“I was Simmental before I was born,” says Jay Hill. The third-generation Colorado rancher balances his full-time work for Select Sires Inc. with his own cow herd while fostering his love for the cattle business in his sons and helping encourage young people to stay involved with agriculture through various leadership and volunteer positions. Hill’s grandfather was an early member of ASA, and AI’d his first group of Hereford cows to a Simmental sire in 1970. Hill has been a lifetime advocate for the Simmental breed and most recently has been a firsthand witness to the increased use of beef genetics at dairies, as well as an advocate for this change. Hill and his wife, Jill, are raising their three sons in the beef industry, and are dedicated to helping other youths excel in agriculture.
Simmental Since the Start
Hill’s personal involvement with the Simmental breed began at nine when his father gave him a bred, half-blood Simmental heifer. She was unfortunately killed by a lightning strike two months after calving, but her heifer calf became Hill’s first 4-H project. As a youth, he also participated in the Western Colorado Simmental Association and bull test. The Hill family has been ranching on Colorado’s western slope, near Collbran, since the 1890s. Hill recalls, “The family got involved with Simmental because I have an uncle who worked for Select Sires, Inc., at that time, and he said ‘you need to breed some cows to something exotic’. They used Maine Anjou and Simmental originally and the Maine Anjou cattle had so many genetic problems at that time that Simmental ended up being the breed that stayed.
The cow herd was exclusively Hereford before this point, but crossbreeding worked and the family continued to use Simmental genetics. Hill’s parents still live on the ranch, and his brothers have transitioned into running the operation.
Focused on Progress
Hill chose to move east to the high plains, attending Northeastern Junior College. In 1995, he began working for Colorado Cattle Services, which was a distributor for Select Sires. In 2000, the business was bought out by Select Sires, and for the last 20 years, Hill has worked for the national company selling semen to both beef producers and dairies. During his early years at Select Sires, he also attended Colorado State University.
This position has allowed Hill to witness industry changes firsthand, and recently, the large increase of beef genetics in the dairy industry. The shift has taken many years, but Hill explains that today he sells a much larger volume of beef semen to dairies. “In 1995 when I came on, I had zero dairy business and 100% beef. It has now evolved to where my sales are around 85% dairy sales and 15% beef. I have actually grown the beef business this entire time. The Holstein thing has just really taken off.”
Simmental has been a major factor in this shift. Hill was an outspoken advocate for the HOLSim™ program, which was developed in collaboration between the ASA and Holstein Association USA, and helps dairy producers identify Simmental sires that will work well on their dairy females.
Hill explains, “I have a lot of dairy customers who are now probably using 50% beef semen, 50% dairy semen. They have really embraced technology, which is one of the things that makes the dairy business fun to me, but is also where Simmental has done a good job,” he says.
"These guys have really started zeroing in on what cows they want to make Holstein replacements out of. On the ones they do not want replacements out of, they’re using a fair amount of Limousin, some use Angus semen, and with the work that has been done on the HOLSim program, we’re selling a lot of Simmental semen.”
Hill’s deep knowledge of the Simmental breed has been extremely beneficial. “A lot of the dairies are looking for some advice and some guidance on what direction to go,” he says. “I deal with very large dairies. The dairy business in my world is not the hundred-cow dairy, it’s guys milking two to three thousand cows. They are data-driven, profit-driven businesses and a lot are working towards or already have made the move into retained ownership.”
Hill adds, “The cool thing about the HOLSim calves is they are going to retain ownership on those calves, feed them, put them on the grid, and sell them as beef calves.”
The HOLSim program has been widely supported, but Hill points out that there has been some questioning of how a major increase in beef genetics in dairy operations could affect beef producers. He explains, “We’re doing things that, from the outside looking in, might seem like the beef on dairy thing is really going to hurt the beef producer. But when we think about it, those cows were calving anyways.”
Holstein cattle already have popularity with feeders because of their consistency and predictability. Hill recalls his CSU professor, Dr. Gary Smith, pointing out that one of the biggest issues with the beef industry has always been a lack of consistency. “Rather than the beef producers being upset, we’re hopefully producing high-quality beef out of these Holstein cows, and maybe we’re going to improve the consistency of our product by doing this. My hope is that it actually drives beef demand up.”
Making Simmental Sustainable
Hill’s long-time involvement with the Simmental breed has allowed him to see many changes, challenges, and improvements.
“I like the history of the cattle business and Simmental, and I have known a lot of the guys who laid the foundation of the Simmental breed. They are people I have called mentors and friends,” Hill says.
He points to the foundation of the breed as a major reason for its viability throughout the years. “It’s the mindset of the Association, and of the founders of the Association, that we select for what is economically relevant,” he says.
Hill saw the challenges with birth weight and bad udders and believes that the open-mindedness of the early breeders and willingness to change made the difference. “Hard times make breeds of cattle a lot better. When I was a little kid, it didn’t matter how good they were, half-blood Simmental bulls were worth twice what a steer calf was,” Hill recalls. “As a breed, they propagated a lot of low-quality genetics. Tough times hit, and they got serious about making the good ones because they could still sell the good ones. The founders of the Simmental breed really did some cool things with trying to keep everything economically relevant.”
Hill continues, “When I started with Simmental, they were big red-and-white spotted cattle. Roy Wallace, and the early founders of the Simmental breed, always wanted to look at economically-important traits and color was not one of them early on, but it did become an economically-relevant trait. We turned the Simmental breed black, and we did that for economic purposes.”
Hill has seen those early philosophies come to fruition. “Today, I deal with two kinds of people in semen sales. I deal with the guys who own ranches but are 65 years old and up. They are not going to put up with pulling calves, and they’re not going to put up with bad udders,” he explains”. Hill continues, “During calving season, I still have to go sell semen and do my job to make a living. My wife is a school teacher, and my kids are in school. My cows and heifers are pretty much on their own,” he explains. “When I look at my clientele, they’re all the same. They’re either guys running cows on the side, or they’re old enough that they aren’t going to deal with those problems. The Simmental breed has done the best job of addressing the problems we had, and becoming what our customers want and need.”
Fostering the Future
Encouraging youth to stay involved with agriculture has been a major priority for Hill, and is the main reason he has dedicated time to leadership and volunteer positions. The family owns 50 cows, selling a handful of bulls to local producers every year, and his sons are involved with all of the decisions and daily management. Bryce, 19, is currently attending school at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming; Bryan, 17, is a junior in high school; and Brandyn is 15. They have exhibited cattle everywhere from the local and state fairs to the National Western Stock Show in Denver. The Northwest International Livestock Exposition (NILE) in Billings, Montana, is a highlight each year, and recently Brandyn was awarded a NILE Merit Heifer. Youth apply for heifers, similar to a scholarship, and are matched with breeders throughout the Northwest. If the heifer is bred and exhibited at the NILE in the fall, ownership is signed over.
Hill points to programs like this as a vital part of keeping young people involved in agriculture. He is currently serving as the President of the Colorado Simmental Association (CSA) and explains that while the organization does a lot of important work for breeders, the assistance they offer to youth is the biggest reason he agreed to take on the time commitment of being president. Additionally, Hill expresses a great amount of gratitude towards Susan Russell, who he credits with keeping the Colorado Simmental Association in good operation. “They [CSA] help defray some of the expense of kids going to Junior Nationals, they help defray expenses of kids going to stock show and state fair, they give scholarships to the youth, both for college and to help purchase cattle for starting their own herd. That’s really why I became involved and why I continue to be involved with the CSA. I’m also very involved with 4-H at the county level, and it scares me to see my generation with very few people staying in agriculture. As a society, we have really done our kids a disservice when we convince them that they aren’t smart enough to do anything else so they stay in agriculture. We’ve had a brain drain.” He continues, “The reality is, all of agriculture has reached a point where it’s business. You have to be really sharp or you won’t stay in business. I’m involved because I want to see American agriculture continue to do great things.”
Hill’s commitment to the Simmental breed, support of innovation through programs like HOLSim, and unwavering support of youth in agriculture, make him an important member of the Simmental community. He concludes, “The association has never tried to dictate what the cattle will be, they’ve allowed the producers to dictate what the cattle will be. They don’t care if they’re horned or polled, red, black, or spotted, and to me, that’s the strength of the breed and something I hope we continue to strive for.