Conservation district honors area farmers
The Butler County Conservation District honored a pair of producers this spring — giving the annual Kansas Bankers Association 2020 Soil Conservation Award to Prairie Meadows Farm (The Dwight and Kate Claassen family) and the 2020 Grassland Award to the Haywire Cattle Company (The Andy and Callie Jones & Family)
Prairie Meadows Farm (Dwight and Kate Claassen and family) of Whitewater are the recipients of the 2020 Key Banker Award for Soil Conservation sponsored by the Kansas Bankers Association.
“We should not be satisfied with simply maintaining our soils," Dwight Claassen said. "Our soil should be viewed as a breathing, living entity. There is more life in a teaspoon of soil that there are people on the earth, and as stewards of the land, we should endeavor to pass it on in better shape that we received it.”
Prairie Meadows Farm consists of row crops, hay and livestock. They have 400 acres of cropland and they raise corn, wheat, milo and soybeans in addition to planting cover crops on a yearly basis. They also have 620 acres of grass that’s grazed (prairie hay and brome) and they manage another 280 acres. They bale small square bales of brome and native grass for the horse, sheep and goat markets. They also grow Walnut and Pecan trees for veneer lumber and they have bee hives from which they get honey and honeycomb.
Dwight Claassen has been using no-till on his farm for 18 years. He defines his no-till operation as minimal disturbance of the soil.
Cover crops have become the backbone of their farm operation and crop rotations. Dwight mentioned he has more livestock than he can count…all under the ground! They attempt to keep something green in the fields at all times to benefit those underground livestock which in turn benefits the cash crop.
Cover crops help with raising organic matter, they reduce weed pressure, lower water evaporation during the growing months and eliminate erosion by water and wind. Legumes planted in the cover crop mix can reduce the amount of nitrogen they need to buy and apply to the crops.
Last year they added a Yetter Devastator cover crop roller to their planter and planted green into five-foot tall rye. The rolling crimped and killed the majority of the rye but they still had to terminate with a chemical application. The benefit of rolling the cover crop was that the rye didn’t wrap up on all the moving parts of the planter and they were able to use the spading wheels they preferred on the planter.
They find that rye as a cover does wonders for control of winter annuals and fall emergent weeds and they have been able to eliminate most of their fall herbicide applications. In addition, at boot stage, the carbon ratio of rye allows it to become a mulch that will last well beyond the following cash crop.
Conservation practices Prairie Meadows Farm has implemented include no-till, cover crops, terraces, waterways and grade stabilization structures. They have taken advantage of federal and state cost share programs, including the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the state Water Resources Cost share program through Butler County Conservation District. He commented these programs are an incentive to try new methods that they continue to practice in some form in their farming operation even after their contracts expire. Dwight commented, “NRCS has been essential and instrumental in the changes we have made and continue to make in our operation. I think everyone should try and utilize the information and financial support that comes with the various programs available.”
Dwight Claassen believes pasture health is influenced by good management of the pastures and being flexible to weather conditions. Intensive grazing management is used on the pastures. They let the grass get a good start before cattle are turned out in spring. They generally pull cattle off grass by mid-July. He said flexible contracts with their renters allows them to keep cattle on grass longer if more rainfall occurs later in the summer to take advantage of the extra growth. Likewise, if there is lack of rainfall, cattle come off sooner. He said it’s important for owners to take on risk along with the renter to assure pasture conditions do not suffer.
Dwight Claassen mentioned they prefer not to burn pastures. On their hay meadows, burning negatively impacts their yields. Renters do not insist they burn and they don’t feel burning helps with the weeds they need to control, and in the case of Sumac, makes the problem worse.
Dwight Claassen says they are willing to try about any practice that improves the soil structure, crop yield or that cuts inputs. He says with small acreage and equipment, it’s a lot easier to experiment. They have always applied fertilizer into the soil rather than on top of the soil so they continue to make upgrades to their planter for that purpose. They also have been thinning trees along fields with creeks to promote the growth of deep-rooted hardwoods with the added benefit of increasing light to the cash crop.
In the future, they are looking to incorporate strip intercropping. Strip intercropping is where multiple crops are grown in narrow, adjacent strips that allow interaction between different species but also allow management with modern equipment and results in substantial yield increases.
Wildlife also benefit at Prairie Meadows Farm. Their cover crops provide food for the micro-organisms living in the soil, and food and cover for wildlife and beneficial insects such as the Lacewing. The family has also planted a windbreak and wildlife runways of Fragrant Sumac. They plan to plant an additional 500 Sumac which are currently on order. Trees and brush cut from field borders are piled up along edges of fields for wildlife habitat and protection. They also have pheasant on order with plans for feeding and watering stations in the hopes that their numbers will increase.
Dwight Claassen recently got back into beekeeping after a long hiatus. He mentioned it’s been 45 years since he’s seen a wild swarm of bees-he hopes to change that. He found useful information on the internet which inspired him to dramatically change how he manages his hives.
He allows hives to produce queens and swarm as needed. He has swarm traps strategically placed and when bees swarm the hope is they will go to the swarm traps. He relocates the bees into horizontal hives rather than the traditional vertical hives.
Dwight considers Prairie Meadows Farm as an experimental farm that turns a profit rather than a “hobby farm” as some people may consider them. He says they are proof that a small farm can thrive, contrary to popular opinion, even without every government payment that is offered.
Dwight and Kate have 4 sons and 7 grandchildren. Son Tanner helps Dwight with the farming operation full time and is the 4th generation on the original farm. Their son Seth is an anesthetist, Dustin is a network engineer and Jesse is an electrical engineer. When not farming or modifying farm equipment, Dwight enjoys restoring an AC 7000 Scout, Roadster, Trans Am WS6 and various bikes.
Andy and Callie Jones own, operate and manage Haywire Cattle Company. Andy’s father Randy and mother Kim are also involved in the operation. Kim recently retired from a job in town and Randy doesn’t spend as much time at the ranch now which leaves Andy and Callie the task of the day to day ranch operations. Currently, the ranch is run by the family with some part time help used during their busy seasons.
Randy and Kim’s first cattle facility was located just south of El Dorado. They outgrew that site and land was purchased east of the El Dorado airport to move to which also allowed them to expand their operation. Haywire Cattle Company was the name chosen for the new operation.
Andy mentioned the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was a useful tool when it came to developing the plans for their new site and in working with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). NRCS surveyed the new site and provided designs and maps that showed exactly where everything should be placed. NRCS was instrumental in helping Andy and Randy through the permitting process for their operation through KDHE. They also received cost share through the State Non-Point Source Pollution Control Livestock Waste Management Program for upgrading their facility.
Haywire runs cattle on owned and leased land that is scattered across several counties. They run yearlings on grass in addition to having a cow herd that calve in the spring.
The crop ground is owned and leased, which is custom farmed by an area farmer. The ground is used for manure management and growing silage to service the yard. Manure is spread in a 3-year rotation. In addition, it is planted to cover crop in the fall for grazing, where a 15% increase in production, measured through gain, has been noted with the incorporation of the manure.
Haywire Cattle Company is proud of the fact that they still use horses to work their cattle. Andy says it’s less stressful on the cattle which is a cost savings in the long run. In addition, the cattle can be observed in more detail from the seat of a saddle versus a 4-wheeler to catch health problems. Most importantly, the overall condition of the pastures can be monitored more easily for grazing management. It’s important to have boots on the ground. Andy believes seeing the pastures and the cattle on horseback is the most effective way to monitor their livestock operation.
Andy manages the grass as an investment and understands that the grass he relies on for his cattle belongs to a bigger ecosystem. When the grass is managed properly, the whole ecosystem, including soil, water and wildlife resources, benefits.
Cattle stocking rates are based on several factors. He only includes grazeable acres in the pastures to set stocking rates and considers the productivity of the pasture and overall health of the grass in each pasture. He doesn’t use a “one size fits all” stocking rate. He goes by the weight of the animals, not by a textbook rule of thumb number of animals. He stocks each pasture based on the pastures’ unique conditions, including soil type and past management practices, which require different stocking rates.
Burning is an important tool used to control weeds and brush and increase grass productivity. Pastures are burned on a rotation each year. If a pasture is burned two weeks early one year, they make sure to burn it a little later the next year. They have their own fire equipment to assure fires don’t get away from them. Neighbors help neighbors during burn season and other busy times during the year. It’s just the way things are done in the ranching community and everyone benefits.
One change Andy has seen over the years is that the margins are smaller and the volume is larger. So much goes into the management of inputs, equipment and labor just to make a profit. That, along with urban sprawl, increased liability and the scrutiny ranchers (and agriculture in general) face due to lack of education by non-farm neighbors can be frustrating. It boils down to most people are so far removed from agriculture today they don’t have an awareness or appreciation for what it takes to put food on their table. One example of this is most people don’t understand the need to burn pastures.
Andy has a degree in Business Management from Friends University; however, most of what he has learned about farming and ranching he has gleaned from the older generation and being out in the pastures and working with cattle. While textbooks and school have their place he says, “nothing compares to “hands on” experience”.
He relies on the wisdom and experience of his Dad, friends and neighbors who have “been there and done that”; however, he does challenge the older generation to be open to new ideas and to try new things.
Andy recalls when he was a freshman in high school, the Conservation District provided a scholarship for him to attend Range Youth Camp. He came home with some ideas about stocking rates and suggested to his Dad that they needed to put more cattle on some pastures.
He said his Dad about jumped out of his boots with that suggestion, but when Andy explained the reasoning behind it, his Dad was more accepting and allowed him to try it on some of their pastures.
Stewardship of the land is so important for Haywire Cattle Company. Andy has learned there can be a fine line in ranching and it can take just a short amount of time to wreck the balance between land that is productive and land that has been abused. It may take years or even a lifetime to repair the damage. That’s why it’s so important to listen to others who have experience, who have been through situations before and can share their wisdom and knowledge.
Andy and Callie have 7-year old twins Laycie and Kendall who are already involved with helping on the ranch working cattle and burning pastures. The girls are both active in ranch rodeos, barrel racing and basketball. His wife Callie is right out there with the rest of them working pens and doctoring cattle every day. Andy does find time to serve on the Butler County Planning Commission.
While ranching is something the family loves, at the end of the day, it’s not a hobby, it’s a business and it’s what pays the bills. They know smart decisions, the responsible use of the natural resources they have been entrusted with, and their faith in God will allow them to continue to make a living off the land and doing what they love.
The 2020 Grassland Award is sponsored by the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts Grasslands Committee and Sharp Brothers Seed Company.