On one of my recent ventures into southeast Kansas's cow-calf country, I had the opportunity to visit Jim DeGeer's Gelbvieh seedstock operation in Neosho County. While discussing Gelbvieh replacement heifers, DeGeer and I spoke on his roots in Barber County. For those who have never been there, the topography serves as a true counterargument to the common misconception that Kansas is all flat.
Take a drive through the Gypsum Hills on Highway 160 west of Medicine Lodge, and you'll run into the kind of scenery that's as iconic to the American West as parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle. This includes the buttes, hills, and valleys with red clay soil the region is known for, and of course, the cattle that graze the warm season grasses like buffalo grass and gamagrass native to this part of south-central Kansas.
However, cow-calf numbers there have decreased since the 1970s. "In the 60s and 70s when I was growing up, everybody had a cow herd," he says. In the early 70s, drought hit, and many had to sell cows to stay afloat. DeGeer recalls one day in the early 70s when over 4,000 cows were sold at the Kiowa Sale Barn. "Everybody took their cows to town that day. Those cows didn't come back to the country," he says. "If those guys stayed in business, they started stocker operations."
Although the Gyp Hills or Flint Hills may be the regions that come to mind when the cow-calf sector is brought up, the region where cow-calf operations dominate is southeast Kansas. According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, six southeast Kansas counties had 20,000 head of beef cows or more in 2013, including Neosho County.
Southeast Kansas a prime location for cow herds
Considering southeast Kansas's similarities to pastures of both the Missouri Ozarks and the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, it's not surprising. This blend of cool and warm season pasture is especially beneficial for DeGeer, who calves both in spring and fall. "You've got fescue pasture that you can run fall-calving cows on, and you've got native pasture to run spring-calving cows," he notes. "There's a broader base of forages here to give you that opportunity."
The biggest difference, DeGeer says, is the amount of rainfall. Where Neosho County typically receives an average of over 40 inches of annual rainfall, Barber County might receive 20 inches. Because of a lack of rain, surface water is hard to rely on, so many cattlemen have adapted by switching to well water. Also, invasive eastern red cedar trees found in the Gyp Hills and all over the Midwest take a lot of potential moisture from grass. So, moisture is hard to count on, he says. "Your grass and water availability are always somewhat limited," he says. "You always knew it was going to be dry."
This isn't to say southeast Kansas doesn't have its share of stocker cattle and that cow-calf operations aren't feasible in the Gyp Hills. However, after several periods of drought in the Gyp Hills, southeast Kansas fits DeGeer's situation better, he says. "In Barber County, you can do it. It takes 15 acres a cow-calf pair where it takes 5 here," he adds. "You're talking about three times as much land to raise the same cow-calf pair."