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Consistency Counts | May/June 2023

By Sarah Hill

Photos courtesy Burns Farms

Burns Farms is the largest Hereford breeder in the Southeast and produces rugged, low maintenance cattle that work in different climates.

Tucked in the Sequatchie Valley of eastern Tennessee, near Pikeville, you’ll find Burns Farms, a Hereford herd that is the largest registered Hereford breeder in the Southeast. This humble family has built a legacy to be proud of, and it all started with a 4-H project in 1952.

Building a Legacy

Under the guidance of his father, Randel, who was an extension agent, Phillip Burns bought two Hereford heifers in the Duck River Hereford Association sale. With that purchase, a love for Hereford cattle was born. A little more than two decades later, Phillip married his wife, Gayanne. Gayanne’s parents thought she was marrying a farmer, having no idea that Phillip was actually a doctor, because most of the couple’s conversations were about cattle.

“My dad had a passion for both cattle and medicine,” David Burns, son of Phillip and Gayanne, said. “He was Chairman of the Department of Surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga.”

Phillip and Gayanne built up the Hereford herd, growing the operation from 800 acres to 3,500 acres and 600 cows. Phillip encouraged David’s love for cattle, leading to David winning the coveted junior national show in 1997, taking champion heifer and senior showmanship honors. David continued showing while pursuing a degree in Animal Science at Middle Tennessee State University and obtained his Master’s degree in Reproductive Physiology from Michigan State University in 2004.

David’s sister, Sarah Burns Bernard, focuses on the business details for the cattle operation and manages freezer beef sales. She and her husband, Dr. Matt Bernard, visit the farm often with their children, Nolan, Lily, and Caroline.

In addition to beef sales, David also provides consulting services to other cattle breeders who want to make their cattle operation management more successful.

Cutting Edge EPDs

Today, David carries on the legacy of Burns Farms and has taken the operation to another level. He supervised the construction of a sale barn after becoming farm manager in 2009. In 2014, he expanded the embryo transfer and artificial insemination programs to push the genetic boundaries even further. The herd is still predominantly Hereford, but 150 of the cows are Angus.

“Every time I make a mating, I think, ‘Can I sell this as a bull?’” David said. “We’re looking for balanced numbers and sound, functional cattle that are stout and ruggedly made.” Burns Farms provides genetically enhanced EPDs on all their bulls, and they seek to be on the cutting edge when it comes to EPDs, while keeping an eye on phenotype and balance.

“The bull buying public is still looking for birth to growth spread, and most of our customers sell their cattle around weaning,” David said. “As responsible registered Hereford breeders, we focus on all the traits, including carcass traits that are important further down the supply chain.”

Burns Farm purchased Potency, the high selling bull at the American Hereford Association’s annual Big League Genetics Sale in 2020 from Double Seven Ranch in Oklahoma. Many of their matings use Potency, which David said is a good bull for calving ease. “He produces stout cattle with good structure that are really functional,” David said. “We also sell a lot of Potency semen.”

Inception is another bull that Burns Farms uses in their breeding program that is a bull with big growth and good marbling. Inception was the lead bull in the pen of 5 bulls that took Champion Pen of 5 at Cattlemen’s Congress.

“Inception is a big-boned, heavily muscled kind of bull,” David added. “He complements Potency quite well in matings. He’s interesting because he has some show bloodlines but expresses them in a functional, progressive way and has good EPDs. Inception has the look that we’re looking for.”

Burns Farms utilizes embryo transfer extensively as part of their breeding program. Registered Hereford cows have to meet a high standard, or they become recipient cows. “ET helps us push our genetic envelope faster,” David said. “We’re increasing the use of our donor cows as much as we can.”

Pasture Fed & Low Maintenance

Despite feed costs going up across the beef industry, Burns Farms has focused on feeding an entirely silage-based diet for their bulls and females. During the winter, cows receive supplements in addition to hay. “Our cattle are fed on pastures and made to exercise,” David said. “We don’t put them in a feedlot. They get a silage total mixed ration (TMR).”

Burns Farms predominantly fall calves their herd, and momma cows are expected to calve on their own, without intervention. David said he wants to raise low maintenance cattle.

Herds Across the U.S.

Until 2009, all sales for Burns Farms were through private treaty. That all changed with the construction of a sale barn. Today, the operation hosts three sales throughout the year: a female sale held in May, a customer appreciation sale hosted in September, and the annual bull sale in November.

“During our customer appreciation sale, we like to support the people who support us, and it’s nice to give smaller breeders a marketing option,” David said. “The bull sale sells 100 to 120 bulls, both Hereford and Angus.”

“Our cattle end up in herds from Montana to Florida,” added David’s wife, Katie. “It’s a big deal to be able to have that kind of reach and for the ability of our cows to work in different climates. David raises the cattle to be that natural, out on the land, do-it-yourself type of cattle.”

Burns Farms has also enjoyed considerable showring success over the decades at all levels. That consistent success has now translated into selling show heifers for junior customers. Many of those juniors have gone on to win their classes or place in the top spots.

The future looks bright for Burns Farms. David said they are satisfied with cow numbers, their direction, marketing plan and strategy, so they’re going to continue improving their bull base to produce solid, rugged bulls that will go out and work for breeders.

“The consistency of quality that David provides is always on target with a focus on functional cattle,” Katie added. “It’s hard to find consistency—some herds are up and down with their quality, but ours is always consistent.”

“That consistency is important to us,” David said. “We’ve been selling bulls for more than 70 years, so we have a very consistent client base, and our reputation means a lot to us.”

13th Annual Female Event:

Saturday, May 13, 2023 | 12:00 noon near Pikeville, Tenn.

learn more at

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