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Site Research Part 2: Cattle in the Flint Hills

March 3, 2011
Cattle Drive

Cattle Drive (from "Flint Hills Coyboys" by Jim Hoy)

Cattle grazing has been the predominant industry in the Flint Hills since the Kansas Territory was opened to American settlement in 1859. Following the Civil War, Texas cattle became an extremely profitable answer to beef shortages in the North. In 1867, Texas cattlemen drove the first 2,500 head of longhorn cattle to newly built stockyards at the railhead of the Kansas Pacific in Abilene, Kansas. Their route, which would become the Chisholm Trail, eventually brought an estimated 5 million head of cattle from Texas to Kansas. A herd of two thousand head would string out for one to two miles in length. The trail was up to four hundred yards wide and bare as a city street, marked by bleached bones, broken wagons, and a few cowboy graves. Cattle drives began in March or April and reached their destination by June. Many of the cattle were put out to graze on the Flint Hills before being shipped to the East. The Flint Hills were ideal pastureland because they were not suitable for farming and the tallgrass prairie grew tall and during the summer months.

The Chisholm Trail

The Chisholm Trail (shown in Green) The site of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is north of Newton, Kansas, just before Abilene on the last leg of the trail.

The Trail Drive era began to give way to the railroad in the late 1870s, and in 1887 that the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad ran a spur twelve miles south from Strong City and transformed the Chase County hamlet of Bazaar into the major cattle shipping point on the entire line. Cattle were loose herded on public land until 1890, when Herd Laws required ranchers to confine animals to their own land.

Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch

Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch (photo by James Klauder)

The Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch, today the headquarters of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, was established by Texas and Colorado cattleman Stephen Jones in 1878. The 10,000 acre ranch was enclosed by nearly thirty miles of dry-laid limestone fences. The Jones operation represents the shift in the late 1800s from open range grazing to confined grazing, which allowed better control of the land resources and the development of herd improvement through purebred breeding. The bluestem pastures of the Flint Hills held “unexcelled advantages for young and growing stock, due to its climate, comparatively dry winters, lime-filled grass to eat and lime water to drink. It also had grains and fodders for winter use, all rich in the needed elements that insure good hoofs, teeth, bones and muscle and a healthy, vigorous growth” (National Historic Landmark Nomination of the Spring Hills Ranch, National Parks Service, February 1997).

After World War II, flatbed semi-trailers became the predominant mode of transportation to bring cattle from their home pastures in Texas to their summer quarters in the Hills. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the public preference for more tender beef was increasing, yearling cattle became more and more common in the Hills, replacing the three- and four-year-olds that had dominated previously.

Bill Haw

Bill Haw (photo by James Klauder)

Bill Haw, and landowner in Chase County, gave us a tour of some of his land during our visit to the Flint Hills in February. Unlike many cattle operations, where the cattle owner and land owner are separate entities, Haw buys Texas cattle and grazes them on his own land. He also employs a method of grazing known as double stacking, in which twice as many cattle are grazed on a given portion of land for half the traditional time. Traditionally, a three- to four-year old steer would be allotted four acres over a six-month grazing season (normally mid-April to mid-October). With double stocking, twice as many yearlings are grazed for ninety days. The grass is the most palatable and nutritious during the early summer. Though it is clipped short during the abbreviated grazing season, it has time to recover by the end of the summer and store nutrients in the root system for the winter.

Brand

Yearling cattle owned by rancher Bill Haw. The brand on the animal's hip is and H with an arrow. The animal's other hip is branded with an M, indicating that it originated in Mexico. (photo by James Klauder)

The yearling arrive at a weight of around 250 pounds and nearly double that weight during their three months in the Flint Hills. Then they are transferred to a feedlot, where their diet is changed from one of predominantly forages to a high-energy diet of predominantly corn, during which their weight increased to 1200 or more pounds before slaughter. Like many large landholders in the Flint Hills, Haw recognizes the importance of preserving the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, and has donated a 10,000 acre conservation easement to the Nature Conservancy as part of its Tallgrass National Preserve. The easement is a promise by the landholder to withhold in perpetuity from any development that is incompatible with the preservation of the prairie ecosystem and the culture of grazing.

Research for this post by Gabe Lampe and James Klauder.

Cattle

Yearling cattle (photo by James Klauder)

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