Father, son get into backgrounding on family farm

Dr. Todd Freeman and his father, Ewing Freeman, run a backgrounding operation at the family farm in Cadiz. Dr. Freeman is a veterinarian.

Dr. Todd Freeman and his father, Ewing Freeman, run a backgrounding operation at the family farm in Cadiz. Dr. Freeman is a veterinarian. Photo by Tony Hurt

By Susan Hurt
Photos By Tony hurt
Author Thomas Wolfe said it best in his 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” when he wrote, one “can never fully go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to places in the country.” Wolfe was not trying to say one can never physically go home, but, rather, things will never be the same as when you left. The theme was “time passes, things change and people change,” but for Todd Freeman, memories of home were not just reflections from the past. They were the familiar images guiding his future. In fact, it was Freeman’s past that shaped his future.
Freeman was born and raised in Trigg County to parents Ewing and Bonnie Freeman. He graduated from Trigg County High School in 1989 and went to college at Western Kentucky University. After graduating, he attended the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University and graduated in 1998. Freeman landed his first job as a veterinarian in Georgia.
Despite the Southern hospitality, Georgia was not on his mind for very long. Freeman married his college sweetheart, fellow veterinarian Dr. Joanna Freeman in 1999. The next year, the couple packed up their belongings and left the Peach State for his old Kentucky home of Cadiz: population 2,656, plus two.
The Freemans began working at Trigg County Veterinary Clinic, a place Todd knew well. As a high school student, he worked there before heading off to college to pursue his degree in veterinary medicine. In 2012, the Freemans opened Little River Veterinary Clinic, where he and his wife Joanna treat everything from cats to cattle.
Todd’s passion for cattle began when he was young. His father, Ewing Freeman, who lives on a 160-acre farm in Trigg County, started buying a few heifers with the help of his father, Sam Freeman, who worked at the Christian County Livestock Market. Todd admits before heading off to vet school he wanted to pursue the cattle business full-time.
“I’ve always enjoyed fooling with cattle and that was all I really wanted to do,” Todd said.
Since returning to his roots, the Freeman family partnered together to purchase the original Freeman farm that has been in their family for 170 years. The father and son had big plans for the 186-acre farm that was in the conservation reserve program at the time of purchase.
“We wanted to get into backgrounding cattle when we bought the farm, but there was a lot of work to be done to get the farm ready for cattle,” Todd said.
Conservation reserve is a U.S. Department of Agriculture cost-share and rental payment program administered by the Farm Service Agency. The program encourages farmers to convert, periodically, cropland to vegetative cover, such as grassland, to improve water quality, control soil erosion and improve wildlife habitat. The CRP is currently the largest public-private partnership for conservation and habitat protection in the United States.
Once the farm was fenced and ready for the herd, the father and son teamed up with Prairie Livestock in Hopkinsville to purchase approximately 200 steer calves for what is commonly referred to in the cattle industry as backgrounding.

Todd’s background as a veterinarian is critical to keeping the calves healthy when they arrive at his farm in the cold winter months. Photo by Tony Hurt

Todd’s background as a veterinarian is critical to keeping the calves healthy when they arrive at his farm in the cold winter months. Photo by Tony Hurt

According to the Penn State Extension, backgrounding is an economical beef production system that “maximizes the use of pasture and forages from the time calves are weaned until they are placed in a feedlot.” The weight gain from backgrounding is derived primarily from muscle and frame development, with little from fattening. The gains are a result of making maximum use of hay, silage and pasture feeding. Minimal grain feeding is used in backgrounding calves.
Steers are typically 6 to 8 months old and weigh between 400 and 600 pounds when purchased. They are ready for finishing when they reach 850 to 1,000 pounds. These calves are usually in high demand by cattle feeders, who prefer to buy heavier-weight cattle in hopes of reducing the grain requirements it takes to feed lightweight calves early on.
Todd’s background as a veterinarian is critical to keeping the calves healthy when they arrive at his farm in the cold winter months.
“We have to vaccinate them for respiratory diseases and deworm them as soon as they come in, they are highly susceptible to pulmonary-related diseases,” Todd said.
Backgrounding requires a good preventive health plan to reduce the loss ratio, since it takes two to four weeks for calves to recover from weaning and shipping stress. Freeman’s calves are kept in a smaller, well-contained area where he can monitor their health and feed them until they adapt to their new environment and the risk of sickness has diminished.
“The success rate with stockers is a flip of the coin based on the quality of the calves and the weather conditions at the time of weaning,” Todd said. “The loss rate typically runs 2 to 3 percent each year.”
With their preventive health plan in place, the Freemans didn’t lose any of their stocker calves this year.
One of the biggest expenses for beef producers is winter feed costs. Cattle farmers’ profit margins are dependent on low feed costs. One way to lower these expenses is to feed stockpiled forages. Once the risk of sickness has subsided, Freeman’s calves are turned out into larger pastures where they can freely graze on his stockpile of fescue and clover.
A successful backgrounding program requires good forage management, like rotational grazing.
“We move the calves every two weeks to a new field of fescue,” Todd said, which helps him turn a profit while feeding a growing herd.
Because pasture growth and quality are reduced during mid-summer, the calves graze during the optimal nutritional season and are sold to feed lots in August after an average weight gain of 350 pounds.
Backgrounding calves consumes a lot of the Freeman family’s time; however, this year Todd is combining two of his interests, cattle and genetics, to market quality bred heifers.
“I have always been interested in cattle reproduction and genetics,” he said, “so we have started a breeding program using (artificial insemination).”
Todd recently used artificial insemination to impregnate 60 heifers with semen straws from a registered Angus bull with exceptional expected progeny differences. EPDs indicate the relative genetic merit of beef cattle for various traits and can be used as a tool to increase, decrease or maintain any trait for which they are calculated.
Before the artificial insemination begins, Todd conducts a breeding soundness exam on all of his heifers tp determine if they are good candidates for breeding. Conducting BSEs on cattle is an important tool to help reduce the incidence and severity of calving difficulty.
After evaluating the reproductive tract, taking pelvic measurements and calculating breeding weights, Todd selects the highest quality candidates and the reproductive process begins. Once the heifers are pregnant, they will be sold off the farm as bred heifers.
Along with their full-time careers, the Freemans have a cow-calf operation consisting of 30 cows bred the old fashioned way by a registered, leased Angus bull.
Freeman admits time is the biggest factor for his family.
“Working and raising cattle keeps us very busy,” he said.
Fortunately for the couple, they have three sets of extra hands: Tyler, 13, Olivia, 10, and Aubree, 7, who all help out on the farm when needed.
As for Todd’s father, retirement won’t find him relaxing in a rocking chair. After 50 years as the owner and operator of Ewing Freeman Electric and Plumbing, he is ready to hang up his hat and spend more time on the farm.
“I’m kind of looking forward to retiring and being able to be on the farm full time,” Ewing said.
Only time will tell what the future holds for the Freeman family, but if the past is any predictor of the future, there are no limits to the endeavors this family will embark upon once Mr. Freeman “slows down.”

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