In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains lies one of the oldest, biggest and most respected Charolais herds in the country, Oakdale Farm. This 1,850 acre farm in Fauquier County, Virginia, near Upperville, is home to over 600 head of purebred Charolais seedstock. It is also home to the owner of Oakdale Farm, Mary Howe diZerega.
Without question, diZerega, 71, is a veteran to the seedstock business. She grew up helping her father on the family farm, and when he died, she was 18 and a freshman at Wellesley College near Boston, she began helping her mother with the operation."At the time, we had a commercial operation," she remembers. "After I graduated from Wellesley, I started helping my mother with the books while I taught school. I helped with the marketing and contributed to the general, bigger decisions on the overall farm operation."
In 1964, diZerega's mother chose to get out of farming and divided the family farms among her three children. diZerega was the only child who chose to continue farming. In 1967, with some advice from her husband, Thomas, she made the decision to purchase a Charolais bull and started a breeding up program with her Hereford-based females.
"My husband is not interested in cattle or farming, but he has always been very supportive," diZerega laughs. "The decision to breed Charolais was based on his input. He reads a tremendous amount and suggested I look into this new breed of cattle. I did, and went from there."
diZerega worked hard to build her herd, registering halfbloods and three-quarter-bloods, and in 1978 she purchased a small Charolais herd, which was the "big push towards a purebred herd," she says. Today, after the long process of breeding her herd up (it took her over 15 years), Oakdale Farm is home to over 600 head of purebred Charolais, and diZerega estimates that they calve out over 250 females each year.
Along the way, diZerega has paid close attention to maintaining consistency in her herd. This has been accomplished by maintaining and utilizing performance records for over 30 years. Standard records are kept on the entire herd, such as birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight and average calving intervals. In addition, a state grader scores all the weanlings and yearlings for quality, condition, frame, muscle and structural soundness. The strong record base and overall performance of the cow herd has contributed heavily to the Oakdale herd's strong EPDs.
"EPDs are a very important tool, the best we have right now," diZerega says, "but breeders need to remember that they are only part of the total program. I feel more comfortable with the EPDs of cattle that come from a strong performance herd that keeps good records, than I do with low accuracy EPDs." However, diZerega still places strong emphasis on visual appraisal.
"There is a wealth of information out there, and we use it all," she says, "but, no matter what, you still have to look at those animals."
With their strong performance program and the attention to the basics, Oakdale has established a very strong bull market over the years. This can be attributed, in part, to a bull sale held each year in March. The 1999 edition will be the 15th Anniversary of this highly successful event.
"In the beginning, I had been working towards having a production sale," diZerega explains, "but I realized I didn't have the labor necessary to take on such a big project. Instead, I decided to just have a bull sale." "When we started the bull sale, it was on a shoestring. The first two or three years we really beat the bushes for buyers," she says, recalling that for the first few years many of the bulls sold for beef prices.
More recently, the sale has enjoyed around a $2,000 average, and most of the Oakdale customers are repeat buyers, a testament once again to the popularity and consistency of the Oakdale program. Another indicator of the popularity of the program with commercial customers is the distance they travel for Oakdale genetics. The majority of the commercial producers in Virginia are in the southwest part of the state, 250-300 miles away, but a significant portion of the sale offering goes to this area.
"It takes a long time to build a market," diZerega explains. "We stay in contact with our customers and find out how our bulls do for them."
Oakdale Farms markets 45-50 bulls a year in their sale and 30-40 more in tests and private treaty sales. These bulls are mostly fall yearlings (18 months), with some yearlings. After weaning, the bulls are graded and culled again. Then they are placed on an on farm feed test. Their performance records, scrotal measurements, EPDs and ultrasound information are all included in the catalog for customers to use to help make their selections. diZerega estimates that 90 percent of Oakdale's bull are sold to commercial herds, and is proud of the fact that calves sired by these bulls are consistently topping the market in feeder calf sales.
diZerega says the success of the bull sale has also benefited the marketing of Oakdale females. "Our females kind of sell themselves," she says. "We sell some females in consignment sales, but the biggest part of our females are sold private treaty. Producers come to the bull sale looking for females, that's where our biggest group of female buyers come from."
Recently, Oakdale Farm has entered into a carcass test evaluation that will provide valuable carcass data on one of their premier herd sires, Oakdale King 4037P. In conjunction with Morlunda Farm in West Virginia, Oakdale provided the semen and clean up bulls to breed 200 of their cows (the majority to Oakdale King 4037P). Oakdale has retained ownership of the calves, which were weaned October 1. The calves were then backgrounded for 45 days, and will be weighed and shipped to Texas the middle of November to enter the feedlot. After they are killed, data will be collected and sent to the American International Charolais Assoc. diZerega sees this as a tremendous opportunity to collect important carcass data on a bull she is using heavily in her program. "With this information, we should find out just how well we are really doing," she says.
Another project diZerega has been instrumental in getting off the ground is the introduction of a Charolais teaching herd at Virginia Tech University. Under the direction of Dr. Gary Minish, the Virginia Tech herd now consists of 8-10 head with some embryos and more donors in the wings. "This is a teaching herd…I am extremely proud of getting that started at Virginia Tech," she says. diZerega also serves on the Virginia Tech Animal Science Department's Advisory Board, a position she has held since 1991.
Through the years, diZerega has not only devoted her energies to building a successful Charolais herd, she has also been a leader in the industry. She is a charter member of the Virginia Charolais Assoc. and has served as treasurer of that organization since 1993. She is also a past president, serving in that position from 1986-88. In 1996, she was elected as Area 15 Director of AICA and currently serves as secretary of the AICA board of directors. She is also chairman of the AICA Breed Improvement Committee. She is a long-time member and supporter of the Virginia Cattlemen's Assoc. and served as director from 1993-1998. She was also named chairman of the Seedstock Council in 1998. As one of the founding directors of the Virginia Beef Exposition, diZerega had been very active in the development and promotion of that event. She served as president of the Virginia Beef Expo in 1994 and 1995.
Along the way, as the Oakdale herd has grown, diZerega and her cattle have been recognized for their excellence and accomplishments. Oakdale bulls have topped bull tests in both Virginia and West Virginia. diZerega has received the Virginia BCIA Charolais Get-of-Sire Award twice and in 1994, she was named Virginia Seedstock Producer of the Year by that organization. In 1995, the AICA named her Purebred Seedstock Producer of the Year and in 1996 she was honored as the Virginia Cattlemen's Assoc. Allen K. Randolph "Cattleman of the Year."
diZerega has also been recognized for her conservation efforts, an honor for which she is especially proud. Because of her dedication to the environment and the land, diZerega has been named the Conservation Farmer of the Year twice by the John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District. She was also presented the Clean Water Farm Award in 1988 by the Virginia Department of Conservation.
"You know the cattle wouldn't exist without the land," she says. "The land has been an important part of my family for over 200 years, they made their living from it. We work hard to maintain that."
"I believe farmers are the very best conservationists…They have to be. If we don't take care of the land, it won't take care of us."