would tell him, Haxton replies, “Get up, get your boots on. There’s work to be done.” 

Most certainly.