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Summit Lake Livestock converts hog barns for cattle production

Rural Wilmont farm is one of eight to be featured on the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Summer Beef Tour July 13. The event is hosted by the Rock-Nobles Cattlemen.

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Brian and Garrett Penning stand outside one of the finishing barns that had been converted from a hog barn to a cattle barn. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)
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Editor's note: This is part of a series of eight features on Minnesota cattle operations that will be part of the Minnesota Cattlemen’s Association 2021 Summer Beef Tour and Trade Show , scheduled for July 13. For more information on the tour, visit https://www.mnsca.org .

WILMONT, Minn. — When brothers Russ and Brian Penning started Summit Lake Livestock about 15 years ago, they did so as a way to get their own start on the larger Penning Farms operation southeast of Wilmont.

The two began by buying day-old Holstein bottle calves and, as the venture grew, they renovated several vacated hog barns on an uncle’s farmsite, added two hoop barns on that same site, and built two more hoop barns on the farm where they grew up.

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Brian and Garrett Penning stand inside one of the hog barns they converted into a calf barn, complete with calf crates. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

Today, Summit Lake Livestock continues to bring in some day-old bottle calves, though a majority come in at 200 pounds. They also switched from Holstein to Holstein-Angus cross. In addition, they buy cattle at 600 pounds to finish out.

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On the State Cattlemen’s Tour, the Pennings will showcase the hog barns they converted for cattle production.

“The barns were at a stage in their life that they needed everything,” shared Russ. Doing the work mostly on their own, they gutted the buildings, installing new electrical components and custom beams in the floors, as well as replacing the slats. A pair of calf barns feature two different growing systems — one with open pens where calves roam freely; the other with individual calf crates.

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Holstein-Angus cross calves are being raised in what used to be a hog barn on the Summit Lake Livestock farm near Wilmont. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

The Pennings use two other former hog barns — 40-foot-wide curtain barns from the 1990s — for finishing cattle. On those buildings, the south walls were removed to make way for feed bunks and manure pit access was altered. The pit is pumped twice per year, with an outside containment area used to hold the manure from spring until it can be applied after harvest in the fall.

“If I had to do it over, I’d do it over in a heartbeat,” Russ said of converting the barns from hogs to cattle production. “This was a way for us to expand into existing facilities we already had. The costs weren’t huge, but the return to the farm is greater.”

The brothers, with help from their families, pail-feed milk replacer to young calves and finish out cattle on a corn silage, high moisture corn diet, as well as some grass hay and straw.

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Some of the Holstein-Angus cross calves being raised in a converted hog barn on the Penning farm. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

“We do have some alfalfa, but we typically sell most of that to local dairies,” Russ said.

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While baby calves come in from dairies around the Midwest, Summit Lake Cattle takes in a load of 230, 200-pound calves each week from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. With a mix of both steer and heifer calves coming in, Russ said they separate them out and keep pen sizes to about 400 to 500 head. Since they get in twice as many cattle as they need to keep their lots full, they sell 800 head about every eight weeks — mostly to neighboring farmers.

Those kept to finishing weights are marketed primarily to Cargill in Schuyler, Neb., and DemKota in Aberdeen, S.D.

The Summit Lake Livestock site on Cattlemen’s Tour was settled by Russ and Brian’s grandfather following World War II. Their uncle and aunt reside on the site, with the brothers each living on their own farm nearby. They are the second of three generations actively involved in the farming operation today.

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Cattle near finishing weight are shown on the slatted floors in one of the barns that was converted from a hog barn to a cattle barn. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

Their dad John, and his brothers, Rick and Tom, farm and feed cattle in partnership, and Russ and Brian are raising their kids as the next generation to potentially continue in the business.

Russ and his wife, Melanie, have three children: Rhett, 12, Riese, 11 and Regan, 9. Meanwhile, Brian and his wife, Angela, have five children: Courtney, 21, Morgan, 19, Hunter, 14, Garrett, 13 and Jack, 8.

“All of the kids help in some aspect of the farm,” Russ said. “Brian’s kids help with the bottle chores and little calf chores and in the shop. They’re all getting old enough to help with raking and baling.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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