The Home-Field Advantage
One of the premier players in the small-pet category, Oxbow Animal Health delivers high-quality nutrition, straight from the Miller family farm.
While the farm-to-table movement has gained a lot of momentum in human cuisine over the past several years, the team at Oxbow Animal Health has always known the value of high-quality nutrition straight from the farm—and it has been delivering just that to small pets for decades. Built on the family farm that John Miller purchased from his uncle, the Murdock, Neb.-based company has leveraged an understanding of wholesome, complete nutrition to evolve from humble beginnings into one of the preeminent suppliers of small-mammal food, treats and supplements into the pet industry.
“We were a pretty typical corn, soybean, hog and cattle farm for most of the early years,” says Miller. “Then in 1980, I got into the commercial alfalfa business and found out that I had a good aptitude for raising premium alfalfa.”
This was an important turning point, as the alfalfa that Miller grew to sell into the commercial dairy and equine markets eventually made its way into the pet trade—thanks, in large part, to the faith that one distributor showed in the superior quality of Miller’s product.
“I was always looking for ways to add more value, and I started looking at the pet market in the mid-to-late 1980s,” explains Miller. “I knew I could put a better premium alfalfa in a little bag than what I was finding in pet stores. At that time, the only hay in pet stores was alfalfa.
“We had a small distributor in Kansas City who agreed to carry the product if I put it in a little bag. So, in 1992, we started packaging 15-ounce bags of premium alfalfa. I am forever thankful to Stanley Wertenberger at Kansas City Pet Supplies for agreeing, because if he had said no, I don’t know if I ever would have gone ahead and tried.”
The company’s foray into the pet trade would eventually lead what was then known as the Oxbow Hay Company to rebrand itself as Oxbow Pet Products in 1998. However, Miller’s vision went even further, and after about a decade of continued innovation in the small-pet nutrition category, the company was again renamed—this time, as Oxbow Animal Health—in 2008, because, as Miller puts it, “Those words better fit the direction that our company was headed and the importance that we put on animal health.”
Apparently, such a focus on animal health in crafting nutritional products for small-mammal pets was something that was too rare in the market before Oxbow made the scene. “A lot of the problems that the veterinarians were seeing were nutrition related,” explains Miller. “The animals were too fat. They didn’t get enough fiber. They didn’t have enough teeth wear. They would have calcium bladder stones.
“A lot of these issues resulted from the fact that most of the diets were based on alfalfa, and they were too full of carbohydrates—too rich and too high in energy. If you are raising an animal for production purposes, these diets are fine, but if you were raising an animal as a pet, and you would like it to live a full life of 12-plus years, the diets were not right.”
Determined to offer a better alternative, Oxbow broadened its assortment to include a wide range of packaged hays, pelleted diets and even nutritional supplements for small-mammal pets.
“Ever since [Oxbow got into the pet business], we have been innovative in the small herbivore market,” says Miller. “We were the first company to bring timothy grass hay into the pet market. We were the first to bring orchard grass hay into the market, and the same goes for oat hay and a couple other hay products. We were also the first to make a complete pellet for rabbits and for guinea pigs out of timothy grass, and we have been the first to make numerous supplements and treats out of timothy.”
Even better, the company is still based right on the Miller family farm, where the focus is on quality. “In a nutshell, we believe in doing things right,” says Miller. “When we were creating our vision and mission statements and doing our strategic planning, we created what we call the ‘paradigm of rights.’ It’s about having the right people, doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons. So, every product that we put on the market is premium, all-natural and healthy for the animal.”
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before veterinarians took notice and began supporting the company’s efforts to improve small-pet health with proper nutrition. That support has proven vital to the growth of the Oxbow Animal Health brand—a point that is not lost on Miller, who strives to maintain that goodwill among the veterinary community.
“Understanding how important the veterinarians have been to our brand, we work very hard to support them—first, by always putting a premium product on the market,” he says. “Part of that support is also that we have about six veterinarian symposiums all over North America each year, which veterinarians can attend to earn required continuing education credits. Many veterinarians get a lot of their education in dogs and cats, or other larger animals, but education in small mammals has often been lacking. We provide that opportunity.”
Oxbow continues to expand its support of the veterinary community, whether it is in the form of hosting symposiums, providing scholarships to veterinary students, attending trade events, working with veterinary schools or even helping to breed the next generation of vets—or at least the next generation of small-pet owners. “We do junior and intermediate vet camps, which are summer day camps designed for kids,” he says. “We’re having nine of them this year, and we plan on growing that program even more. The camps encourage kids interested in veterinary science as a career; but if nothing else, it educates them about animal physiology, nutrition and care, especially the animals we concentrate on.”
Also in Oxbow’s plans for the future is a continued commitment to improving its existing products, as well as innovating the small-pet category. “We’re always working on our quality-control processes,” says Miller. “We continue to improve quality, so our product is cleaner, there are fewer allergy problems, and it’s easier to feed.
“We also work hard at listening to customer feedback and creating new products before the market knows it wants those products. For example, we’ve got a new hay product on the market called Harvest Stacks, which we’re really excited about. The quality of hay in Harvest Stacks is absolutely unbeatable—the softness, texture and palatability—and then there is the enrichment that the individual stacks provide to the animals. People have been raving about them.”
Miller says he is also bullish on Oxbow Animal Health’s lineup of nutritional supplements—another example of how the company is creating not just new products, but entirely new categories. “I believe that we are the only company that has supplements in the marketplace that are designed to help these animals overcome digestive issues, urinary issues, or skin and coat issues,” he explains. “It fits in well with the overall supplement category that started with humans, moved to dogs and cats, and now we think is moving into our category.”
For all of the success that he has had with Oxbow, Miller is quick to note that none of it would be possible without the quality team that he has assembled around him. “I’ve got a great team,” he says. “My leadership team, especially, is very talented and passionate. My style is to empower them to be in charge, and I think that makes people passionate about what they do.
“When people ask me what I do, I say, I hire good people and then I get out of the road.”