A Century Strong | TSLN.com

A Century Strong

Amanda Radke
for Tri-State Livestock News
Don scratches herd bull, Hey Jack.

John Zilverberg a winner at Senior Games

More than 12,000 athletes from across the nation competed at the 2015 National Senior Games in Minneapolis, Minn., on July 3-16, 2015. Among them was retired South Dakota rancher John Zilverberg, who at age 102, was the oldest athlete to compete at the games.

Proof that age is just a number, Zilverberg didn’t go to the games to just participate, he came home with some hardware, winning gold medals in hammer throw and bowling as well as silver medals in discus, shot put, and javelin. As the oldest competitor, Zilverberg received national attention with Fox News, CBS and NBC calling to learn more about how an old cowboy has stayed in such great shape.

“This year at the Games was special for me as the oldest competitor because I got to lead the South Dakota delegation and carry the flag in the parade of athletes,” said Zilverberg. “I also got to lead the ‘Oath of Athletes’ from the center of the ball field.”

Zilverberg’s performance at the games is pretty impressive, considering he battled and conquered a hospital stay this winter with pneumonia, but daughter-in-law Peg Zilverberg says the games motivated John to get healthy and fight through the illness.

“John has always been very active and not afraid of manual labor,” said Peg. “He looks forward to the games every year, and I think that’s what keeps him physically and mentally strong.”

His story has been an inspiration to many, and Peg says the media attention surrounding John’s participation at the games has been fun for the family.

“We’ve gotten so many phone calls after word spread that John was the oldest competitor at 102-years old,” she said. “It’s been kind of fun and given John a good chuckle.”

John Zilverberg is no stranger to hard work. He watched his parents, Jake and Lutske, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1910, build a life as farmers near Springfield, Trippe and Wessington Springs, South Dakota. The second oldest of five children, he grew up wanting to be a cowboy. So in 1928 when his father asked if John wanted to go to school or buy a ranch, it was an easy decision for him.

“When my dad asked me what I wanted to do, I chose ranching, and we moved to our current ranch north of Holabird, South Dakota,” said Zilverberg. “In those days we did everything with horses including putting up all the hay and a little farming. I wanted to be a cowboy so I broke all the broncs that Dad brought home. Shortly after we came to Holabird, my three brothers and myself formed a baseball team with a few of the neighbor boys, and we played baseball every Sunday and holiday. I also ran a trap line to make a little money. When we got enough money, my brother, Dave, and I bought a Ford car. The car allowed us to go to barn dances in the area. On the way home, we would shoot jackrabbits and sometimes would get home at daylight with a trunk-full of rabbits. When we got home, we had to get the milk cows in and start milking.”

Ranching and some fun in between kept Zilverberg and his brothers busy until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and led the boys to fight in World War II.

“I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served four years with a large part of it in the South Pacific Islands,” Zilverberg said. “When the war ended, I went back to the ranch with my new bride, Dorothy, and went into the purebred cattle business raising registered Herefords. Later, when Limousin cattle were introduced to the U.S., I became a founder member of the North American Limousin Foundation and raised registered Limousin cattle in addition to my Herefords.”

In 1994, Zilverberg was inducted into the National Polled Hereford Hall of Fame for his contributions to the breed. His family, including son Don and his wife Peg, and his grandson, Seth, today operate the family outfit, Bar JZ Ranches.

“When we started ranching at Holabird, we mowed hay with a five-foot mower pulled by two horses and raked it the same way,” Zilverberg said. “Hayracks brought hay to the place after we had pitched it on by hand and unloaded it by pitching it into the hay loft. When winter came, we pitched the hay back onto a rack pulled by a team and pitched it off when we got to the cows. Farming was also done with teams of two to six horse teams depending on the type of implement we were using. We didn’t have fences to contain our cattle, so I spent a lot of time horseback keeping the cows close to home. In 1947, we lost most of our hay and pasture to a large prairie fire that consumed a large part of northern Hyde county. We had to rent land farther from home and put up hay for the winter. We got the hay into bucker piles and then got caught by an early winter storm that froze the hay to the ground and made it very hard to pick up. By that time, the booster buck had been invented, so my brother and I went to Harrold and bought a booster buck which made picking up the hay a lot easier. This was considered a great modern invention for the time.”

Today, Bar JZ has moved to modern technologies. The operation was a leader in advancement from the beginning. Bar JZ was one of the first herds to adopt an official performance program, long before breed associations were offering such programs. The Zilverbergs have been using artificial insemination since 1963, and today, they AI a large portion of the herd.

“We also use embryo transfer to get more calves from our top-producing females,” Don Zilverberg said. “Recently, we have been using DNA testing to identify particular traits in our cattle. We have an annual sale selling about 100 Polled Hereford, Limousin and LimFlex bulls and some open and bred females.” Bar JZ Tradition 434V has been one of the most noteworthy animals raised on the place, he believes. “This Polled Hereford bull gained national recognition as a superior maternal sire and sold thousands of units of semen. The goal of the operation has always been to raise functionally sound cattle that have the performance to make a profit for the commercial cattleman and a phenotype that is pleasing to look at — good feet, good udders and good disposition.”

The ranch website, http://www.barjz.com, is maintained by Peg, with help from three sons, Seth, Cody and Kevin.

Cody works for Texas AgriLife and lives in Temple, Texas, with his wife Wesley and daughters Lydia and Caroline. The family anticipate a move to Pierre in 2016, where Wesley will work as a dermatologist for Avera. Cody wrote the program the ranch uses to keep records of cattle performance, buyer informant and other data for the ranch.

Kevin is a Catholic Priest and is currently working as a professor at the St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. Fr. Kevin developed the Bar JZ website and continues to offer computer advise to Peg.

Seth takes and edits the photographs and videos of sale cattle for the website. So, Bar JZ is really a family affair, with everyone contributing their unique skill set to make the ranch the success it is today.

As for John, he moved to town in 1989 but continued to ranch for many years until he sold the last of his cows in 2000. Dorothy passed away, after 63 years of marriage, in 2008. To keep busy, Zilverberg started golfing at 75 and joined a bowling team in Highmore. He’s always up for a game of pool at the Senior Center, and he makes exercise a priority.

“To stay in shape, I run and do some exercises daily,” John said. “I have a big garden and yard to take care of at my home. To keep my mind sharp, I do a lot of reading and write a weekly column in the local paper and have an occasional letter printed in other papers. My brother introduced me to the Senior Games in 1985, and I have not missed a year since. I like the activity, the competition and reuniting with old friends at the games. I have been to five National Senior Games, which are held every other year. I compete in track and field (discus, shot put, javelin, softball throw, hammer throw), bowling, horseshoes and shuffle board. Until two years ago, I also ran the 100-meter race. I have nine gold medals and several silver and bronze medals acquired at Nation Senior Games competitions.”

Good genes, a strong family support system, a determination to stay fit and healthy, and a tenacious work ethic have been the secrets to John’s seemingly endless energy. F