A lifelong love of livestock and dedication to improving the beef industry are the hallmarks of our 2016 Farm Family honorees.
Through his upbringing on a southeast Nebraska farm to extensive animal science and nutrition training and three degree programs, our honoree laid the groundwork for his passion in livestock production.
Born Nov. 22, 1942 at Milligan, Neb., to Ed and Bessie Svajgr, Al Svajgr was the middle child of three children. His education began at District 22 near Diller.
He grew up working on his parents’ Jefferson County farm and was especially fond of working with the animals there. He showed cattle and hogs in 4-H and was involved in the FFA at Diller High School.
He graduated from Diller Rural High School in 1960 and received an associate’s degree from Fairbury Junior College in 1962. He went on to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he was active in Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science.
While attending UNL he met his wife, Judy Smith from Cozad, and they were married in 1966. They had one son, Jeff.
Svajgr went on to obtain his master’s degree in animal science and nutrition from UNL and while working on his degree he was manager of the UNL Swine Research Center.
The Svajgrs moved to Kentucky in 1968 so Al could begin work on his doctorate in animal science and nutrition at the University of Kentucky. During this time he was also an Extension Swine Specialist there.
Upon receiving his doctorate in 1971, Al accepted a position with Continental Grain in Chicago, as a research specialist and assistant director of research. After six years in the Windy City and Northern Illinois the Svajgrs moved to Cozad.
He joined his father-in-law, Juhl Smith, in the family cattle feeding and ranching operation. Juhl was a well-known cattleman and businessman.
An eternal optimist and lover of a good deal, Smith was born in 1918 at Cozad where he grew up and attended Cozad schools. He began farming in 1940 using a team and wagon. In 1942 he married Vera Kampfe and they were the parents of three children, Judy, Virginia and Chris.
With the support of his father-in-law Oswald Kampfe, Juhl purchased his first group of cattle in 1944. He fed cattle in wooden bunks with a wagon and scoop shovel for several years.
Judy often joined her Dad by the three cattle pens they started with on the home place. As the operation grew, Juhl purchased 10 acres of hillside on land adjoining the home place and built five pens with fence-line bunks. He put up an elevator leg and bins next to the barn.
Beginning in 1959 and continuing through 1988, Juhl purchased ranch land north of Cozad so the growing operation would have adequate pasture.
During the 40s, 50s and 60s, Juhl would always buy and feed some two-year-olds, usually around 1,000 pounds when purchased off the grass in the Sandhills. The most profit per head he recorded was $197 and the biggest loss was in 1953-54 when he bought yearlings for $42.50 and sold them fat for $18.
Juhl especially liked the pasture phase of his operation and his family notes he would spend many summer days spraying musk thistles or taking a break by the old sod house with his son, Chris.
When Al and Judy returned to Nebraska in 1977 the cattle feeding and ranching expanded. Soon cattle became the only product sold from the operation, which consisted of irrigated corn and alfalfa, pasture and silage, all of which were consumed by the cattle. Five hundred pound calves were purchased, backgrounded, summered on grass and finished for market in December, January and February.
Not only was irrigated farmland added to the operation, but pasture ground in both Dawson and Custer Counties, as well as feeding facilities northeast of Cozad, notes Al.
In the late 1970s Svajgr started a company called Agrow, Inc., that is still actively involved in farming, ranching, backgrounding and the cattle feeding business. They grow feed for roughly 8,000 cattle fed through the operation each year.
In 1982 Al was one of the original owners of Darr Feedlot, northeast of Darr. The original purchase was a bankrupt facility with about 3,500 head capacity. Through the past 34 years it has been expanded to the present 45,000-head capacity, notes Svajgr.
Juhl’s business sense had him involved in a variety of operations in Cozad beyond the livestock and farm. He was co-owner of Cozad Elevator Co. during the 1960s and a minority owner of First National Bank of Cozad. In 1968 he became co-owner of First Bank and Trust of Cozad.
Al notes, “We lost Juhl in 2000, but he never lost his passion for cattle ranching and feeding.”
Al lost his wife, Judy, in March of 1997 to cancer. She was only 52 at the time of her death.
Within a year he became acquainted with JoAnn Braun of Lexington, who had lost her husband to cancer in 1996. Jerry and JoAnn Braun had moved to Lexington in 1974 and started a Harvestore business, then sold Harsh Mobile Mixers and associated ag equipment. JoAnn managed the office from 1985 until 1997, when she sold the business.
“You can blame it on a book,” said JoAnn. While she and Al knew of each other because Al was a customer at the ag business, they had never really met.
Both shared Bruce Hart as their attorney and Bruce had mentioned to JoAnn that he thought Al might benefit from reading a book on grief she had told Bruce about.
So JoAnn dropped it off at the law office and Al picked it up and read it. He called JoAnn one night to thank her and the rest, shall we say, is history.
Al and JoAnn were married in July of 1998 and are active in many community, church and civic activities.
Svajgr has been very active in local, state and national organizations. He was a member of the Dawson County T-Bone Club and later president of the Dawson County Cattlemen in 1982.
He served as president of the Nebraska Livestock Feeders Association in 1987 and witnessed their merger with the Nebraska Stock Growers Association and the Nebraska Feedlot Council to form today’s Nebraska Cattlemen’s organization.
John Schroeder noted prior to a previous Svajgr honor, “Al is very passionate about the beef industry and is involved from the ground up and still enjoys the down and dirty part.”
Svajgr is a director of First Bank and Trust Co. in Cozad, and chairman of Midwest Banco Corp., a multi-bank holding company with branches in Cozad, Clay Center, Imperial, Eustis, Cambridge, Colorado Springs and Loveland, Colo.
He continues his interest in education, serving as a guest lecturer for the animal science livestock systems classes at UNL and to graduate students.
After six years on the operating committee and board of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) he was voted in as chairman in 2005 and voiced his passion for the importance of research in the cattle industry.
“Looking back over my last 40 years of feeding cattle in Dawson County, I contrast that today we are marketing choice cattle at 15 to 20 months of age weighing 1,500 pounds compared to then selling three-year-olds that did well to weigh 1,300 pounds at slaughter. Today we are producing more pounds of edible beef with 25 percent fewer cattle in the herd and doing it much more efficiently,” said Svajgr.
“As I look to future generations leading the beef industry, continued research and new advances in science will surely be the main drivers making sure that quality delicious beef on the plate remains a protein of choice around the world. As we now produce our beef for the global market, we must stay ahead of other world competitors. New advances in genetic markers plus advanced products promoting faster and more efficient gains with improved animal health will all be critical keeping we cattle feeders here in the United States as leaders in the world's beef market.
While Svajgrs’ contributions to the livestock industry are many, his support for all of Nebraska agriculture is evident in his membership in and awards and recognition he has received from numerous groups and organizations. Among those are Ag Builders, the Nebraska L.E.A.D. board, Cattlemen’s Ball of Nebraska board, UNL committees and boards, NCTA Advisory board, Cozad Elks Lodge, Cozad Library Building Chairman, Camp Comeca and Cozad Hospital board.
He is a past inductee into both the Dawson County and Nebraska Cattlemen’s Halls of Fame, a UNL Block and Bridle Club honoree, AGR honoree and most recently received the UNL Henry Beachell Distinguished Alumni Award and the Cozad Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award.
The Svajgrs current family consists of Al’s son, Jeff of Omaha, granddaughters Ahnika and Addison and grandson Alex, all of Johnson Lake, JoAnn’s daughter and husband, Joan and Randy Tigges of Lidderdale, Iowa, and daughter Jana and Phil Kopf of rural Lexington, grandson Seth Kopf and granddaughter Jessica and her husband, Nick Mares of Lincoln.
Juhl and Vera’s daughter Virginia, is married to Keith Olson and they live in Colorado Springs, while son, Chris, lives northeast of Cozad on the farm.
Al and JoAnn reside in Cozad and are active members of Christ the King Catholic Church. When not involved with work at the farm or feedlot or going to meetings, the couple enjoy their family, bridge, golf, the Huskers and for Al, his “Blue Chair.”
As he looks to the future of the livestock industry, Svajgr notes, “If we can continue to make as much progress in cattle feeding and management in the future as we have seen in the past 40 years, then cattle feeding will likely be alive and well as a major industry here in Dawson County for many years to come.