This ranch family sticks to an admirable goal shared by many of their peers
Story and photos by Corinne Patterson
Good is kindness to your neighbors, the land and earth’s creatures. It’s an attitude that can be found in all reaches of our country from urban and suburban to the high desert or rocky prairie. Good is an admirable goal.
For Dwight and Mary Pat Bilyk, good isn’t a simple gesture. Abundant, dedicated energy captures good steeped with a distinguishable difference not all can recognize. The Bilyks represent what many ranchers know: true good is a reflection of hard work.
“A long time ago I read a magazine interview with a guy from Wyoming who had built his place from scratch. He sounded like quite a guy,” Dwight recalls. “The one sentence I remember he said was, ‘We teach these kids all wrong. They need to learn how to make a living with 100 cows, not one’.”
“I think what he was saying was that you have to make a living with the cows taking care of themselves,” Dwight continues, noting that as a rancher, “if you provide them with plenty of good forage, water and healthcare when needed, they are supposed to do the rest.”
That philosophy and focus on functional production has allowed stockers and cows under the Bilyks’ management to thrive while Dwight and Mary Pat have become more specialized and capable of managing animal health needs, grass utilization and doing good in the beef industry.
“We’ve focused so much on extremes,” Dwight says. “What works for me is to look for the middle of the road instead. If we have 100 heifer calves, I’m going to pick the ones that are in the middle third of the group, not the biggest end and not the smallest.
“I’m going to wean those calves and run them back with their mothers and let Mother Nature cull on them,” he continues. “That ties in to our grass management philosophy and the need to have one herd constantly moving.”
Desert country in central Arizona is where the Bilyks got their start with cattle. Dwight grew up with memories of his maternal grandparents’ operation, sharing, “It was one cow to the section kind of country where you’d calve nine months after it rained.”
Mary Pat’s military family moved to Arizona when she was 11 years old.
Familiarity with the country and a desire to ranch found the young couple managing a small ranch to get their start in the late 1970s. Soon a neighboring ranch sold and they added it under management for a total of 75 sections.
“We’d worked really hard on that place and didn’t just punch cows,” Dwight points out. “We developed the water, built lots of fence, and worked into a grazing system and refined it quite a bit.”
Pressure from those less inspired by agriculture was changing the southwestern landscape the Bilyks had become so in-tune with managing.
“By late 1989 both ranches had sold,” he says. “We decided that we didn’t want to spend another 12 years working for someone only to have the ranch sell.”
On their own
“While we were managing the ranches, we were lucky enough to lease a small place,” Mary Pat adds, which allowed them to build equity in their own cowherd.
A willing student with his own cattle, and also through research and inspiration from studying articles about the industry, Dwight and Mary Pat and their three young boys took off on a summer journey that would lead them to a ranch all their own.
“We figured that if we were going to be serious in agriculture, we needed to go where it all happened, and that was in the southern plains,” Dwight shares.
“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or it was just because we were young and naïve, but we thought we’d make it a summer of travel,” Mary Pat recalls. “We got ourselves a little travel trailer and we put an aluminum boat on the camper of the pickup. We loaded our three boys and two Border Collies and set off for eastern parts unknown. We put all our stuff in storage and left on Father’s Day 1990.”
Neighboring New Mexico provided insight that the land was too expensive, so they passed through the state on their journey. They found north central Texas with the same price hurdles, so they ventured into southern Oklahoma.
“We’d usually camp on a lake,” Dwight says. “The kids and I would fish early in the morning and we’d just strike out looking. We may see someone horseback and talk to them, or somebody baling hay.”
The Bilyks found the people to be very kind and helpful, and they gained insight from well-run operations. They found much of the land to be more broken up with a higher population density than desired, but the quality of the grass was appealing.
They camped at Lake Texoma and looked at several places near Davis and Sulphur, Oklahoma. They found favorable country, but again it was too expensive.
“We had a broker who had shown us quite a few places around there. He was an old cowboy and came to understood what we were looking for,” Dwight adds. “He told us we needed to look in Osage County in northeastern Oklahoma where we would find big country and few people. Hal was right.’”
By this time the hot, dry August weather greeted them and warned of a need to get the boys back in school. With a bid on a place they liked, the family headed back to Arizona. But it wasn’t long before the ranch they put a bid on soon became theirs.
“We moved that winter and started in Osage County in January of 1991,” Dwight shares. “We had a good neighbor in Arizona that probably figured we bit off more than we could chew, so he sent us a few loads of Mexican 4-weights, and that was our start in the stocker business.
“When we moved out here we started over with the cow herd,” he continues. “There’s an acclimation for a cow, I don’t care if you’re moving across the street, and it’s especially negative to move them west to east.”
The Bilyks liked and appreciated the heat tolerance provided by cattle with some ear while in the desert. They ran Red Brangus cows but moved to a stronger Red Angus-influenced cowherd on their Cross S Ranch over the years.
“Our focus was running stockers on double stock country, and our primary workforce was our boys,” Dwight says. “We found that if we bought cattle before and after the holidays they were a touch cheaper, and if we bought mismanaged cattle and figured out how to keep them alive, we could upgrade them. The July markets always seemed to be pretty good. In nine out of 10 years, that July market was the top side for an 8-weight yearling.”
Grazing and marketing would remain the driving factors as Dwight and Mary Pat raised their three boys, Tyler, Cole and Zach, and worked to pay off their ranch near Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
“That same Arizona neighbor who sent us yearlings our first year in Oklahoma made a trip out to visit,” Dwight recalls. “After helping us gather and move some cattle, he rode up and commented, ‘This place is as rocky and rough as the country you left,’ to which I replied, ‘But these are our rocks’.”
“We’re used to rocks,” he adds. “That’s why my nose is the way it is. It’s been splattered on the rocks a time or two from horses falling down or stepping in a hole.”
Dwight and Mary Pat’s top goal was always to raise good boys. None of their boys own a cow today, but they are each involved in growing food.
“I’m very lucky being in this business. I feel really blessed that I could spend that much time with my kids and come close to making a living,” Dwight shares. “They have all pushed towards organics. Not because it’s a fad, but because it makes sense in the long run and it’s profitable.”
Tyler and Zach are in California with their families growing avocados, dates and citrus. Cole and his family have a composting business in Arkansas where he markets organic fertilizers and other components. All three sons value the time they spent on the ranch, and the grandkids spend time with Dwight and Mary Pat on the ranch as time allows.
Another top goal of the Bilyks was to pay off their outfit. Economics have always driven business decisions for Dwight and Mary Pat. While some call it a trader’s mentality, they have always been disciplined enough to not fall in love with something and let emotions override opportunity, or to blindly ignore financial constraints. As an example, during the 20 plus years they owned the Osage County ranch, Dwight would sell and rebuild his cowherd as finances dictated. He knew he could cash in and rebuild.
Two years ago they offered for sale the ranch where they raised their boys and had realized the dream of a ranch paid in full. This decision, while difficult, gave them opportunity to seek another goal of a limestone ranch and leaving behind the sandstone and blackjacks.
Dwight and Mary Pat currently run cows on a place they’ve leased for several years near Cedar Vale, Kansas, just a couple miles north of the Oklahoma state line. With ground to graze, the wait for the right opportunity to move continues.
Rugged terrain and the rock just inches under the surface of the native tallgrass prairie that remains in eastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma is part of the attraction Dwight and Mary Pat felt to the land when they came east. Dwight has found that sandstone grass isn’t as nutrient dense as the grass benefiting from nutrients from the calcium rich limestone.
Rough country has always made good ranch horses a necessity.
“Because we’ve always been in rough country there’s never been a way to utilize other things,” Dwight shares. “In the Flint Hills, it’s been easy for many to evolve into using a pickup or ATV because it’s pretty easy to get around in this country, but for me it’s been easy to stay horseback. I really love to be horseback. A lot of guys were only on horseback because it was a necessity, and it was easy to get away from it as technology evolved.”
Dwight is horseback nearly every day checking cattle and moving them through his grazing system, even during winter months. Cattle are taught from the day they arrive to handle quietly horseback and with the assistance of Border Collies.
“Always working toward a quiet shipping day starts when they step off the truck,” Dwight shares.
Depending on stocking needs, he will begin receiving stockers after Thanksgiving to get ready for summer grazing. The calves spend their first night in a big pen and the next morning they get cubes and are turned into a 5-acre grass trap with free choice hay.
“On Day 2 we gather those cattle with a dog and pen them and then feed them cake,” he says. “From there we would quietly pull any sick cattle and doctor. So they learn all the things needed to be gathered the day of the sale so we don’t lose a pound of shrink. Day 2 through Day 6, 7 and 8 they’d follow the same routine and we’d start moving them to bigger and bigger pastures.”
Like his desire to handle cattle with ease, Dwight also enjoys the rewards and challenges that come with making his own ranch horses.
“I read a great quote years ago that went along the lines that for 500 years we’ve spent five minutes scaring a horse and five years making up for it,” Dwight says of starting young horses.
About 10 years ago he took a young horse he was training to a Foundation Quarter Horse Association show in Sedan, Kansas, and reports he didn’t do worth a darn. It made him wonder what he could do better. It made him a student of different training ideas from Ray Hunt, Clinton Anderson and others. With video technology, Dwight shares, you can really watch and learn.
With few opportunities for guys like him who develop good using ranch horses to show and improve, Dwight and Mary Pat decided to start the Midwest Ranch Horse Association (MRHA) to offer more opportunities for working ranch cowboys to improve their horses.
“In order to focus more on the art of learning how to develop good ranch horses, I focused our shows more on prizes instead of a cash purse,” Dwight shares.
In the last 8 years, the MRHA has grown in popularity and participation with many cowboys entering shows hosted by the association at ranch rodeos or with other industry focused events. Since 2009 the MRHA operated with just Dwight and Mary Pat and various supporters. Just this year the Bilyks decided it was time to step back and let the next group move their dream forward.
“It’s time for me to slip into the back so people with other ideas can try and get them going. Some will work and some won’t,” Dwight shares. “No matter how you look at it, if you’ve done something the same way for a long time you kind of have a tendency to have it look exactly the way you kind of want it to. Now we have six people who are going to be kicking in ideas.”
No matter what type of cattle Dwight is managing, the main economical driving factor is utilization.
“The first aspect of our grazing system would be utilization, and that started from our days in Arizona,” he says. “We went to a three-pasture system, and at least then we might get utilization on the back sides of some of our pastures.
“What was really interesting to me was when we first came to this country compared to the size of the ranches in Arizona, I thought that if a big pasture was a section, then surely the cattle would utilize every inch of it. I was amazed after a year or two that it was really no different than where we were previously.”
Dwight recognizes the backside of a pasture where cattle are never fed leaves unutilized grass. He also observes that cattle are lazy and graze easy areas rather than in rocky, steep terrain.
“If we had 1,000 acres, we needed to try and use every inch of the whole place and not one third all the time, one third most of the time and one third hardly any of the time, and that’s kind of how it ends up,” he continues. “Whether it is 100-day short season grass, or a year-long cow. It’s the same.”
Dwight and Mary Pat have spent time developing electric fence across the place they currently lease. During the winter months, the goal is to utilize dry grass by moving cows through 50 to 250-acre divided sections and feeding dry distiller’s protein tubs distributed to encourage cows to graze in areas that they may normally avoid. Dwight says his goal is to keep the soil microbes insulated by cows breaking down the dry growth and depositing it back to the soil. In many situations in the Flint Hills the dead growth is simply burned off each spring. Dwight utilizes prairie fire, but it’s not something Mother Nature would do on her own every year, and neither does he.
Unlike cows fed via a feed truck, you won’t find the Bilyk’s cows waiting at a pasture gate for cake. In January they are found at the backside of a pasture miles from the nearest county road chewing their cud. Dwight has found that a dry distiller’s based protein tub keeps the right microbes working in a cow’s gut, and she’s full and content with the dry cellulose that remains from his summer rotation where he constantly moved the herd to give his grass rest.
“We’re not afraid to put the labor into the cow herd to make it work,” he says. “Our cow herd has always been a lot of colors, but that hasn’t mattered to me as long as they have a good calf and are carrying another one in their belly.”
The quote, “do good work” hangs quietly on the wall near the desk at the Bilyk’s home. An annual calf crop and raising pounds of beef is just all in the day’s work for Dwight and Mary Pat, but the good they do for the land, cattle, horses and dogs is a distinguishable reflection of their dedication.