Simmental Farm Basks in Success, History

5/31/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Gettysburg was the perfect place for Tom and Barbara Vossler to start a beef farm, though it took them a long time to get there.

They started Mountain View Simmentals in 1999, the year Tom Vossler retired after 30 years in the U.S. Army. In the 15 years since, they have produced a national champion bull and twice been named the state’s Simmental breeder of the year.

The Vosslers grew up in western New York. Tom Vossler lived in town but frequently got sent to help at the farms of his many uncles.

“I liked doing it,” but between town life, college and the Army, “you don’t get much of a chance to participate in agriculture,” he said. “You’re not in one place long enough.”

The move to Gettysburg was the Vosslers’ 19th since they were married.

They knew the area from Tom Vossler’s time at the Army War College in Carlisle in the late 1980s, and Gettysburg was a natural draw for a military historian like him.

Tom Vossler, a Vietnam War veteran who retired as a colonel, now works part-time as a licensed battlefield tour guide and co-wrote a field guide to the park last year.

Barbara Vossler, in addition to a real estate career, has served as a docent at President Dwight Eisenhower’s farm and a historic house in town.

Gettysburg also reminded the Vosslers of western New York, but with milder winters — except for the most recent one, Tom Vossler said.

The Vosslers had a friend in the Gettysburg area who raised Simmentals, and he encouraged them to choose the breed by giving them copies of the breed magazine.

Tom Vossler liked the breed for its characteristics and heritage. The breed started in Switzerland and later spread to Germany. Vossler’s family emigrated from Germany in the 1850s.

Mountain View Simmentals sits on 60 acres, one of three parcels from a former dairy farm. When the Vosslers bought the property, a dairy bank barn from 1892 and an old farmhouse were the only useful buildings.

“Basically, we started from nothing here,” Tom Vossler said.

Vossler fulfilled his promise to build his wife her dream house. They moved the bank barn from the edge of the road to a ridge and renovated it for beef use.

The couple originally planned to own only six to 12 cattle, but as they gained confidence in their program, the herd grew.

“We liked what we were doing,” he said.

The Vosslers currently have about 20 producing adults, down from 45 at their peak.

“It is kind of a young person’s activity to work the cattle,” Tom Vossler said.

The farm sells open heifers, bred heifers and breeding-age bulls.

“As it turns out, a lot of our bull buyers are from other breeds, primarily Angus,” looking for the benefits of crossbreeding, Vossler said.

The Vosslers’ bull MVS Maximus was named the 2009 national grand champion Simmental bull at the American Royal show in Kansas City, Mo.

“He’s still with us here breeding cows,” Vossler said.

Maximus is naturally bred to about half the cows. The rest of the cows are his relatives, including a sister, daughters and his still-productive 15-year-old mother, Shoemakers Miss Emma J389. Those cows are bred artificially, Vossler said.

While the Vosslers use semen from nationally recognized bulls, they look for bulls with three or four years of sustained performance, rather than ones that are doing well in the show ring that year.

“We tend to shy away from the fad breeding,” Vossler said.

One of Maximus’ daughters, MVS Cersei A5, sold for $6,000 on May 3 at the Stars and Stripes sale, a yearly national-level sale that the Vosslers host.

The 49 animals in this year’s sale grossed $230,000. The average head price of $4,700 is well above the national average for Simmental sales, Vossler said.

The Vosslers got involved with the Stars and Stripes show through its predecessor, the Northeast Blockbuster. That Simmental sale was held in New Oxford, but the host farmer left the industry two years after the Vosslers started showing there.

The development now on that farmer’s land is named Simme Valley Estates, after the Swiss region where the Simmentals were developed, Vossler said.

“If we were going to continue to have a sale in this region, someone had to take it on,” Vossler said.

He and Barbara decided to host the sale, which became the Stars and Stripes seven years ago after a management change.

The Vosslers built facilities specifically for the sale, which draws breeders from five states and buyers from across the U.S. and Canada.

“We’re pleased to be able to contribute to the breed and the breeders in that respect,” Vossler said.

Simmentals are a little taller, bigger boned and heavier muscled than Angus. The Vosslers breed for those carcass characteristics, “but also very, very high on the list is docility, how easy the animals are to work with,” Vossler said.

The Vosslers have had only a few problematic animals. They were not born on the farm and did not last long there, Vossler said. Along with safety concerns, “we don’t want to perpetuate (bad attitudes) through breeding.”

The Vosslers halter-break all of their animals, which Vossler sees as an extension of his years of teaching soldiers discipline. When Vossler calls Maximus in the field, the bull will come over, hold his head up to have the halter put on and walk with Vossler to the barn.

The Vosslers also like cows that give plenty of milk and calves that do not have extreme birth weights.

Maximus’ calves usually weigh 82 to 84 pounds. “For a Simmental cow, that’s manageable” because they tend to have a wide pelvic area and good capacity to carry and deliver, Vossler said.

To make things more manageable, the Vosslers run a fall and a spring calving cycle. They aim to re-breed when the cow starts cycling at least 50 days after her last calf.

They graze their animals for much of the year. “Once the grass comes in, then everybody’s on pasture except for the weaned calves. They’re on feed,” Vossler said.

The herd goes back under shelter when deer hunting season begins, with the fall-calving cows and their calves going into the bank barn.

All of the animals get hay in place of grass during winter. The fall-calving cows also get a supplement to maintain their body composition while giving milk. The spring-calving cows stay in a sizable loafing area with run-in shelters.

In the spring, Vossler makes one cutting of hay, then returns the hay fields to pasture for the rest of the season. He buys the rest of the hay, and all of the corn and grain.

“We don’t grow anything except hay,” Vossler said.

With only 60 acres and an emphasis on grazing, the herd was never going to be large, but that doesn’t bother the Vosslers.

If anything, by focusing on quality, they are helping to add to the history of the town where history and farming drew them over a decade ago.

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