Five decades of bull sales

Along with planning his family’s 50th Annual Bull Sale, John Christensen keeps a close watch on young heifer pairs ahead of a winter storm that brought an estimated six to eight inches of snow to the area over the weekend. The sale is slated for Friday, March 19 at the ranch in Wessington.    

Efficiency, predictability, and above all, simplicity have proven to be the keys to longevity  for John Christensen’s Simmental herd — validated this week as Friday, March 19 marks the 50th Annual 3C Christensen Ranch Production Sale. 

“There’s a lot of trial and error over the last 50 years and it’s still going,” Christensen said. “We sold a few Herefords before Simmentals so it’s really been more than 50 years.” 

Christensen said when it comes to promoting five decades of bull sales, he’s more “what you see is what you get” than smoke and mirrors.

“I’m not too smoky, I try to lay it out for the people in simple terms,” John said. “We are striving to raise balanced cattle that don’t create any problems. Any time you have a problem it is so costly in this day and age and wipes your profit out. We want our cattle to get out there, get the job done and work for you.”

Christensen said he started cows with his dad at age 11 and has “been heat detecting ever since.” 

He explained, “I’m still primitive with mature cows, I heat detect them and they are bred off their natural heat. When it comes to trends — I know the tried and true. Some of our customers are into their third generation of bulls. I know our bulls will go out and do their jobs.”

That put-to-the-test mentality is a source of pride for Christensen and he is proud to pass that down to his daughters. 

“NaLani and Cam are really good at looking at cattle — they have that deep passion for it and you have to,” he said. “You’ve got to live it 24 hours a day…it has to be your entertainment, enjoyment and fun. Through this I have met so many people and made so many friends.”

Christensen said he looks forward to reconnecting with neighbors and customers at the sale from across the state and nation including a few from California, Virginia and Georgia who have bought bulls from him for over 30 years.

“We have sent bulls to almost every state except for the New England states,” he points out. “We even sent some bulls to Hawaii twice — got them to the coast north of San Francisco and put them on a container with three horse stalls. Those bulls rode on the boat for five days to the main island. Then they put them in a pickup and trailer and on the sixth day, they arrived at their destination. 

Despite 50 bull sales, the Christensen family has spent much more time than that making a living off the South Dakota prairie and the beef cow.  

The Christensen family first arrived in the USA from Denmark in 1908.  Along with four of his brothers, Chris M. Christensen (John’s grandfather), first settled in Omaha, NE.  A dairy operation was their introduction to the livestock industry.  An investment in a saloon in the early 1900s proved prosperous until prohibition began in 1917. Chris M. decided opportunity awaited in South Dakota and he and his wife Anna, along with their six-week-old son, Harvey, chose to plant roots in the Wessington Springs area beneath the rolling Wessington Hills in December of 1918.  A rented dairy farm was where they first landed. The young family managed to expand and purchase their own farmstead in Jerauld County a few years later.

Similar to many producers of his era Chris M. and Anna ran a diversified operation.  Crops, hogs, cattle, horses, chickens and wild game such as pheasants provided the family, including their three boys, Jens M. (John’s dad), Adolph and Harvey, with a comfortable life. Sure, along the way WWI, the Spanish Flu, Great Depression and Dirty Thirties — and a shift from the beloved work horse to machinery and automotives —  caused a certain amount of discomfort, but a true pioneer’s passion isn’t deterred by outside elements. Onward was the only direction they knew.

In 1946 Chris M. retired to town with Anna. Jens M. took the helm of the operation, focusing on a Hereford-based cow.  He and wife Elisabeth raised three children, Nyla, Chris, and John on this ever-growing program. Everyone played an active role in all aspects of the family ranch and eventually much of the decision making shifted to the always-focused Christensen Brothers in the late 60s.

Never afraid to trial and error different crossbreed options, Hereford remained the base of the cowherd with several different continental crosses and in 1971, the operation sold its first few bull calves to their neighbors for breeding use.  

In 1972 though, local ABS rep LeRoy Ness introduced the Christensen trio to Dale West.  He encouraged the Christensen men to breed their Hereford cross cows to his Simmental sires Killion, Sulton and Florion.  

West would later purchase the heifer calves produced that first year, while the ranch retained the bull calves to put on feed. Intrigued by their growth and eye appeal, they chose three heifers from that first crop for themselves as well. Little did they know, this would change the course of their cattle program and what exciting things the breed would bring to their family.

As Simmental genetics became intertwined in the operation so did larger-scale bull sales.  Price discovery was necessary, as numbers increased and neighbors were uncomfortable bidding against each other.  Fellow South Dakota Simmental breeders, Arnold Brothers, held their sale on the third Saturday in March and things just fell into place for customers to attend both events. 

Through the transition of traditional Simmental color patterns, to solid red, then solid black, the Christensen family seems to maintain lifelong friendships and business on the ideals of an easy fleshing animal with minimal inputs backed by honesty and integrity.  

For over thirty years John (with wife Peggy, daughters NaLani, Cam, Carly) and Chris (wife Sheila, daughter Amy, son Bryan) grew one of the largest Simmental herds in the nation, attracting customers from all corners of the U.S., Canada and Mexico.  As families grew, so did opportunities for another generational shift.  Different times though, called for different strategies.  In 2003 what was “3C Christensen Brothers Simmental” divided to “3C Christensen Ranch” (John and Peggy) and Chris’ family retained “Christensen Simmental.”

John and Peggy continued to host an annual sale every third Friday in March, along with NaLani and husband Rick who grew their own Simmental and SimAngus program, NLC Simmental.  Eventually the two families brought the sale home to the ranch in 2005.  

2012 marked the tragic loss of Peggy to pancreatic cancer. Her wisdom, organization and encouragement is missed beyond measure.

“Even in her final days, my late wife had her notebook in hand telling me what needed to be done,” Christensen recollects. “Peg always took care of serving the meal at the bull sale and baked over 1200 cookies here in our kitchen. She took the checks and knew everyone, knew their wives, every member of their families.” 

In 2018 Cam and husband Tyler purchased a piece of ground near John’s operation in south Hand County.  Commercial SimAngus cows are the basis of their herd along with a select group of registered females.  

Most recently John and Peggy’s  youngest daughter, Carly, opened her own nail salon in Sioux Falls, the Cactus Blossom.  

Over the years, several components in the Christensen’s lives have made large strides toward efficiency and sustainability.  Machinery, different tools to aid in combating South Dakota weather, the ad and sale catalog creation, sale format and data has evolved.  

The Christensen’s point out that a few things are still the same.  From scenes of the Dirty Thirties, prosperous harvests once the rain came, frame score fluctuations, and cattle breed evolutions, the type of beef cow that grazed their pastures — no matter the era — seemed to hold components that would make her relevant today.  Easy fleshing, realistic structure to trail to faraway water sources, balanced udders for longevity and a quick, first drink of milk for calves born out on pasture.

“Fifty years. Think of how our world has changed between 1971 and 2021,” Cam reflects. “Mother Nature's extremes and bountiful blessings, markets, generational shifts, data improvement, fresh beginnings, tragic loss and new life have filled this half century of seedstock production sales for our family.”