Sonderup: A Pedigree All Their Own
Sonderup: A Pedigree All Their Own
The agonizing decision to disperse comes with both anxiety and relief. Tom and Sandy Sonderup felt that and more as they watched 150 head of Charolais females leave their Fullerton, Nebraska, ranch in November.
By Lindsay Humphrey
The success story that is Sonderup Charolais Ranch Inc. today was first forged by Vern Sonderup who was a pioneer of the times. The natural-born farmer helped introduce central Nebraska to irrigation and did it in a big way.
“My dad was an extremely hard worker, a farmer through and through,” said Vern’s son, Tom Sonderup, who now owns and manages the operation. “He first started with underground wells to feed the pivots before he started using the Loup River.”
At one point, Vern had nine pumps with 23 miles of irrigation pipe moving water from the river to 5,500 acres of farm ground. At their largest capacity, it took four harvesters to process all the fall crops.
At the same time, they were feeding 2,000 head of fat cattle. While Vern may have gotten the family started in cattle, it was Tom who took it to a whole new level and forged a path all his own.
The first Charolais bull on Sonderup property was purchased in 1962.
“I took my first Charolais to the Nance County Fair and he was grand champion steer of the entire show and also won rate of gain and the carcass contest,” Tom said. “I’ve been hooked ever since. Back in the 60s, they were very uncommon. We were about the first ones in the area to have Charolais.”
Where Vern was a gifted farmer, Tom was his equal as a cattleman. As an eighth grader, Tom got started in FFA and began to build the iconic Sonderup Charolais herd.
“It was technically my father’s project because he bought the bull, but I started putting together a registered herd in the early 70s when I was in high school,” Tom said. “I guess it’s all I’ve ever really known.”
Before that single bull changed the face of Sonderup forever, Vern ran 150 head of his own commercial cattle. Tom’s well-rounded knowledge of both purebred and commercial cattle is a combination of hands-on experience at home and his degree from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.
“I knew Tom’s parents in high school, but I got to know him in college when we were both showing at the Nebraska State Fair,” said Greg Hubert who’s managed Tom’s female sale for 20 of the last 35 years. “Tom was just a jovial guy, always smiling and always friendly. He’s absolutely the same now as he was back then.”
After college graduation – 1976 – Tom started managing the Tri R Cattle Co. herd. He started with only 27 cows but grew it to 150 in just eight years.
“We took that herd in on shares and the production records from it helped me earn my American Farmer Degree in FFA,” Tom said. “In the late 70s, we bought 100 head of cows from the Bauman Ranch in Wyoming. That’s how we really got started in the purebred business.”
Function Over Fiction
Known for adopting AI and ET technology early, Tom had his work cut out for him in those first few years. During AI season, Tom spent a lot of time on a horse.
“The way we were set up for AI, we had to bring each cow in individually horseback through a bunch of canyons and ditches,” Tom said. “I remember one time we had a cow jump a fence and ended up a mile and a half north of the corral. We had her stretched between two ropes and then AI’d her right there on the ground.”
Somehow, that cow ended up pregnant. It’s one of those memories Tom thinks about with a chuckle and a shake of his head because it just doesn’t make any sense.
“I remember another time in the early years with cows I took in on lease, I was elbow deep trying to AI a cow when a calf started sucking my finger,” Tom said with a hearty laugh. “She was about 24 hours from calving. We thought she was in heat, but obviously we were wrong. I was young and just getting started.”
While those are some of the things Tom will remember about Sonderup Charolais, his peers have an entirely different view of him and the herd.
“When I think of Sonderup cattle, broody mama cows come to mind first,” Greg said. “I think people know they can breed them to any kind of bull and depend on them to take care of their calves and raise them to a heavy weaning weight.”
It was easy for breeders to use outcross sires on Sonderup females knowing they would still get a calf that would perform.
“I think people recognized that Tom raised good cattle and got to know him based off that,” Greg added.
For almost 50 years now, Sonderup had cattle at the Denver National Stock Show. This was the place Tom discovered the formula that worked for him and his customers.
“In the early 80s I ran into a rancher from Montana out there and he was trying to select cattle with linear measurements (a system of taking a variety of measurements on cattle to help the producer select for traits such as low maintenance, desirable weaning weight percent of mother, etc). That’s been our theme ever since,” Tom said about their shared desire to tie feed efficiency, red meat yield, reproductive efficiency and performance into one animal. “At the time, there were about eight or nine breeders [all of different breeds] using the same system across the country.”
The group met back up at Denver to compare results. Bulls of every breed stood side-by-side with almost no distinguishable differences.
“You could’ve painted them all purple, and they would’ve looked the exact same,” Tom said. “That impressed me so that’s why I’ve used the linear measurement system since 1981.”
Tom was the youngest of that group and now he’s the last to disperse. With four daughters all pursuing careers off the ranch, selling the female herd was the best way for Tom and Sandy to slow down after a lifetime on the ranch.
“It’s a hard decision to make but it’s also a bit of a relief,” Tom said. “We’re both over 65, so our bodies kind of nag at us more than they used to.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Tom isn’t getting completely out of the cattle business. He’ll continue his bull operation into the foreseeable future.
“Bull calves come in the fall, and I grow them out and collect data on them for the production sale in the spring,” Tom said. “This coming spring will be our 42nd sale.”
More than 85 percent of Sonderup customers are repeats and they feed out their own calves until harvest. Just like their customer base, Tom’s goals and his cattle haven’t changed much over the years.
“Tom is a successful rancher because he always bred what he believed to be the right kind of cattle, he didn’t chase the show ring,” Greg said. “He uses the pedigrees that he knows work for him. His pedigrees aren’t known throughout the U.S. like others because he has Sonderup pedigrees.”
It was Tom’s favorite bull of his career – RFR Royal Ranger 726 – who put Sonderup on the map as a production-based herd. The bull was 10 years old when Tom got him, and he was still out working in the cow pasture at 17 years old.
“Him  and his ancestors helped start the breed,” Tom said. “I’ve always enjoyed how you can change the looks and production of a cow herd simply through selection both good and bad. It can change drastically; that’s the amazing part of it all.”
Sonderup Charolais has always been conscious of what’s profitable at the packing house. That goal won’t change even though they don’t have a female herd anymore.
“Whether you’re marketing your calves at weaning, backgrounding and feeding in the yard, selling fat cattle or producing replacements for the industry, those cornerstones will never change,” Tom said.