By Audrey Hambright
Each person who works in the agriculture industry is just as dynamic as the sectors that make it whole.
Jon Ferguson of Ferguson Bros. Inc., is a combination MIT graduate and passionate Kansas cattle producer. Currently residing in Manhattan, Kansas, Ferguson managed a diversified cattle operation eight miles west of Kensington, Kansas for a better part of 41 years. An operation strong in family history, the Ferguson ranch survived the dirty 30’s and continued to expand dramatically over the years.
Ferguson was born and raised on this very ranch. After obtaining a degree in nuclear engineering from Kansas State University, he pursued a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However even after passing his doctoral exams he made the decision to return to the ranch the same time as his sister and brother-in-law.
Even though Ferguson greatly enjoyed his engineering education, he based his decision to return to the family operation on a few different factors.
First, he thought raising a family was going to be better in a rural area; second, his father was to the age where difficult decisions were going to have to be made and finally, his love for the outdoors and everything that comes with working with cattle and horses.
“We saw it as an opportunity to make a good living and we did,” Ferguson said.
Originally a cow/calf operation, Ferguson expanded to the feedlot sector in 1993. By 2000, the feedlot could hold a capacity of 2,500-3,000 head and in that same year, the family decided to become involved in the commercial cattle feeding business and bought stock in a cattle feeding operation. These decisions allowed for significant synergy between the backgrounding operation, truly strengthening the business overall.
During this time, Ferguson continued growing the cow herd of predominately black Angus cows experimenting with Polled Hereford for a maternal cross and using Simmental and Charolais breeds for terminal crossbreeding. From 1998 to 2007, he worked with the American International Charolais Association to test sires for carcass traits. Each year he AI’d 450 cows with provided semen and was paid a premium for the calves at weaning. With the collected data from these calves, Ferguson helped establish a basis for carcass traits in the Charolais breed.
His success, however, was not defined by raising a particular kind of cow nor having a certain yield of crop, but in terms of financial security. As a producer, it was his goal to achieve an economically profitable, sustainable operation that provided enough income for him and his family to live comfortably.
The continued expansion of the operation faced its share of challenges that an agricultural entity is likely to endure. Ferguson named variability in price and weather plus the ever intrusive arm of the government as ongoing challenges. He did note that some regulations that effectively ensure clean water and other public goods are important, even if complying with those regulations can be challenging.
“I think challenges and to some extent, opportunities are flip side of the same coin,” he said.
Active in several industry organizations, Ferguson has served as president of the Kansas Livestock Association and on the Kansas Beef Council. Additionally he has served in various leadership roles with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and still holds a role on the finance and audit committee.
As recognition for his hard work and expertise to build a truly diversified and successful cattle operation, Ferguson was awarded the 1993 BIF (Beef Improvement Federation) Commercial Producer of the Year.
Knowing it was time to step away from the ranch wasn’t easy for Ferguson. Yet, he realized he wasn’t enjoying it as much due to the occupations’ physical nature combined with a few aches and pains of his own. With that, he began planning to step away.
After going through a challenging process of making arrangements to move forward, Ferguson and his wife relocated to Manhattan and became involved in a new project – helping to manage a cattle feeding enterprise. According to Ferguson, his life-long experience managing the business side of the ranch as well as investing and borrowing money, has proved to be valuable in his new endeavor. But even more beneficial to his transition is his ability to adapt.
“Being flexible is the most important thing [for producers],” Ferguson said. “Our industries in general are so dynamic. Target the operation towards the opportunity for profitability to make a living and long-term financial security.”