Sunnyslope managing partner Keith Ekstrom, at left, is shown with Ruth and Phil Abrahamson.
Sunnyslope managing partner Keith Ekstrom, at left, is shown with Ruth and Phil Abrahamson.
To stay competitive in the cattle market, you have to keep building on what you're doing.

That's the philosophy that has helped Philip Abrahamson, a fourth-generation Angus breeder, to keep his historic farm going.

Phil and wife, Ruth, are the current stewards of Sunnyslope Angus Farm near Lanesboro, which has been in Phil's family for nearly 150 years.

The Abrahamsons were recently honored with the American Angus Association's Century Award, during a special ceremony in Louisville, Ky.

The history

Few families can access such a well-documented history of their ancestors' agricultural heritage.

Philip's grandfather, Peter Abrahamson (son of Iver Abrahamson Rustad), established the Sunnyslope Angus herd in 1898 after purchasing two registered Angus cattle: Duke of Lanesboro, a bull, and Ivy of Canton II, a heifer.

Peter's skill at raising superior cattle was chronicled in a 1902 article in the Lanesboro paper.

"The Aberdeen Angus is the breed that is now kept at the Sunny Slope Stock Farm, which is owned by Peter Abrahamson, who has succeeded well in his calling. This farm is three miles Southeast of Lanesboro. It is a beautifully rolling farm and lies at the head of one of the canons that leads up in the direction named from the valley of the Root River in Lanesboro.

"Mr. Abrahamson has been successfully engaged in mixed farming for years, and has made good money by growing swine and fattening steers. While thus engaged he noticed that steers of Angus blood made good feeders and finished well and thus led to his investment in this type of cattle," said the article..

The article goes on to say the state of Minnesota has been "way behind in the establishment of herds of this breed ..."

The article next indicates that while the public is accustomed to finding such good breeding stock on the farms of men from England or Scotland, "Mr. Abrahamson is from neither. He belongs to that most valued class of trusty, reliable, frugal and industrious citizens, the Scandinavians, who has [sic] done so much for the upbuilding of the agricultural interests of the Northwest."

Peter was also instrumental in launching the Minnesota Angus Association in 1915, serving as its first secretary.

Family archives

In 1998, Philip and Ruth's daughter, Julie (Ekstrom), compiled Sunnyslope: A Norwegian Legacy, which chronicles her ancestors' efforts at Sunnyslope.

Included in the book are beautiful excerpts from Peter's diary, spanning from 1893 to 1924.

While many of the entries are perfunctory and mundane, many include entries which signal the traditions of the time. He writes of births, deaths, baptisms, planting of crops, selling of livestock, travel to meetings and more.

"April 29,1903 - Mother's funeral today ... 35 teams by the house."

Four days later Peter attended another funeral:

"May 3, 1903 - Emile Ulsaker's funeral today ... about 2,000 people at the church."

"January 13, 1904 - This morning Mr. Lovejoy of Illinois talked on swine husbandry (at a meeting in Minneapolis) and the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in Washington talked on what this department was doing for the country..."

"February 4, 1904 - Elsie commenced to say Ma Ma ..."

"April 14, 1904 - Lawler bot [sic] a bull, made a crate and shipped him on noon train ..."

Third generation

In Julie's book, she says Peter's son (and Philip's father), Arnold's generation experienced "the most radical advancement in American farming techniques.

"Around the turn of the century, mechanical advances for the farmer yielded larger and larger machines that required a more efficient power source to pull them than horses could provide; thus steam power was implemented as a solution ... For short-distance travel, hauling loads and general farm tasks, horses still did the job."

After attending Gale College in Galesville, Wis., and the School of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Arnold was drafted for training at Fort Snelling. A 1917 mishap with a threshing machine, which severed his thumb, may be the reason he was never sent to Europe for service.

In the 20s and 30s, Arnold was sent to farm his father's 800 acres in North Dakota, land he had acquired during a trade for a café in Lanesboro. He managed the home farm after his father's death in 1938 and purchased the farm in 1946.

He sold Angus bulls and heifers at private treaty and many of the herd sires he used were purchased from Iowa breeders. Sires were also purchased from Viewlawn Farms of Mabel, Campbell Brothers in Utica and later, Jorgensons of Ideal, S.D.

Fourth generation

After attaining a Technical Certificate in Agriculture from the College of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota in 1964, it was Philip's turn to run the farm, as the health of his parents was failing. His mother, Thalma, died in 1965 and his father, Arnold, died in 1969.

Philip began steering the farm and its herd of Angus into a new arena of agriculture, performance testing.

In 1960, he studied under Dr. J.C. Meiske of the University of Minnesota to develop a method, modeled closely after the Angus Herd Improvement Record (AHIR) program, for creating genetic advancement of Angus cattle through scientific measurement along with visual perspective. That fall, the first weaned calves were weighed and graded through the AHIR.

For Philip, it seemed like a logical step.

"I felt performance was the way to the future," said Philip.

Over the years, Philip hosted a number of field days at Sunnyslope so other farmers could observe the weighing and grading techniques of the cattle. He also participated in things like a video project, which was used to educate others about this new system of improving herd genetics.

A new partner

On Dec. 27, 1969, Philip married Ruth Ann Severson from Tyler.

"We met on a blind date set up by one of Philip's customers," said Ruth.

Ruth, who came from a small farming operation, had left her family's farm after graduating to pursue a career in accounting.

"I kind of vowed I'd never go back to the farm. One of the biggest surprises for me is by the time we'd been married for two or three years, I was helping out almost full-time around here," said Ruth.

"It didn't make sense for me to work in town to pay a hired man to work here, when I could help out."

The Abrahamsons had two daughters, Julie and Jess.

Following a rough time economically in the mid-1970s, Phil and Ruth questioned the viability of their operation. After much deliberation, they decided to double the size of their herd and install an automated feeding system.

With the help of Michael Fraser, a foreign exchange student from New Zealand, the Abrahamsons made many upgrades to the historic farmstead.

"Over the years we have been blessed with great workers, such as Magnus Skjereth of Norway, John Overland, Steve Rahn, Bob Brose, Jerome Halvorson, Jim Borgen, Mark Groen and Mike Graner. We also thank Jerry Dragvold, who has worked with us on and off for years, Dawson Grabau, who did the weighing and grading for many years, and Steve Middlebrook who helped with the freezebranding," said Phil.

In addition to the automated feeding system, Sunnyslope benefitted from computerized reports (1960), freeze branding (1975), artificial insemination (1976), night feeding of the cows so they would give birth during the daytime (1983) and a computerized mating system for artificial breeding (1992).

During the 60 and 70s, Phil was the secretary-treasurer of the Southeast Minnesota Angus Association. In 1976, Ruth and Phil became charter members of a performance group of breeders called Ideal Beef Systems.

Performance production

In 1978, Philip and Ruth held their first-ever production sale at the Lanesboro Sale Barn, which is still being held today.

The first two bulls of note in the early sales were Super X (SS RITO 8221 X01) and SS Traveler 6T6 who sold to Robert and Larry Miller of Viewlawn Angus in Mabel.

The bull became an ABS Sire and Oklahoma State University used his semen and produced OSU 6T6 Ultra, the 1995 National Western Champion bull at Denver.

Later came SS Traveler 6807 T510, the top-selling bull for Semex USA for two years. His son, SS Objective T510 0T26, an ABS sire, reached greater heights and now ranks No. 8 in the Angus breed with 31,362 registered progeny.

"A son of Objective, SS Incentive 9J17, is the latest bull we are watching. Sons of his have done very well recently in bull station tests," Philip noted.

A number of the bull's sons were top-selling bulls at the 1994 National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo., the largest stock show in the nation.

In 1983, Philip was named Minnesota Purebred Cattleman of the Year by the Minnesota Beef Cattle Improvement Association. In 1984, he was recognized for excellence by the National Beef Improvement Federation. In 1998, Philip's family was recognized as a University of Minnesota Farm Family.

Computer-assisted

By 1990, neighbor and friend Ed Taylor suggested Phil and Ruth get a computer.

Since then, the Abrahamsons have utilized a number of programs for beef producers.

"It has proved to be very important," said Phil, who today spends much of his time using computer data to improve his herd's performance.

He also uses genomic testing, such as the Pfizer 50K test which can look at 50,000 different genetic markers. This information can add to the expected progeny differences (EPD), which are derived by individual measure, progeny date, pedigree and genomic results.

"Genomics have added several advantages: You can get EPD information at a very young age, increase the EPD accuracy and get EPDs on hard-to-measure traits" said Phil.

He also relies on sire evaluation results and computer-assisted matings.

Other activities

When not on the farm, the Abrahamsons were always extremely active in family and community activities.

Phil has served as treasurer of Holt Township for the past 48 years.

He has also served as past president of the Elstad Lutheran church council and as a Sunday school teacher.

He is past Fillmore County Cattlemen President and as Southeast Minnesota Angus Association secretary and treasurer. He has also served as sales manager for the Southeast Minnesota Angus Association and vice president of the Forage and Grasslands Council. He is currently a delegate to the Angus annual meeting in Louisville, Ky.

Ruth was a past 4-H leader, advisor and was active with the Fillmore County Cattle Women. She was very involved in the farm and continues to be very active in the church.

Keeping it going

Phil and Ruth, now in their 70s, are still active on the farm.

Today, they rely on their daughter, Julie, and son-in-law, Keith Ekstrom, who is a managing partner in the farm. They look forward to their four grandchildren, the sixth generation of Abrahamsons, to be involved with the farm.

Phil is still diligent in his work with the Angus Information Software, and he is constantly utilizing data to enhance the herd.

A meticulous record keeper, Phil says while looks are important, numbers are key.

"In the 1960s, we started performance testing that became the new way of raising cattle. We have pretty much stuck with that and it's the way we've been able to keep going around here . . . the cattle at this place pay the bills," he said.

Sunnyslope's 36th annual production sale is scheduled to take place this year on Monday, June 3, at 1 p.m.

For more history and information about Sunnyslope, one is welcome to visit their website at ssangus.com.