By Peggy Coffeen, Progressive Dairyman
When T.J. McClure joined a start-up dairy heifer operation in the heart of beef cattle country during the devastating dairy down cycle of 2009, people thought he had lost his mind.
“We started with the bottom of the dairy market, when grain prices were at record highs and dairy markets at record lows,” McClure, general manager of Circle Heifer Development LLC in Garden City, Kansas, says. “But it turned out to be a good venture for us.”
At that time, the Great Plains was not yet a sought-after destination for sending dairy heifers. The four men who formed the corporation – McClure, his step-father, Wes Whitaker, and another father-son duo, Dean and Marc Gigot – were really pioneers in proving that the dry, moderate climate of Kansas could indeed be a place where dairy animals could thrive.
Today, seven dairies from Ohio and Michigan send their replacements to be reared at Circle Heifer Development. With a few other custom growers in the neighborhood now too, this southwestern corner of Kansas has turned into a heifer-raising hot spot.
Growing up in the Texas Panhandle, McClure was more familiar with feedyards than freestall barns, but his lifelong love for livestock gave him the drive to extend his passion from beef cattle to dairy heifers.
With an animal science degree and master’s degree in business administration from Oklahoma State University, McClure stepped into the management role of the heifer development facility with a solid foundation of knowledge and experience; however, he quickly realized that working with dairy would be a whole different “animal” for himself and his employees, who were also accustomed to a different species of cattle.
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