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  • Megan Silveira, associate editor

Always Making Them Better

A Nebraska family makes marketing work for them.  

The Johnson family (from left) are Liz, Vance, Dave, Darcy and Avery.

The road from Cambridge, Neb., to Saint Joseph, Mo., was nearly 350 miles. Sitting shotgun to his father, Dave Johnson forgoes the familiar view of cattle grazing out the passenger window to peek in the rearview. The trailer following them is filled with fat calves destined for the stockyards. 

Today, those road trips hauling livestock are just fond memories. Dave was 14 years old when he bought his own cattle. He’s the fourth generation of his Swedish family to work in the industry — a testament shared with pride. 

“I’ve just done it all my life,” Dave explains with a small smile and a shrug of his shoulders. “I’ve had a passion for the cattle business…I’ve done it all my life. I don’t know any different.”  

The sentiment is shared by his sons, Avery and Vance, who work back home on the ranch alongside him. Cambridge is still home, but Dave admits the area has been transitioning away from the cattle industry year by year since his childhood. As farm ground started to became the new norm, Dave’s search for herd sires was becoming a bit of a challenge. 

“At that point in time, we were buying so many bulls,” he recalls. “It seemed like all the bulls were a pretty high price for what I thought they really were. I got to thinking maybe we could raise some of our own.” 

The Johnsons were on the hunt for genetics that could produce an animal with a moderate frame size, capable of spending her summers on grass and winters on cornstalks. To Dave, that meant a cow with good feet, good udders, good temperament and the ability to produce at least 50% of her body weight. 

When it came down to it, the family realized their commercial Angus cattle met that expectation. So in 2018, the first registered females made their way to the operation. 

“We started small, and then I’ve been adding to it over the last six years,” Dave says. “You just kind of get the ball rolling.” 

Last year the ranch saw about 150 registered calves hit the ground. Each year since the inauguration of their registered herd, the family has kept about 15-20% of the calf crop as replacements. Current numbers stand at about 180 of the 600-head herd being registered. 

“That’s something you said you wanted to do for a long time,” Dave’s wife, Darcy, reminds him as he spouts off the stats. “You’ve been wanting to go [the registered] route, and finally made the choice to start down this road once you knew you’d have the help around.” 

Dave confirms, explaining how he was confident to take the leap with the Angus breed once his sons committed to working full-time on the operation. 

Vance smiles at the statement, proving his passion and knowledge of the industry as he adds that the Angus breed is a perfect fit for his family. The Business Breed is ideal for finding the balance between phenotype and genotype. 

“We look at everything — trying to breed the total package,” Dave confirms. “The whole thing is to try and make them better … and keep improving as we move.” 

After just four years, the Johnson men felt confident enough in their crop of bull calves to venture into the world of private treaty sales. 

Marketing moves

Liz grew up in the ag community of Cambridge, but didn’t have a direct tie to the industry until she and Vance got together 10 years ago. Now married, she’s just as proud of the cattle operation as the original four Johnson family members, learning and helping where she can. 

When it came time to pull the trigger to start selling bulls locally, Liz and Darcy agreed on a good first step: branding their operation.  

Developing a logo sounded deceptively simple, Darcy remembers. They knew their name — Johnson Angus Ranch — and were drawn to the color red. 

“We just wanted a logo that would be kind of universal,” Liz summarizes, noting they thought ahead about what could look good on printed materials and apparel like hats and sweatshirts. 

Connections in the industry led them to a designer —  Ash Valley Designs — but the process of finalizing the completed icon was more time consuming than they expected. 

Design suggestions would be too similar to another business, or sketches didn’t feel right. The list, Darcy says, seemed to go on and on. But the investment was worth it in the end. 

Next, Dave and Vance went through the calf crop and put a price tag on each bull. Numbers reflected the family’s opinion on their ranking in the offering as well as current prices for similar animals. There’s always risk in the market with not knowing interest level, Dave explains. He wants to make a profit but knows he can’t overprice animals either. 

As all registered bulls are genomically tested, potential clients come look at bulls starting in January. Fertility testing is completed at the beginning of the March, and then it’s a first come, first served basis for sales. 

As commercial cattlemen visit, price isn’t the only tightrope to walk anymore. Vance says there’s also the goal of providing an animal that could suit anyone. Some people come asking for potential sires for their first-time heifer calvers. Others want bulls that’ll produce big calves at weaning and yearling. 

When the right bull is selected for the right customer, hands are shaken and the business is done until next spring. 

It’s how cattlemen work — clean-cut and precise. But as the Johnsons saw their offerings go up in number each year, they couldn’t help but wonder if their marketing efforts should expand, too. 

“Each year, we’re kind of trying to grow our marketing a little bit more,” Liz says. 

It started with the logo, and in 2023, the family decided to try their hand at a mini sale book. 

There’s power in print material in this line of work. Dave admits the spreadsheets of expected progeny differences (EPDs) and individual animal IDs he keeps might not prove as helpful to those outside the family business. 

“A lot of people like to see the numbers and see the pictures,” Liz expands, noting the sale book was a way for the family to neatly put that information in the hands of past customers and potential future clients. 

A full sale book was a little out of their price range as they took on the endeavor for the first time. Between printing costs and the price of envelopes and stamps, a smaller book became the best alternative. 

“It’s definitely a family affair,” Liz adds, describing the process of putting that first project together. “My sister, Sarah, designed [everything] and then their cousin, Miranda, took all the photos. We rely on everybody.” 

Flyers went up in town at sale barns and ag-based businesses, allowing people to request sale books. Social media posts were made on the Johnson Angus Facebook and Instagram pages, asking for the addresses of those interested in learning more about the offering. Details of past customers were gathered. Just like that, Darcy and Liz had a stout mailing list for the sale book. 

“It’s just been a learning process,” Darcy admits, but says she thinks they’re moving in the right direction. 

Dave’s set a minimum of 100 bulls before they can take the jump to host a live auction. With 50 offered private treaty this year, there’s still room to grow. But Vance happily reminds his dad that number was doubled from 2023. 

With the help of marketing, that trajectory might mean a live auction is close on the horizon. Until then, the Johnsons’ plan to is continue traditions set in stone when Dave was still riding shotgun to Saint Joseph, Mo. 

For these Nebraska cattlemen, as long as they’re constantly making their herd better, they know they’re moving in the right direction.


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