John Zilverberg

The late John Zilverberg, a former Marine and rancher in South Dakota. 

Ranching is a taxing business. On top of the work, many producers are parents, children, husbands and wives, board members, volunteers and active in their communities. For John Zilverberg of Bar JZ Ranches, life was about expanding opportunities, often for others’ benefit.

Zilverberg passed away last October at age 106 in Highmore, South Dakota after decades of work in dozens of fields across the U.S. Born Aug. 2, 1913, Zilverberg grew up bouncing around South Dakota until he landed in Hyde County, where he began work on the ranch north of Holabird, South Dakota.

As the 1930s rolled around and the family was forced to abandon their crop in 1934, and Zilverberg headed to Iowa to hand-pick corn for 3 cents a bushel. From there, like many Americans in 1941, a calling to fight back against Axis aggression in World War II led him to the Marines. Ranching was put on hold while he served the next four years, mostly in the South Pacific.

It wasn’t until after the war that Zilverberg returned to ranching, a new man with a different outlook on his opportunities. He worked with his brother, David, for a few years until they bought the operation from their parents Jake and Lutske. That is when Bar JZ Ranches took off and Zilverberg began his legacy in the industry.

The family are first and foremost polled Hereford breeders. Zilverberg was inducted into the National Polled Hereford Hall of Fame in 1994 for his extended contributions to the Hereford breed. Ultimately, his son, Don, has continued on that legacy to this day.

“We believe Dad would want his legacy to be his endurance and competitive spirit in his final years,” Don and his wife, Peg, said in an email exchange. “To us, his family, it is also his kindness, patience, and willingness to share his blessings with the less fortunate.”

He did not believe in complacency. He continued to learn throughout his life and try new ideas that led Bar JZ to Limousin cattle in the 1970s. Zilverberg was one of the founding 100 members of the North American Limousin Foundation and to this day, Bar JZ is one of three of the original 100 members to still actively raise Limousin cattle.

“He saw the breed as having the characteristics to add value to the cattle industry,” Don and Peg said. “This was not a popular move by at least one polled Hereford breeder who expressed his dissatisfaction.”

But the opportunities didn’t stop there. Zilverberg quickly adopted artificial insemination and used it on the ranch when it was first introduced. He would often weigh each individual head of cattle long before digital scales so he could accurately keep track of how he was doing.

“We used to get impatient with him when we were using the old fashioned scale with the sliding weigh bar,” they said.

Because of his desire to collect more information on his herd, the ranch was one of the first the family new to start using a computer for recordkeeping.

“Moving all the manual recordkeeping to the computer was a huge step in the right direction,” his family said.

While he didn’t actually do the computer data entry himself, he was on board with the new technology and appreciated the fact that it made paperwork easier and more complete, they said.

As retirement age approached and it came time to slow down, Zilverberg officially stepped down in 2000, although that was not the end of his story. Before retirement, Zilverberg began the Bar JZ Bowling Team, which competed locally up until 2012. He was inducted into the South Dakota Bowling Hall of Fame later that year.

Bowling wasn’t the only sport that Zilverberg excelled at. He competed in South Dakota senior games, winning medals in hammer throw, discus, javelin and shot put, as well as bowling. He and his brother were inducted into the South Dakota State Senior Hames Hall of Fame in 2005.

In 2007, John began competing nationally and won many awards over 12 years. His last senior games were in 2018, where he competed at 105 years old.

Games, ranching and learning were all in a pursuit of more knowledge and understanding for John Zilverberg. But giving back was also important. The John Zilverberg Family Foundation was started through the South Dakota Community Foundation. Bi-annually, the Zilverbergs give back in Johns’s name to numerous organizations around Highmore.

“His generosity has made Highmore and Hyde County a better place to live,” Don and Peg said.

As a man known locally as a ranching legend and nationwide as the embodiment of a fighting spirit, Don and Peg said that he remained humble and conservative his whole life.

“John was not that different than any other good father. He taught us the value of hard work, helping others, saving and taking care of the land,” they said. “He lived his life in a conservative manner, placing little value on material possessions.”

John is survived by his children Marci Wiedebush, Donald Zilverberg, Karen Geditz, Gary Zilverberg, as well as 13 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and his sister Janette Kubat Patterson.