Phil Trowbridge proposed a radical topic for his sixth grade science fair project back in 1967 – artificial insemination in Angus cattle. His project included a scale model of the female cow’s reproductive system. Few 11-year-olds had an interest in genetics and reproduction, but it was a way of life for the youngster growing up on his family’s Angus operation in Corfu, a small rural town in western New York.
It was more than the fact that he was interested in reproduction that raised his teacher’s eyebrows. He was a Catholic school student and in the 1960s, that subject was taboo.
“The nuns initially told me I couldn’t choose that topic for my project,” he said.
His father, Paul Sr., marched into school and countered otherwise. The Trowbridge family was deeply rooted in Angus genetics. The family’s first cow was a daughter of Prince Sunbeam of Shadoe Isle 78. On the farm, the family strategically planned crosses to improve the breed. Paul’s appeal persuaded the nuns to overturn their decision. Ultimately, Phil’s project was well-received, earning first prize in that year’s fair.
“It was a topic I wanted to learn about and even [I] had an intuition then that my future career would revolve around cattle,” he said.
After high school, Phil attended Alfred State College in Alfred, New York. He graduated in 1976 earning a degree in animal science. As one of nine children, he knew there wouldn’t be a future in splitting the family farm. He and his wife, Annie, settled on the eastern side of New York in Ghent. First, he went to work as a herdsman at Gallagher’s Angus Farm. Then, in 1978, the couple established a farm of their own. During the three and a half decades that followed, their herd swelled to 300 Angus cattle supported on a 900-acre farm.
All these years later, Phil still has his enthusiasm for pushing the envelope. He is an early adopter of new technologies, an advocate for the next generation and leads by example.
The bleeding edge
During the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, Phil experimented with embryo transfer work. By the 1990s he was among a small group of farmers to embrace genomics. Early on, he was keenly aware of the importance of genetics and sought to duplicate the superior traits of female cows and bulls. He estimates his first efforts with genomics were about 10 years ahead of their time and the financial feasibility forced him to pause the project until the corresponding technology caught up to his enthusiasm, but he’d do it again in a heartbeat.
“I’ve had a friend tell me that I’m not on the cutting edge, I’m on the bleeding edge. If there is something I believe in, I go after it full force,” he said.
Despite being ahead of the trends and investing in early technology, he has never lost sight of the importance of genetics. Today, every registered calf born on the farm receives an extensive DNA test. The results are used to improve carcass quality and efficiency.
“Cattle 20 years ago took 7 pounds of feed to gain 1 pound in weight,” he said. “We’ve got it down to about 4.5 pounds of feed to gain 1 pound in weight. I have worked my entire life to improve efficiency.”
Buyers purchase Trowbridge Farms cattle because of increased efficiencies. The farm’s cattle have been sold all over the United States and internationally, specifically to farmers in Argentina.
“Our bulls are able to move weanling rates up between 40 to 60 pounds compared with other producers. That makes a big difference in profit for farms,” he said.
Known for his sharp instincts and keen eye, he has a track record of recognizing a calf’s potential and spotting the breed’s most valued individuals. Some Trowbridge cow lineage, such as the Pure Pride family, traces back to a specific cow from Massachusetts with a genetic line straight back to the origin of the Angus breed in Scotland.
The pursuit of superior genetics would be for naught without adopting a recordkeeping system to track progress. That’s why Phil was among the first to use the National Farm Animal Identification & Records (FAIR) system.
“We have to embrace technology because we have to be more efficient. If we don’t improve efficiencies, we’ll fall behind,” he said.
Empowering the next generation
Phil said that a part of his motivation for being so active in the industry is a bit selfish – that it provides opportunities for his children and grandchildren to stay active in agriculture. He said he’s incredibly blessed to have family surrounding him in the business, including his son, P.J., who works with him. Although he says family inspires his involvement with youth, his actions reveal that he recognizes the importance of supporting all youth for the long-term sustainability of the industry.
“We have so many bright, talented young people, and we are going to need to rely on them to create more efficient processes for the future of agriculture,” he said.
He believes in staying open-minded to the next generation’s ideas. After P.J. graduated from State University of New York-Cobleskill, he brought home ideas that included progressive changes to the farm’s nutrition program.
“I listened to him and we made huge changes. We were able to feed exactly half the amount of feed that we previously fed and the cattle were still gaining the necessary weight,” Phil said.
As important as it is to encourage family participation, Phil knows it’s equally critical to encourage future farmers outside the family circle. In the 1980s, he and Annie established an internship program. Since then, they have hosted more than 100 interns. Their most recent intern showed them shortcuts for their paperwork processes. The intern streamlined a day-long paperwork procedure into an hour and a half process.
“Young people are so in tune with what’s going on. I believe that I’ve learned as much from them as they have learned from us,” he said.
Phil and Annie don’t solely focus on college-aged youth. They begin encouraging kids as young as 6 and 7 years old to get involved with the Columbia County Feeders 4-H Club. Through club activities, the kids learn about sheep, hogs, chickens and steers. They learn to keep financial records and are taught animal husbandry and grooming skills.
At the end of the year, the kids have an opportunity to sell them at auction and keep the proceeds. For those kids who don’t come from farming families, Trowbridge Farms finances the purchase of the animals and feed. The 4-Hers are even allowed to keep their animals on the farm if their family doesn’t have room at home.
“Every day after school you’ll see a group of kids out there taking care of their animals, grooming and teaching them to lead,” he said.
Aside from the 4-H component, Phil has stepped up to support youth in other ways. The farm regularly participates in the New York Junior Beef Producers Association’s frozen semen auction. In 2016, the group raised $11,000 through the sale, which auctions donations of frozen semen from several farms in New York.
In the past, Trowbridge Farms has participated in a fundraiser hosted by the American Angus Association’s Angus Foundation. The online auction sold donated embryos to the highest bidder. Proceeds benefitted the foundation and the 19 lots raised $4,000.
“Some of the money donated to the foundation goes into youth programs to help them become more efficient and better at what they’re doing,” he said.
Never one to pass on an opportunity to raise funds for youth programs, Phil placed the winning bid on a painting offered in a silent auction hosted at an American Holstein Association Meeting. The painting named, “Foster Mothers of the Human Race,” depicts how agriculture impacts the world and in particular youth.
“This was a must-have for us,” he said.
Leading by example
Ultimately, it’s those who lead by doing that leave lasting impressions for generations to come. And Phil is no exception. When the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association launched the Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program, Phil admits that his first response was to throw the letter in the trash. When he returned to the office the next day, he had second thoughts. Instead of ignoring the start-up certification program, he enrolled and completed the online course in eight hours on one Sunday.
“I knew that I needed to step up and take a leadership role,” he said.
He was the first in New York to complete the training. Now he requires every intern to complete this online training and the Beef Quality Assurance certification prior to finishing their internship. Aside from embracing programs that need early buy-in, he pursues state and national leadership roles. In November 2012, he was elected to serve as president of the American Angus Association for 2013.
“It was pretty hard to get elected. New York only has three votes at the national level,” he said. “I had to work really hard to get to know people. It was a very cool experience.”
Although his term on the national level is finished, he currently serves as the vice president of the New York Beef Producer’s Association.
In the nearly 50 years that have passed since Phil’s ground-breaking sixth grade science project, a lot has changed in the industry. Residential and commercial development encroaches on farmland, technology propels efficiencies forward and the majority of the general population is at least one generation removed from agriculture.
Each decade brings its own set of challenges, but Phil believes that now, more than ever, farmers have to get better at reaching out to non-farmers.
“We’re terrible at telling our story,” he said. “If we don’t take the lead, we may not like the story that’s told.”
A few years ago, a reporter from The New York Times and USA Today visited Trowbridge Farms as part of a press event sponsored by the New York Beef Industry Council. As Phil led a tour around the farm, one of the young reporters turned to Phil and asked, “When did you start putting cattle on grass?”
“That’s when it really struck me that as an industry we don’t do enough to share our story,” he said.
Throughout his career, Phil has dedicated himself to elevating the Angus breed to new heights of greatness.
On the Trowbridge Farms website, an industry expert is quoted as saying: “In a short time, Trowbridge completely revitalized the grand old tradition of Angus families from a new and innovative perspective. It’s no accident the Trowbridge Angus Farms’ animals are considered to be an elite herd of super cattle, legendary in the industry.”