The first time I “really” met John Griswold is one I will never forget. He pulled up to REI (Reproductive Enterprise Incorporated) in Stillwater, Oklahoma in a beat up old tan Buick. He had on a Hawaiian shirt, an old baseball cap and a few days stubble on his face. John had just driven all night from South Dakota and hadn’t been home to shower or sleep. After we looked through the bulls at REI John took us to his car to go look at cattle. John had to bang hard on the passenger door to get it to open and let my dad in and then get inside and reach over across the back seat to open the back door from the inside for me. He spent all day showing us cattle. One thing that hit me is how John wasn’t in to keeping up appearances (He still drives that car). Dad and I were headed to Kirk Duff’s and John asked me to text him if I saw anything that I thought he needed to own. That was John’s way of getting my phone number. From there it started a friendship that turned into more.
In November, John laid over in Utah after a trip to Montana to look at Dad’s sale cattle. John called me from the airport to see if someone could please come and get him, because his drivers license was expired and that he couldn’t rent a car. Beaver and Salt Lake are 250 miles apart. I showed up to pick him up with my boyfriend. John has said that whatever chance he thought he had, at that point certainly was gone. I had no intentions of romance with John Griswold but God saw it differently. Before John left he asked if he could buy me a steak in Denver in 5 weeks at the Denver Stock Show. There was still no intentions of romance, I just really enjoyed talking to him. John flew home before our sale but called after to see how it had gone.
I grew up hearing the name John Griswold. My dad thought the world of him. John had gone to Denver with Cal Herring to help him with his feeder steers and Dad (Gib Yardley) and Cal had pens next to one another. That was before dad was married and I was yet to be a twinkle in his eye. Dad and John stayed good friends through the years and Denver was always a place to rekindle old friendships. Dad got married when he was 47 and started having a family. He once told John the best thing he had done was having kids and that he needed to settle down and find a wife. Little did Dad know what would transpire from those seeds he planted. John has told me several times that Denver was when he would sit down and reflect on his life. Each year he came to the conclusion, “I’m still doing okay, I’m not as old as Gib was when he got married.” John ended up taking me for a for a steak dinner in Denver, I felt like I had known him my whole life. It was in Denver that Dad’s words came full circle. A year later John and I took our honeymoon to Denver.
John grew up in Livingston, Wisconsin. He was the oldest of six. His dad, Joe Griswold, set the example and standard for John that would take him through his life. From the time they were young, he and his brother Greg had to do chores every morning before school. He tells our kids the story often of going out and having the tractor tires being frozen. About the thud they made going around, the sound of the snow crunching as he walked out, the burn in his lungs because of the cold. His dad never referred to them as boys, but rather he called them “men.” John is still an early riser and he loves to work.
John wrote in our sale letter the following, “Our parents, Joe and Elaine, brought our family to Oklahoma in the early eighties. At first they questioned if they had made the right choice. I could kiss them everyday for that decision. It was a move that forever shaped our lives and our story.” Those next few years brought a lot of change for the Griswold family. They dropped John off at college the same time as the move from Wisconsin to Oklahoma. John attended Joe’s Alma Mater, Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma. John said, ““Dad always told us, ‘When you go to college, it’s who you meet that’s important.’ And that has played out in our lives and operation just like he said it would.” The people he met while in college are still some of his closest friends and business associates.
When his dad dropped him off at school he gave him $300. He said it was more money than he had ever dreamed of. He kept it in his glove compartment and it lasted him all semester. He would load his clothes in a suitcase and take them down to the laundry mat. He will be the first to tell you he was green. It was while in college that he started to trade on steers and where he found his start in the industry.
Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and thinkers. This is a philosophy that has carried John throughout his life; he surrounds himself with good people. Mike Willham was supposed to clip Denver feeder steers for Cal Herring. Mike had taken a full time job and couldn’t do it. He called Cal and suggested John. Cal said, “I don’t know.” Cal wondered if he would be good enough and almost hired Bobby Smith. When Bobby couldn’t go out, Cal got John. With that, a 20-year-old boy from Wisconsin headed to Wyoming and became lifelong friends with Cal Herring. John remembered Cal heading to town every afternoon with two head and washing those because there was no heat out at the ranch. The next day, John would clip the two that had been washed the day before outside. This was in Encampment, Wyoming in January. “I helped the Loomis family with their steer selection and clipping and they had a real successful run. Then I worked for Cal Herring in Denver, the year they had the champion and reserve champion pen of feeder steers. Those two associations really stand out to me, as I look back on how things evolved,” recalls John. John would go on to buy steers from Cal and trade on them back in Stillwater. One year Joe rode out to pick up a goose neck load of steers and John told his dad, “If I can make $5,000 I would be tickled pink.” He made it. To this day John will attribute his start to Cal Herring. From Cal’s he went on to clip for Hilbert’s. John says that if you clipped for Hilbert’s, you could clip. “Stierwalt, Bobby May, everybody that ever clipped back in the day clipped for Hilbert,” he says. John will be the first to tell you he was scared to death to take on that job.
Time marched on and the hard work and cow savvy of Joe Griswold started to pay off in John’s life. “Dad had a dispersal sale in the early eighties and Todd Thrasher went and bought the 25 best cows that Dad had in the sale. We sat next to him and told him which cows were the producers and which cows to buy,” John said. Another deal came up for Thrasher that allowed John to buy back 17 head. Those females would stand as a foundation for our Griswold cow base. 066 was one of those cows. She proved invaluable to putting the new generation of Griswold Brothers on the map. She is the granddam of Chill Factor and there are over 50 direct granddaughters of this history making matriarch. Her influence is still heavily seen in many top sellers at Griswold Cattle. “If they have 066 in the pedigree, they’re good,” says Greg Griswold. Over a span of 17 years, Chill Factor is still a go-to maternal sire.
Through the 90’s, John and his brothers scoured the Nation and Canada for good cattle. One of John’s best friends is Merle Morris from Montana. He recalls buying 10 head of heifers for $475 a heifer from him; that will tell you how much times have changed. About that time, John traded on a lot of cows and steers, covered a lot of country and made a lot of lifelong friends. One year he brought seven loads out of Canada. Some of those cows went to Fred DeRouchy. They had the Tykia prefix we all became so familiar with. He also spent a lot of time clipping for Stray Creek Brangus with Jeff Boddiker, Mike Dethridge, and Danny May. Some of John’s favorite people and favorite stories come from those days.
In 2001, John and his brothers began marketing cattle through Christy Collins Exposure Sale. A move that really elevated their program.
2001 was also the year that Griswold Brothers acquired the Birkeland cowherd. When we had our dispersal sale, John wrote the following in his letter to our customers. “I want to start this letter by thanking Ken Birkeland. Ken has been in charge of this herd of cows since we bought them in 2001. This cow base has been intact since Ken’s father Cliff traded some Hereford’s for a set of Angus cows from Clayton Jennings, of Highmore, SD back in the 50’s. They started AI’ing in the early 70’s and held several bull sales. I went there for a lot of years, and of all the places I went, I thought the Birkland herd was the best herd of cows I knew about. In the spring of ‘01 I called Gary and asked him how cheap those cows were in Faith (South Dakota), because we were buying and trading on cows. About three or four weeks later, Gary called and said ‘I might sell our cow herd.’ I told my dad and he said you better leave right now. I hurried and took a shower, grabbed a change of clothes, and left for South Dakota. I called Ed Burke and told him about the deal and Ed stayed there for four days with me. He stayed there and helped get them bought. Ed told me there are two are three deals that come along in a person’s lifetime that defines your life; and we both knew that this one was mine. In 2001, we bought 1309 pairs and 365 yearling heifers. All of those cattle originated from those original 70 head - they had never bought a heifer calf.
It was unbearable dry the first year and we sold off and culled a lot of those. When we branded there was 4 to 5 inches of dust in the pens. We farmer flopped all of those calves, my brother David and Tyson Vantrese were there and threw most of those calves. The only thing that was white on them was their eyes and their teeth, everything else was completely black.”
It was right around this same time in 2002 that a major game changer came into play. The Exposure sale would market one of the most influential bulls to ever hit the industry. They sold half-interest in a three-quarter Maine bull that Todd Thrasher and Dale Newman raised named Irish Whiskey.
“Irish Whiskey gave a new look to Maine cattle. He didn’t just make them good, he made them great. The first year we bred Whiskey to the Birkeland cows we used him on the ‘absolute shit’ and the following fall all the best calves were Whiskey’s. His first calf crop started the Whiskey craze nationwide. The next year we bred everything to him,” said John.
(I would add a picture of Irish Whiskey here)
One of my favorite stories John tells took place around 2002. It characterizes John’s personality of seeing talent greater than his own. John and Greg had bred a couple cows to Double Vision and Greg got one of his college buddies Bruce West to come down and clip those heifers. John said, “I walked into that clipping room after he’d been clipping and couldn’t believe anyone could clip liked that. She looked unbelievable. He just knew what he was doing. From that day forward Bruce was the main clipper. I knew I didn’t know near as much about clipping as he did. I’d always been in there clipping but after I saw him I knew I couldn’t clip like that.” It was while Bruce was clipping at the barn that a young talent named Nick Riemann came to OSU for college and worked out at the barn. They all created friendships that will last the test of time. John was like a proud parent over the success that Nick found after college. Losing Nick was and is one of the hardest things I have ever seen John deal with. Nick was a dreamer, a doer, a believer.
In 2005, Griswold Cattle reached another milestone when they purchased 500 cows from Tim Ohlde. John recalls, “I stopped to buy semen from Tim on my way to Dupree. I ended up spending the whole day helping him haul pairs and looking at some great Angus cattle. During the day, he told me the cows were for sale. My brothers and I saw this as a real opportunity. It didn’t take long for us to arrange to buy the OCC females.” John’s brother Greg’s true love is good Angus cattle. He knows them like the back of his hand, and can tell you how a cow is bred generations back without ever seeing an ear tag or a freeze brand. From that day on, Greg handled all the registered Angus cattle and a pretty intensive ET program. Those females would prove pivotal to the success of making percentage cattle with a good solid Angus base.
One thing always leads to another and the acquisition of the OCC cow base led to the Grass to Grid bull sale held with Jeff Bourquin in Follett, Texas. When John’s phone rings and he says “Hello Jeffery” and you hear Jeff’s deep belly laugh you can’t help but smile. If you know Jeff, you know what I mean. John and him talk often about everything from the market to the happenings of the cow world. Jeff buys thousands of feeder cattle and calves every year. When a sale first got talked about he needed quality bulls for his customers and he liked the type of cattle that we were raising. After a lot of talking, John and him struck a deal to hold the sale in Follett. We will market 200 head of bulls this spring.
In 2008 John went with Greg Burden to go see a Simmental bull, SVF Steel Force. They bought that bull with Ratcliff Farms of Vinita, Oklahoma. This would be the beginning of one of the most dominant sires the Simmental breed had seen. Steel Force progeny have won every major show across the nation and demanded top dollar in both progeny and semen sales. He is still a major force to be reckoned with and a major part of the Griswold story. He’s buried up under a tree at the show barn. He deserved to stay at the place, he more than earned it.
Another opportunity arose in 2010 when Griswold Cattle had the chance to form a partnership with Kim Klotz of Seward, Nebraska. Klotz has tremendous knowledge of pricing, hedging and corn prices as well as oversees the financial end of the company. More than that, he’s a good friend and huge support to our program. John rolls most of his business decisions through two people, his dad and Kim Klotz.
In 2013, we made the decision to sell the South Dakota cows. I still to this day don’t know if I have ever seen a prettier set of cows. John took a lot of pride in them; he and his brothers along with Ken Birkeland and a great crew had spent years developing them. South Dakota and Ken held more memories and heart strings for John than any one place or person. He sent me a text once that read, “I was born Wisconsin, we live in Oklahoma, you’ll bury me in Utah, but my heart will always be in South Dakota.” He wrote in our sale catalog that year, “Ken has been the best friend and is almost a idol to me and most of the people that have gone to South Dakota to help. He knows more about cattle than any man I have ever known. Ken, I want you to know that leaving you in South Dakota this fall was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
John loves cows, more than any person I have ever known. He has irons in more fires than most people ever dream of. His mind works a million miles an hour, twenty-four hours a day and he’s always looking for the “next great one” in both cattle and opportunity. We ranch in Stillwater and this past year had a great opportunity to lease a ranch in Poteau, Oklahoma from our partner Kim Klotz. I drug my feet pretty hard on the Poteau deal. We had just sold all the South Dakota cows to tone down our program; the last thing I wanted was more cows. John has vision and I trust him, so we took the lunge. We love Poteau. We spend a lot of time on the road back and forth. It’s just a lot shorter drive for us to make from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Poteau than it is to Dupree, South Dakota. It’s a new challenge, and John loves that part of it.
John doesn’t know I wrote this. I’m sure I’ve left out plenty of people that have shaped and influenced him. John believes in people. He believes in their ability to achieve and make decisions and he puts a lot of faith in them. Our crew we have now is second to none. They do a great job. We were in the hospital in Boston with our little boy for about two months this summer. John never left his side except to sleep at night. His ability to do that is because of the people we have in place at home and with the cattle. He told me he never had to worry that things weren’t being taken care of. We run a decent sized outfit, so that is a huge statement. When we finally got to come home he went and scoped things out. That night he told me, “You ought to see it. Everything is just like it should be.” Fence had been built, the cattle had been worked, and the hay had been taken care of. They are our employees, but more than that they are part of our success, they are our friends, our family.
More than anything that John has accomplished, he’s most proud of his Maggie and Garrett. He takes them everywhere. Garrett wakes up in the morning and the first thing he says is “Dadda” and “moo.” John takes being a dad as his most important job; he’s dang good at it. We’ve seen a lot of miles together and even more cattle. He’s packed our kids to producer meetings, stock shows, and cattle sales across the Nation. He waited a long time to start a family and he truly values them.
John has said, “There are several things that I can attribute to our success. I would say the number one thing is persistence and hard work. I’ve seen a lot of people with way more talent than I have that went by the wayside, because they didn’t have the persistence to see their vision through. My favorite saying is, ‘It’s not what happens to you in life, It’s what you do with it when it does.’ This means that no matter if it’s good or bad, keep your feet on the ground and keep going. A certain amount of luck was involved as we were in the right place at the right time to find great cattle. Ed Burke told me, ‘There will be two or three big deals in your life that will determine where your life ends up. Whether you do them or you don’t.’ Those few events have been pivotal to our success. Our parents instilled in us responsibility and work ethic. People are the key to success—just like dad told us. The folks we have met, who we have done business with and the many, many friends and customers we have are responsible for our achievements. Our employees and those that are associated with our program have been and will continue to be vital to our accomplishments.”
I love you Johnny. I hope this reads all right for you. There are two men I think hung the moon: one is my dad and the other is you. I couldn’t think of anyone I would rather go through this crazy adventure with. Thanks for finding me love; it’s been a heck of ride!
Jeannie does all the advertising for Yardley Cattle and Griswold Cattle. She does a lot on the catalogs for both outfits also, which is a huge job. Her knowledge of cattle is amazing. She knows about pulling calves, breeding cows, etc. But her opinion on the type of cattle she likes is what I really love about her. She knows what she likes and she won’t waver as fads and different EPDs and numbers come and go. She wants good looking, easy doing cattle that will grow. She thinks you can tell way more about cattle by just looking and studying them instead of making all your selection on numbers.
I’m not sure how she does the balancing act of mom, wife and cattle, but I can tell you she’s awesome at all of it. Our kids love her so much it’s amazing. Garrett was really sick this summer and they way he looked at Jeannie when they layed in that hospital bed and said “maama” was endearing. Maggie won’t let her out of her sight and mom is the light of her life. I can tell you she’s an amazing wife! She puts her family before herself and she wants her family to be happy and healthy.
Jeannie is a very strong person of faith and she keeps me and the kids on the straight and narrow! I love her more than I could ever say in words. She changed my life and I’m very proud to call her my wife! Jeannie and the kids go with me all the time and I’m pretty sure our kids won’t know about anything other than cattle, because in this house we live and breath cattle.