Ferocious on the Field, Compassionate on the Pasture

NFL Football Star Will Witherspoon’s Biggest Win is the AWA Seal

Football is America's toughest major professional sport. Its players are renowned for their size, strength, agility and laser-like focus—as well as their ability to give and receive bruising, bone-wrenching, gut-busting hits and tackles. A professional football game is an hour-long (by the time clock) display of strategy, finesse, and aggressive brute strength. Conversely, no one would characterize farming as a show of aggressive brute strength and fierce competition. The two worlds—the controlled violence of football and the patient caretaking of farming—seem light years apart.

That’s the point, says Will Witherspoon, a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans and owner of Shire Gate Farm in Owensville, Missouri. Witherspoon relishes the lush green peace of Shire Gate and the respite it provides to him, his wife Rebecca, and daughters Layne, Maya and Shaye, in the off-season. "Shire Gate is a total escape for us,” Witherspoon says. “It’s a place where my daughters and I can work with the animals and the land. I use the companionship of the animals and the beauty of the land to refocus myself after the demands of playing football. Shire Gate is our retreat from the world.”

Witherspoon purchased Shire Gate Farm in 2007 as a home for his Shire horses, Rocky and Simon. As the farm expanded to include more horses, Witherspoon decided to turn Shire Gate into a working farm and added cows and (more recently) pigs. His research led him to AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program and pasture-based farming. The AWA program—at no cost to the farmers—audits and certifies family farms that prioritize the well-being of the animals. “I wanted Shire Gate Farm to be true to nature and true to the way things should be done,” Witherspoon says. "That means putting the welfare and care of the animals first.”

As a professional athlete in a highly physical and competitive sport, Witherspoon is especially aware of the health benefits of grassfed, high-welfare farming. “I want my kids, and all kids really, to grow up in a way that is more in touch with the natural environment. Witherspoon says he chose the White Park breed of cattle for his farm in part because they thrive in a grassfed environment. “My cattle are raised as nature intended, on grass, and aren’t fed growth hormones, antibiotics or other unnatural additives,” he says. Raising his cattle according to AWA program standards is how Witherspoon shows his commitment to animal welfare on his farm. “The great thing about the program is that it offers a wealth of information and provides access to people who can help me raise my herd and build my farm. There’s no way I can go wrong. I know that AWA and AGA [American Grassfed Association] will work alongside me as Shire Gate grows.”

Witherspoon also owns two dog daycare centers, another opportunity to provide humane care of animals. “I bought a farm for my horses and daycares for my dogs,” he jokes. “So raising my cattle on pasture is a given.” On a more serious note, Witherspoon has seen the benefits of pasture-based farming for his livestock. “I’ve only had one calf that has really been sick; otherwise my herd is very healthy. No hoof issues, no pink eye—you can’t argue with success like that.”

AWA Program Director Andrew Gunther praises Witherspoon’s dedication to raising his animals with high-welfare standards. “When I visited Shire Gate with American Grassfed Association President Dr. Patricia Whisnant, it was clear he brings to his farm the same intense attention to detail and preparation he brings to the football field.” In addition to his wife and daughters, Witherspoon’s father, a former military officer, also resides with him at Shire Gate Farm. According to Gunther, “It was clear this is not just an infatuation for Will, but a real working family farm that will grow and prosper.”

Fierce on the field, Witherspoon is equally fierce about the welfare of his animals. “When I decided to bring cattle and other animals on the farm, I jumped in quite readily and I decided if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. AWI is helping me achieve that goal.”