Jacob Megehee hops out of his pickup with a spryness that belies his 71 years, grabs a five-gallon bucket of dried distillers grains, and shouts across the pasture, “C’mon, babies! C’mon, babies.”

Cows leave their grass munching and shade loitering and come loping to him.

“They love this stuff — it’s like ice cream to them,” he says as he pours piles of the corn byproduct on the ground, then backtracks to the pickup for another bucketful.

Here in the rolling prairie land just outside Macon, Miss., he and his wife, Martha, operate Megehee Cattle Company, raising quality beef cows. They also utilize, as part of the cow-calf operation, a family farm in Pearl River County in south Mississippi where they both grew up.

“My family had a dairy/beef/hog farm on the edge of the Pearl River swamp,” he says, “and Martha’s family had a farm not far away; her father raised cattle and grew tung trees for oil used primarily in marine paints [a thriving industry in southeast Mississippi until Hurricane Camille, one of the strongest storms in U.S. history, wiped out most of the trees in 1969].

Jacob Megehee: From bull riding to Vietnam and back, the circuitous making of a cattleman

“I hunted small game and fished in the swamp,” he says. “I was in 4-H and FFA and got a degree in dairy production at Mississippi State University, thinking I’d make a living in dairy industry like my two brothers.”

But military service intervened and he spent seven years on active duty as an Army helicopter pilot, including a year in Vietnam, where he flew 2004 hours, received five Purple Heart medals, a Silver Star, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star, 27 Air Medals and an Air Medal With Valor device.

For three years, he flew Medevac missions all over Europe. It was during flights over Germany and the Netherlands, Megehee says, that “I’d look down and see beautiful dairy herds grazing on stunningly gorgeous forages. In the Netherlands, they had portable milking machines that they rolled into the field and milked cows right there. I got the dairying bug badly. But Martha, more sensibly, said she didn’t want me to be a dairyman, because we’d never have a life outside of milking cows.

“By the time my duty in Europe was nearing an end, we had a young daughter and $10,000 that we’d saved from my military pay. That money was burning a hole in my pocket to buy some farmland. But construction of the John C. Stennis Space Center had pushed land prices in our home county out of our reach.

“My older brother married a girl at Brooksville, not far from Mississippi State University, and I was familiar with the area from my MSU, 4-H, and FFA days. I knew these prairie soils could grow good forages.

“So, we looked around and bought this land, which we leased out while I was at Ft. Rucker, Ala., as a test pilot. We bought 93 steers and put them here, and we drove over almost every weekend just for the pleasure of seeing our cows on our land. We had horses, too, for our young daughter to ride.”

When his seven years of military active duty ended, Megehee started a master’s program at MSU, managed the university’s south farm, flew helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for the university, and continued flying three weekends in the Amy National Guard. He served in reserve components for 22 years, retiring as a full colonel.