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  • Sarah Kocher, Angus Communications

Let the Record Show

Phil and Ruth Abrahamson inducted into Angus Heritage Foundation.

Callous hands and a grateful heart describe many farmers and ranchers who love what they do. If that list also included data enthusiast, performance-testing patriarch and Ruth’s husband, it would be an accurate description of Philip Abrahamson, Sunnyslope Angus in Lanesboro, Minn. 

The fourth-generation caretakers of Sunnyslope, Phil and Ruth, join a small group of Angus breeders recognized for their innovation, service and leadership to the breed with their 2023 induction into the Angus Heritage Foundation.

By the numbers

A trademark of the Abrahamsons’ more than 50-year career has been collecting performance data and encouraging others to do the same. Phil points out their progress has only been possible because of the family who came before them.

“Our ancestors have lived here on the farm since 1863,” Phil says. “The Angus cow was here when I was born, so Angus had been in the equation all my life.”

By the time Phil received his first Angus steer from his father at age 9, he was already a farmer.

“I actually started working on the farm when I was about 6, and I was driving the tractor pretty much full-time when I was 8 years old,” he says. 

At that young age, Phil already knew he loved numbers.

“I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was a great fan of sports,” he adds. “Whether it was baseball, basketball or football, I loved to look at the statistics, especially for baseball players.”

He would study who hit the most home runs, the most triples, doubles and singles; who had the highest batting average; fielding percentages; and, of course, team standings. 

Through 4-H, his family’s farm and eventually higher education, Phil grew to understand how his interest in numbers could be applied to raising cattle.

“The real records started when I was at the University of Minnesota,” he says. 

This was in 1959, and Phil worked on a project requiring individual animal records be documented. The very next year, the American Angus Association established Angus Herd Improvement Records (AHIR®).

“I jumped right into AHIR, and luckily my dad went along with it,” Phil says. “He was glad to go along with it, which was great, and we had the first field day out here in the fall of 1960.”

Sticking by the breed

Phil says the timing of the new AHIR program was critical for the Angus breed. Other breeds were being brought to the United States from Europe as a strategy for growing bigger cattle faster than what Angus was known for at the time.

“We realized, boy, we better start kicking up the gains on these cattle a little bit and getting them to grow a little faster and do a number of things a little bit better,” Phil says. “You had to do some soul-searching back in those days as to which direction you were going to go — were you going to stay where you were at with the breed and try to get them to perform better, or were we going to go to crossbreeding? For us, we stayed with the straight Angus.”

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robert “Bob” DeBaca of Iowa State University organized a group of breeders serious about performance data, and the Abrahamsons were part of that group.

“They kind of bonded together and advertised their performance records,” says John Crouch who was director of performance programs at the Association from 1981 to 2002 prior to serving as CEO. “Philip was one of the backbone breeders of that group.”

Crouch says this proved to be a very successful strategy for them and the others.

He attests to the influence Philip and Ruth had on data collection at an industry level. 

“The numbers don’t lie,” Phil says.

Significant sires

Despite their early success with performance testing, the Abrahamsons experienced trials when drought in the 1970s and decreased cattle numbers led to poor prices for commercial cattle.

“We did not sell one single bull in 1977,” Phil says. “We were doing all this performance testing and everything, and we were really wondering, well, what’s next?”

Their solution was to host a sale in 1978. It proved to be a good decision for Sunnyslope Angus. The operation marked its 46th annual production sale in February 2024. 

Following the establishment of the annual sale came the 1980s, and more perseverance was required.

“It wasn’t just tough on that sale, but you’d look all around the neighborhood and I mean, there was a lot of stress going on,” Phil recalls. “It was stress for the farmers. It was stress for the bankers. It was just a very stressful period, and yet it was during that period that several of our best animals were raised.”

In 1981, a bull that was slated to be sold stepped on a spike and was saved back to be used as a cleanup bull. When he was 8 or 9 years old, the Abrahamsons decided to use him as an artificial insemination (AI) sire.

“The first bull that started to make life easy was S S Rito 0715 0H3,” Phil says. Nicknamed the Mathematician, “He just exploded with semen sales, and from that point on, every unit of semen was sold.”

Phil and Ruth say the Mathematician was aptly named. He could subtract birthweight and add weaning and yearling weight to calves, and helped put their daughters Julie and Jessica through college. 

S S Traveler 6807 T510, another successful AI sire with an attractive marbling expected progeny difference (EPD), came along in the 1990s. One of his early sons was S S Objective 0T26, the third in a trio of career-defining bulls for the Abrahamsons.

“Objective really made a huge difference being the Number 9 bull [of] all time for registered progeny [in the breed],” Phil says. “Those three bulls were the ones that really made a difference for the operation, and it was through their semen sales. It wasn’t that they sold necessarily so high at the sale they were in, but it was the fact that they really got used.”

When the Abrahamsons looked back on their time as breeders, they say the pivotal moments weren’t really moments at all.

“It was a series of years there where those two individuals (T510 and Objective) really excelled,” Phil says. “Today they’re in so many pedigrees of so many good bulls in the breed that they’re still an influence, even though they’re gone.”

He says it has been rewarding to see the fruits of their labor have an influence on others.

“It is satisfying because, I’ll tell you, there was a lot of expense, a lot of effort, a lot of time put into this project,” Phil adds. “It was a lifelong project. Those animals had a lot of Sunnyslope-raised ancestors in them, and that took years.”

Two halves of a whole

Through the good times and the hard times, one constant in Phil’s life has been Ruth. 

In 1969 a new bull customer, Mike Larson, mentioned Phil ought to meet a woman his wife had worked with named Ruth. Little did he know Ruth, who was living in Saint Paul, Minn., at the time, would become his lifelong partner and play a critical role in their operation.

On the Fourth of July, Phil and Ruth met on a blind date and attended The Moon is Blue, a romantic comedy written by F. Hugh Herbert.

“Six dates later, we were married on December 27th,” Phil says. “She turned out to be absolutely the best partner and best friend you could ever have.”

He says he thinks she was looking for something different than who he was, but the match has worked well for both. 

“We went through life, at least to this point, without having one single argument,” Phil says.

What makes this astonishing, he says, is that has happened despite raising kids together, working cattle, navigating machinery breakdowns, disease and other experiences over five decades on a farm.

He adds, “There is stress in agriculture because of the things I’ve mentioned. But the fact is, if there’s no stress in your marriage, that makes for a pretty good life.”

Sharing the spotlight

Despite their longtime reputation for being innovative breeders with animals backed by data, the Abrahamsons say they were surprised to be selected for the Angus Heritage Foundation.

“That is the culmination right there,” Phil says. “In my opinion, that’s about the biggest award you can get from the Angus people.”

Being quick to think of others, Phil cited the many people who have supported Sunnyslope Angus individually and through business during their tenure on the farm — their customers, the local banker, veterinarians, equipment dealers, feed suppliers and the Association, to name a few. Phil was also glad to share the spotlight with Ruth.

“Absolutely Ruth deserved it just as much as I do,” he says. “Ruth was very important in this whole thing. She worked very hard out there.”

Phil credits Ruth’s intelligence and decision-making skills as keys to their long-term success.

“If she made a suggestion, you better listen because she’s almost always right,” he says.

Turning the page

Looking past this accomplishment, the Abrahamsons talk about the future of the beef cattle business with hope and their family with pride.

“I think that the breeders have still produced a product that’s superior,” Phil says. “I think the consumer has shown that by the amount of product that we’re moving on both sides of the equation.”

From a young age, daughters Julie and Jessica were indoctrinated into farm life, showing cattle at the local fair and serving as leaders in their 4-H club and FFA chapter during their youth. Even when adding the grandchildren to the mix, the family works as a team.

“The only time there’s competition between us is if we’re playing [the card game] whist,” Phil says. “Then everybody wants to win.”

In his mind, the future looks good, but Phil avoids placing too much weight on any one image of what Sunnyslope Angus might look like in the future, aside from hoping his favorite breed — the one that’s treated generations of the family well — is still part of it.

“We kept on, we persevered and we’ve still got the Angus cattle today after 125 years on the farm,” he says. 

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