Lifelong Nebraskan’s ag experience feeds a unique industry need: growing healthy, exotic animals

Oxbow Animal Health’s focus on preventative nutrition grows a global brand

Nebraska native John Miller will be the first to tell you that being an entrepreneur is about growing ideas, growing support, and growing clientele.

“We’ve really been blessed to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea.”

As a UNL student, Miller envisioned he would spend his career as a petroleum engineer analyzing new opportunities in energy. Nearly 40 years later, the founder and president of Oxbow Animal Health is using those skills to fuel vitality within another unique industry – to feed and grow pets all over the world. Since his company’s conception, Miller has built his interest in animal nutrition into a global brand. His line of fortified food and supplements for small, exotic pets now sits on store shelves and in veterinarians’ clinics in 35 countries.

The Murdock business is the Nebraska Manufacturing Advisory Council’s latest spotlight company. Oxbow’s team offers a product line of alfalfa, grass, oat and organic hay for small animals like guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas. The nutrients provide properly balanced foods to extend the species’ life spans and quality of life. It is a concept Miller began creating when he returned to his family’s farm to succeed his late uncle in the business. There, he quickly developed confidence in selling commodities grown on their land. Throughout his efforts to market the family’s soybeans, corn and hay, he began to formulate efforts to feed what was then known as an underserved niche in the ag industry.

“Certainly within Nebraska, Oxbow’s creation has been an organic process,” Miller said. “Just as I enjoyed marketing our family’s premium hay, I also grew to enjoy the challenge of producing an exceptional product and finding clientele who appreciate this.”

In the early 1990’s, the company was the first of its kind to introduce timothy grass hay into the market, now known as a small pet “super-food” designed as an additional nutrient-rich product. As innovation within Miller’s product line grew, his business brought new recognition to the value of preventative animal health.

“Before this time frame, owners of these pets had very little access to nutritional products. Coincidentally, these same people were starting to take their animals into the vet, where it was usually determined that many of their challenges were related to diet problems,” Miller said. “So we came along with a premium, correct-diet line. Vets began to realize that our products could help.”

As the company evolved, the Oxbow name grew through industry connections and the internet. Miller’s involvement in the Nebraska Alfalfa and National Hay Associations provided a strong network to assist in building the company’s brand, and his attendance at nationwide veterinary conferences formed new relationships with health professionals. Access to the internet also opened the door for distribution opportunities, both domestically and overseas. The company shipped its first product container to Japan in 1998; in 2007, America’s largest pet retailer introduced the Oxbow brand in stores. PetSmart continues to market Oxbow as its preferred vendor for small animal health products.

Quality product production and outstanding customer service have consistently served as company cornerstones throughout its years of growth. Miller’s strong Nebraska roots are evident in the company’s title, named after the Oxbow Trail that rolled directly through his family’s farm. Soldiers, miners and settlers passed through the area on the trail in the mid-1800’s.

Oxbow’s expansion efforts began in 1996, when Miller moved the company out of his parents’ garage into a barn on his farm. The company remodeled in 1998 and have added new attachments, buildings and additional warehouses in the years since. This summer, Oxbow will celebrate the grand opening of its 247,000 square foot business campus in southwest Omaha. Miller worked with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to secure a $200,000 Site and Building Fund Grant for the project, as well as $64,000 in Certified Job Training. Over the past 17 years, the company has grown from 20 to 140 employees.

Miller appreciates ongoing strong support from within Nebraska’s business network, which he says has contributed to Oxbow’s continued growth.

“Nebraskans as a whole are just great people. They contribute to an attitude that ‘we’re all in this together,’ and everyone is working hard,” Miller said. “As business people, it’s not at all unusual to have our paths cross. Whether it’s as members of NEAPCO, NEDA, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce or the Omaha/Cass County Economic Development Group, we belong to these organizations in order to be good members of our industries. It’s one factor in strengthening Nebraska’s business climate as a whole.”

For more information, contact Whitney Bumgarner, Manufacturing Cluster Coordinator, Nebraska Department of Economic Development, 402-471-6281, whitney.bumgarner@nebraska.gov.

CONTACT Kate Ellingson at 800-426-6505, 402-471-3749 or kate.ellingson@nebraska.gov.