The Bennetts have a long history of farming in Virginia. James’ grandfather had a 200-acre tobacco and cattle farm some 60 miles from Red House. To make ends meet, his grandfather also carried the mail. His father, Paul D. Bennett, and uncle, Earl J. Bennett, worked on the farm until Paul was 29, when the brothers decided to strike out on their own.
Paul and Earl looked for land they could afford with money they had saved and their ability to borrow money from the Federal Land Bank. In 1929, they found a promising large property in rural Red House, Va. Although it was located only 60 miles away as the crow flies, to see the prospective farm involved taking a train to Lynchburg and a 30-mile carriage ride out to the farm. It was 840 acres of farm ground, pasture and timber. Times were good, and after viewing the property, the brothers bought it, mortgaged up to the hilt. Primarily a tobacco farm, they farmed what they could and provided small cabins for sharecroppers who farmed the remainder of the land. The partnership lasted only two or three years when, in the depression, they divided the farm into two 420-acre parcels; however, the brothers would continue to help each other for the rest of their lives.
Paul received a good parcel of land, but it had no buildings other than the small cabins for the sharecroppers. He quickly built a small three-room “temporary” house for himself and his wife, and this house was where James was born in 1933, the deepest part of the depression. Times were rough, and despite a growing family, Paul and his family would remain in the house until after World War II.
Tobacco was the primary cash crop, but the farm was largely self-sufficient with a large garden, a small amount of all forms of livestock, a couple of Guernsey milk cows, and wheat and oats that were milled for flour for the family. They also were recipients of much goodwill, as stores and doctors carried notes for them until they had the cash to pay. There was also bartering going on with James’ mother trading eggs and other farm products with merchants for goods. However, James points out, “When a new pair of shoes were needed, tobacco paid for them.”
As the depression dragged on, James’ father was forced to sell 130 acres to pay the bills and to keep the farm. In addition, in 1939, he started driving a school bus to make ends meet. The bus also served as the family’s only means of transportation. With James’ dad starting to drive the school bus, James took over increasing duties of caring for the livestock, which included about 25 commercial cows, milk cows, work horses, chickens and pigs. He credits this responsibility, along with the labor-intensive tobacco crop, with instilling in him a work ethic that would serve him well the rest of his life. He quickly also grew to love working with the livestock, and beef cattle in particular, as opposed to tobacco farming.
James’ father sold his commercial calves at the Lynchburg livestock market. The price of feeder cattle and type of cattle that grossed the most dollars would serve as the foundation of knowledge that guided James and his father’s philosophy when they entered the seedstock business. To this day, this commercial focus continues to serve as the guiding principle for Knoll Crest Farm.
By 1944, with James’ interest in beef cattle and times getting better, Paul bought four registered Polled Hereford cows from a local Extension agent, who had decided to enter the dairy business, and these cows would serve as the beginning of the registered breeding herd at Knoll Crest Farm. The Bennetts already had a registered Polled Hereford bull, which they always kept to service the dairy and commercial cows. Also in the mid-1940s, James had saved enough money to buy some heifers of his own. With $600 to spend, James was given the opportunity to have his choice of heifers from two highly respected Polled Hereford breeders. One of these heifers would go on to be champion heifer at a prestigious regional show. He was offered $1,000 for this heifer, which James refused, and these two females would serve as foundation cows for the Knoll Crest Farm, producing important herd sires and leaving lines of females that would help solidify Knoll Crest’s reputation for producing outstanding Polled Hereford cattle.
By 1946, things had turned around financially for the Bennetts, and James’ father was able to sell the school bus in order to farm full-time. With the sale of the school bus, the family’s transportation was switched from the school bus to a new ton and a half truck, and from that point forward, the extra proceeds from the livestock operation would go to expanding the purebred herd. The Bennetts were also able to buy their first tractor, although horses would continue to be used into the 1950s. Coming out of these hard times, James remembers, “We never felt poor. We had all we could eat, and the church and community provided us with all our needs socially and for entertainment.” 1950 was a big year for the Bennetts. Although they were still in debt, it was the first year they were able to move from subsistence farming to putting money back into expanding the operation.
A highlight of 1950 was a trip James and his father made to the National Polled Hereford Show combined with a visit to a highly respected breeder to pick out a new herd sire. James was very impressed by the show and all the pageantry. On their trip home, the Bennetts stopped to pick out their new herd sire and were given the pick of the crop. Each chose separately, with James picking out the most compact bull similar to what was winning at the show. His father picked out a larger-framed bull and explained to his son that “in order to grow beef, you have to have a rack to hang it on.” According to James, “I learned the valuable lesson that logic and common sense should always rule the day.”
There was never any doubt that James would attend Virginia Tech to major in animal science, and in the fall of 1950, armed with his savings and a scholarship from Sears and Roebuck, James enthusiastically started college. However, his collegiate career would be short-lived when his father experienced a series of heart attacks. With these health problems at home, James scheduled a dreaded visit with his advisor, Professor George Litton. James recalls, “I explained the situation to Professor Litton, and he told me that I had no choice but to go home. He also said that I would have to work 150 percent as hard as my fellow students to compete with them and that my education would not end with leaving Tech because the land grant system would always be there to further my education.” So it was at the start of 1951 that James returned home to run the farm. Reflecting on this event, James says, “No one has ever benefited more from the land grant mission than James Bennett. I never found a door closed to me locally, statewide or nationally, and I continued to learn the rest of my life.” James later in his life would be able to pay back the opportunities the land grant system provided him when, through appointment by the governor, he would serve on the Board of Visitors (Trustees) at Virginia Tech.
On his return home, James had the monumental task of taking the reins of a large farm. This was an operation with the base of the farm being tobacco, and as James said, “The farm I took over was 90 percent tobacco and 10 percent cattle while my interest was 90 percent cattle and ten percent tobacco.” He envisioned the transition from tobacco to cattle when, in 1953, he received notice that he had been drafted. Entering the Army for active duty in 1954, he would serve until early 1957 as a military policeman during the height of the Cold War. Luckily, the Bennetts were able to hire the labor necessary for his dad to oversee to bridge gap until James was able to return from the service. Of this experience, James explained, “During those two years, I planned what I would do for the next 50 years, which included the transition of the farm from tobacco to a seedstock cattle operation that would serve commercial cattlemen.”
James was honorably discharged from the service in 1957, one month early in order to get home in time for planting. Upon his return, he also married his childhood sweetheart, Barbara. In addition, he began to implement his plan to transition the farm from tobacco to beef cattle.
Early Performance Pioneer
James would come home to the hotbed of the performance movement. In 1955, under the leadership of Professor George Litton, Dr. Tom Marlow and Professor Curtis Mast, Virginia started the U.S.’s first Beef Cattle Improvement Association (BCIA). This performance direction immediately appealed to James. The industry was in the midst of the belt-buckle cattle fad, and dwarfism was ravaging the Angus and Hereford breeds. According to James, “Logic and common sense told me that performance testing was the profitable direction for the industry. I have always tried to breed cattle with a philosophy of what I call ‘keeping them between the ditches,’ and, in my opinion, the compact cattle fad was approaching the ditch. At the time, people were breeding bulls where they literally had to dig a trench for the cow in order for the bull to mount her, and many leading operations carried shovels in their pickups to bury the dwarfs that were being born on their place. I started only buying bulls with records from bull test stations and based selection at Knoll Crest Farm on economically important traits for commercial producers such as reproduction and growth.”
One of his guiding principles that gelled James’ philosophy and would guide him through his leadership in all aspects of service to the industry during his career was the 1955 quote from Waldo Forbes upon the formation of the Red Angus Association: “The policy of the association is to discourage the more artificial practices in purebred cattle production, such as excessive fitting, and to place its faith instead in objective tests, consisting for the most part of comparison of factors of known economic importance and known heritability. By making this an integral part of the registration system, the breeders feel that even faster progress can be made toward the ultimate goal of more efficient beef production.” James kept this in his wallet and would often refer to it during meetings and as a popular speaker on his operation and his role as a performance advocate.
In 1963, James entered the Knoll Crest herd in Virginia’s BCIA whole-herd reporting program. Even today, when whole herd reporting is known to be the basis of unbiased genetic evaluations, an alarming number of seedstock producers still practice selective reporting or no performance reporting at all. James was way ahead of his time, practicing the then unpopular performance testing, and with the showring ruling the day, many people thought of the small number of people who practiced collecting weights and objective data as just an eccentric minority. After he entered the performance-testing program, James remembers vividly an editorial in a popular cattle magazine that denounced the practice. James was not to be deterred and committed the future of Knoll Crest Farm to performance testing.
After enrolling his whole herd in the BCIA, James joined the board of BCIA and served on the steering committee and as chair of BCIA’s Culpeper bull test and president of Virginia’s BCIA. All the while, James was aggressively expanding Knoll Crest Farm, buying land and cattle, until the farm reached the present day size of 3,500 acres of owned land and 825 seedstock cows. He started testing bulls in the early ’60s in Virginia and North Carolina, with his bulls routinely winning high performance awards and top sire group. In 1972, he started the renowned Red House Bull Evaluation Center.
James was also becoming part of the nationwide performance community. In 1973, he was elected to the BIF (Beef Improvement Federation) board, and he would become a constant in the leadership of the fledging performance movement. The 1960s and ’70s were exciting times for the performance movement. New concepts and practices were being introduced, and there was great enthusiasm for performance testing by the core group committed to the practice. Some great minds and personalities were amongst this group of which James would become a mainstay. James was a rabid letter writer with fellow thought leaders like Jim Lingle, R.W. Jones, Martin Jorgenson, Mary Garst, Bob Crane, Bob Taylor, Richard Willham, Bob de Baca, Dave Nichols, Sally Forbes, C.K. Allen, Henry Gardiner and Les Holden. They would trade ideas and concepts and would critique one another’s proposals. BIF would quickly become his most “important meeting of the year,” and in the company of close friend Ike Eller, after every meeting, they would take trips to visit with other leading performance breeders to see their programs, making lifelong friends along the way. James would make the following observation about his career in the cattle business: “When I started out, cattle were the dominant factor, but quickly people became the dominant factor.”
James would serve in many leadership positions in BIF including president and chair of various subcommittees and the bull test standing committee. His leadership and the excellence of the performance cattle being produced by Knoll Crest Farm were recognized by him twice being named BIFs Seedstock Producer of the year, receiving the continuing service award, and being named as a BIF pioneer breeder. Those early BIF meetings were lively events with a relatively small number of people attending from a mix of breeders, breed association personnel and academia.
Always the leader, James was an early adopter of all technology offered by the American Polled Hereford Association (APHA) and the American Hereford Association (AHA), whether it was collecting weights, adjusted weights and ratios, performance pedigrees, EBVs, EPDs, ultrasound and genomics. When the APHA announced its Gold Performance Award Program in 1980, James was the first to sign up, and his cattle would be awarded the first Gold Performance Sire and the first Gold Performance Dam bestowed by the Association. The Gold Performance Sire and Dam awards were based on sire and dam progeny enrolled in an officially designated test station. In all, Knoll Crest Farm would be awarded six Gold Performance Sires and five Gold Performance Dams, and several other KCF sires and dams would garner the award for other breeders — in total, the most of any breeder.
James’ leadership in the early performance movement is widely acclaimed, and he was recognized in the “50 that made a difference” by BEEF magazine for its 50th anniversary. Dr. Larry Cundiff, retired geneticist from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (US MARC), observed, “James has always taken a scholarly interest in the science of animal production and agriculture.” Beyond just scholarly, James has been a man of action. He has lead through example and thoughtful communication and has served as a steady hand, mind and voice in popularizing performance that is now so widely accepted as the norm.
From the beginning, James focused the Knoll Crest program on commercial customers. According to James, “We were greatly influenced by Virginia’s feeder calf market and the traits that made the most money for our customers. My goal and how I budgeted was with the philosophy of breeding cattle to meet the needs of commercial cattle producers with the hope of producing a few bulls that only purebred breeders could afford.”
He recollects, “During the late ’50s and ’60s, our cattle were not the popular type with the purebred industry. It was during the belt-buckle era, and we had committed our cattle program to base selection on performance principles. This meant our cattle had more frame and growth than was popular. I kept a quote framed on my wall from Vince Lombardi, ‘The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to commitment to excellence in their chosen profession,’ which, in my case, was selling performance-tested bulls to commercial producers.”
Despite Knoll Crest’s cattle not meeting popular standards of the compact era, James recalls, “We still had a very good commercial market, initially allowing producers to pick their bull calves out when they were 6 months for $300. At weaning, we would deliver the bulls, with our remaining calves going into the Virginia feeder market sales. The steers and the bulls had to make money, which both did. That our females were not popular was not a problem because we kept most of them back to expand the herd. When I started whole-herd performance testing, I was able to raise the price of the bulls based on performance, making them available on a certain day after weaning.”
The seedstock business had been good to James since he came home from the service in 1957. He finished the transition from producing tobacco to being a seedstock cattle operation servicing commercial producers. He aggressively added land, so by the late ’60s, he had grown Knoll Crest Farm to 1,200 acres of owned land and 300 cows. When James started the Red House Bull Evaluation Center in 1972, he also built a development center alongside it. It featured similar facilities and lots as the bull test, and the same ration was fed at both facilities. His aim was to get performance data on all contemporary groups through a year, and Knoll Crest started marketing private treaty yearling bulls with total performance records and breeding soundness exams, instead of marketing the bulls at weaning. When the bull test wound down in 1998, Knoll Crest Farm started its own bull sale, typically marketing 170 bulls in the December sale and 100 bulls and 100 of the farm’s customers’ commercial heifers in the April sale.
Times were very good in the ’70s as James recalls, “When the type change occurred in the late ’60s and early ’70s, our cattle were in high demand. They had the frame and growth people were looking for. In the mid-’70s, we sold a female for $20,000 at the Virginia Polled Hereford Sale, and at the Red House Bull Test in 1976, we sold a $12,000 bull to Brazil and a $5,000 bull to Select Sires. This was our first bull to enter a stud and over the years, we have been fortunate enough to have placed 50 bulls into major bull studs including Polled Hereford, Angus, Gelbvieh and Balancer sires. In 1969, I closed the herd because I couldn’t find females with the records necessary to improve our herd. It remained closed for 15 years except in the case of when we added a second breed in 1981.”
James would continue to aggressively expand the operation, adding more land than he could work in the 1970s in anticipation of his sons returning to the farm. Also during the late ’70s, James did a survey of his commercial customers, identifying that he needed to start emphasizing calving ease. James explained, “The majority of our customers did their chores on the weekend (i.e. part-time), so we had to supply them with genetics that were as trouble free as possible.” James had long worked on milk and udder quality, as those were a problem with the early Polled Herefords. Starting in the late ’70s, he started emphasizing the antagonistic traits of calving ease and growth. He concluded that too much growth combined with frame was correlated with calving difficulty, so he started to maintain frame as a constant or in some cases moderate. Summing up this philosophy, James explains, “I have never had good experience with extremes.”
In 1978 after a BIF meeting in Lincoln, Neb., James and Dr. Ike Eller made a visit to US MARC to get information on MARC’s germplasm study and to visit with Dr. Larry Cundiff. He was impressed with the Gelbvieh there and the initial data that had been collected. Since the data had not yet been analyzed, Dr. Cundiff provided the raw data to James so he could do his own evaluation. Based on these data, James concluded that Gelbvieh was a useful breed to cross with the Polled Herefords and the Angus that had become very popular in Virginia during the 1970s. In 1981, James added eight bred heifers from Mary Garst, who was a close friend from his work with BIF, based strictly on performance and production records. By 1983, he had bred the first homozygous polled purebred Gelbvieh bull, KCF Polled Express R141, which James described in his usual understated way as “a big deal.” This bull would have a profound impact on the Gelbvieh breed, and he was used in that breed’s logo for 10 years.
James had aggressively added land during the ’70s, but in the ’80s, the agricultural economy went into a severe recession, and suddenly he was upside down on the land purchases made during the ’70s. James recalls, “It would keep you up at night, and brought back memories of the depression.” His loyal commercial customers stayed with him through the ’80s, and today, he is proud that he has been dealing with many of the same families for more than 50 years. James credits these loyal customers as well as himself serving on bank boards for insight into strong financial planning and his ability to harvest timber with getting him through the ’80s.
His boys started returning to the farm in the ’80s with Jim, Paul and Brian coming home in ’80, ’83 and ’87, respectively. Having the boys return to the farm had long been James’ dream and the reason he had added more ground than he could work in the ’70s. In 1987, they incorporated the operation, which now included 2,000 acres of owned land. After incorporating, James would continue to add land and cows to support all the families until the farm reached the present 3,500 acres of owned and leased land and 825 cows. At the beginning, James owned the vast majority of the corporation stock, but as time went on, shares were transitioned to the sons to assure proper estate planning.
Based on the work of US MARC and close friend Dr. Harlan Ritchie, James foresaw the need to simplify crossbreeding, so in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he started breeding, testing and marketing Gelbvieh-Angus hybrids. He approached the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA) on keeping records and producing genetic prediction for hybrids. He was persistent in this cause until, in 1998, Donnie Schiefelbein, executive director of AGA, invited James to attend the Board meeting to discuss a hybrid registry. James asked if Dr. Ritchie could also attend, and he did. The idea was met very positively by the Board, and by the end of the meeting, the group developed the parameters and even came up with the name Balancers. Now, 60 percent of AGA’s registrations are Balancers and practically all other continental breeds have adopted the model with a significant part of their registrations made up of hybrids. James recalls, “Harlan would call me up periodically and tell me, ‘Do you realize the gravity of what we did that day. We helped set a new direction for the industry!’”
With the popularity of Angus in the Bennetts’ region, in 1993, Knoll Crest Farm added Angus as a third breed in order to complete their quest to be a full service provider for commercial customers’ crossbreeding systems.
Today, Knoll Crest Farm’s cattle have never been more popular both nationally and internationally. The Bennetts have marketed cattle and embryos into 40 states as well as live cattle and/or embryos to Canada, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Through semen sales, their bulls’ genetics have reached every continent and major beef-producing country. One only has to look at any major bull stud listing to see the impact the Bennetts are having on the industry.