Three generations of this diverse Kansas family navigate 3D Farm and Ranch
Story and Photos by Corinne Patterson
As relevant as the adaptive conservation of the landscape has become for those in production agriculture, it’s the landscape that doesn’t lend itself to outside influence that makes for opportunity near Buhler, Kansas, for Norman Dick and his family.
In the middle of south central Kansas where the countryside passes by mile after mile at a relatively flat, even pace hides a very narrow strip of rugged prairie that survives via the rolling dunes of the Sand Hills.
The southern winds blew fine particles up from the Arkansas River banks thousands of years before creating 10 to 40 foot dunes that are mostly stabilized by the prairie ecosystem and are not suitable for tilling. This summer tall grass grazing in combination with the surrounding blanket of fertile, flat farm ground enhanced by it’s soft, sandy texture provides 3D Farm and Ranch with opportunity for the fourth and fifth generations of cattlemen in the Dick family.
Norman grew up with his father raising commercial cattle in neighboring Harvey County eight miles from the home place in Reno County, inherited from his father-in-law, where he and his wife, Dellis, raised their family for the last half century.
World of discovery
While the windswept terrain of Kansas is where the Dick family has long called home, for Norman there was an entire world of discovery in the beef industry. His desire to learn more about animal breeding technologies first took him to Cary, Illinois, to study animal genetics.
When he returned to the family farm in the late 1960s, the need for extra income and opportunity on the corner of about every section found him working as an artificial insemination (AI) technician for many local dairies.
“At that time there really weren’t any synchronization protocols,” Norman recalls. “People called me when their cow was in heat, and that was a 7-day a week job.”
Norman’s interest in advanced breeding technologies drove his passion for purebred cattle. His father-in-law also raised registered cattle, and from this exposure came the love to attend national livestock shows to witness firsthand what those in the beef industry were utilizing in genetic selection across the many breeds.
“I started with eight registered Horned Herefords,” Norman shares. “They wouldn’t let me register the artificially-sired calves. I didn’t have a bull so I was AIing, and that’s how I incidentally bred them to Simmentals, since I couldn’t register them. I wish I would have bred 100 instead of eight because at that time a half-blood was worth about $3,000 and a regular cow was worth about $300.”
While Norman says this cross was somewhat of an accident, it was exciting as a young cattleman to have the progeny of these Hereford-Simmental calves on display at Kansas State University in the early 1980s as some of the first Simmental-cross cattle in the state.
While the Simmental breed can be traced all over the world, the American Simmental Association wasn’t founded until 1968. Known from the breed’s origins in Switzerland and other European countries, the breed was introduced to the U.S. via Canadian imports, early use of semen, and AI that built much of the American genetics. At the time Simmental cattle could be registered via two different paths, Norman says.
“You can have a purebred animal where you use a fullblood bull on an Angus cow, and after four generations you can call them a purebred. A fullblood is when the genetics come from the old country like France, Switzerland or Germany. Over there they use them triple purpose. They use them for milk, beef and draft. We went to Calgary, Canada, and saw some purebred bulls sell. Not one of them brought less than $50,000.”
That price tag was enticing, and a group of Kansas cattlemen hatched a plan.
“I was part of a handful of guys who would go to the National Western Stock Show in Denver every year together. On the way back, we were visiting and we got the idea that we’d like to produce the first Polled Simmental bull,” he shares. “We started a corporation and we had eight members. Four of us didn’t have any money so we added a banker, an attorney, a veterinarian and an insurance guy who were all already in the cattle business. We bought an Angus cow that was polled and did embryo transfer (E.T.) with her, and luckily we got one calf that was polled. We called him Cojak, and he was the first Polled Simmental bull.”
Silver Key Simmental Inc. was formed, and marketing Polled Simmental genetics via semen sales, an annual bull sale and word of mouth became their business plan. The partners also decided to import new genetics.
“We got the idea that we’d buy a heifer and do embryo transfer with her,” Norman shares. “We went to Nova Scotia because that was where a lot of the cattle were in quarantine after being imported. They could not go directly into the United States.
“We bought a heifer calf from Dr. (Charles) Best, a man who had developed injectable insulin for diabetics, he continues. “He bought an island in Nova Scotia and imported and quarantined Simmental cattle there, and then he would have an auction. We bought the heifer at auction for $23,000 in the 80’s, and that was for a weaned heifer calf.”
With the breed noted for growth, the partners also wanted to identify Simmental genetics that would put on a pound of gain efficiently. The group began their own bull test in McPherson County, Kansas, with the assistance of the extension service.
“We sold a lot of percentage blood Simmental bulls. This allowed us to make some income with our corporation. We did luck out and get one show bull called 8J that won the Triple Crown being grand champion at the North American International Livestock Expo, the American Royal and the National Western Stock Show, so we retired him and started selling semen.”
Eventually the Silver Key Simmental partnership dissolved, but Norman continued to breed Simmental cattle. During this time, his sons Darren and Dayul grew up learning the lessons of hard work with their father. Eventually they both started careers off the farm, one in the petroleum industry and the other a veterinarian, but they never left thinking they wouldn’t be a part of raising cattle.
About 10 years ago, Norman decided it was time to retire in the same fashion many in his generation have modeled by turning over the reins without simply walking away from the livestock and the land.
“Now they call me a ‘windshield rancher,’” Norman chuckles. “I drive around and look through the windshield and see what needs to be done, and I get on my phone and call somebody.”
Norman, Darren and Dayul and their families formed a new partnership they named 3D Farm and Ranch.
“Dad ran his Simmental herd for 15 or 20 years on his own until he decided he wanted to retire, and that’s when Dayul and I stepped in,” Darren says. “We both had jobs at the time and we decided we wanted to keep the operation going for our kids in case they ever had an interest in it.
“That’s where our F1 crosses started to come into play,” he continues. “We began looking at Angus as they were becoming the dominant breed in the industry. We started to use Angus genetics in our Simmental cattle in the early 2000s.”
Without the direct focus on the purebred herd, Darren and Dayul and their families ran cattle and farmed with the help of a hired man and neighbors while Norman’s grandchildren went to college and started their own careers.
The interest from the 4th generation is proving to be a positive investment. In the last couple of years Devin, Dayul’s son, graduated with a degree in ag business as a decorated track athlete from Kansas State University. He decided to return to the family business and utilize his knowledge to help market cattle. Not only on the business end of the data, Devin is running more of the day-to-day of the operation, and he’s not the only one of the 4th and 5th generations seeking to have exposure to the physical and hands on labor of ranching. All the grandkids and great grandkids come to the ranch to help when they can.
Much like the partnership Norman created once before with his with banking, veterinarian, insurance, lawyer and other beef industry partners, the 3D Farm and Ranch partnership is shaping up to have family expertise in more diverse areas. From teaching to animal health, firefighting to ag business the Dick family has many resources within their crew.
The family continues to make genetic improvement and targeted selection through AI in at least 25 percent of the herd annually. With their purebred background, they utilize the top five percent of their bull crop to service those not bred through AI and market a few bulls. “We castrate our calves pretty early so it’s a challenge to select the best five percent at that age,” Darren says.
Replacement heifers have provided the greatest return on investment with the Simm-Angus females. They market heifers directly off the ranch as either open heifers ready to breed or as bred replacements depending on the customer’s needs. One thing the 3D partnership focuses on is trying to stay fluid when making decisions about all aspects of farming and ranching, including marketing.
Norman, himself a pioneer, has witnessed much change in the area. From the time his great granddad tilled the soil to the modern no-till practices of today, the main limiting factor for the Dick cow herd has always been the lack of summer grazing.
A shallow aquifer for irrigation coupled with fairly fertile soil makes much of the area more productive under grain crops. While summer grass is sparse, it allows for abundant, affordable winter grazing of corn and sorghum stalks and other cover crops.
The Dick family made the decision to focus on cattle production and now have their tillable acreage custom farmed eliminating the need for excessive and expensive equipment.
“When we first started we didn’t know what part of the operation we were really going to make a go of,” Darren recalls. “Once we focused on the cattle, we recruited the help of local farmers to carry out many of the actual farming activities, and it has worked well.”
The family uses tractors for winter-feeding and, to take advantage of a more dual-purpose use, they continue to put up about 400 acres of their own alfalfa crop annually. Alfalfa has long been a crop the family has relied on with Darren and Dayul, as young boys, putting in their share of the workload with more than 10,000 little square bales put up yearly before big round balers took over the scene.
“The drought over the last few years caused us to re-think how we feed cattle,” Darren shares. “We used to feed straight alfalfa. Because of the drought, we were forced to find a secondary method to feed the cows. ”
Triticale, which is a hybrid of wheat and rye, became both an early spring grazing option as well as a forage they could harvest for silage in early June. When the cows come off the summer pasture in mid-October they go straight to stalks either owned or rented from neighbors.
About mid-January the cow herd returns to the ranch headquarters where they will calve on a half section with well-developed shelter belts and the cornstalk acreage planted no-till with triticale in the sandy soil that makes for perfect calving ground. Even with a couple of inches of rain, the ground is relatively dry within hours and is a major advantage with the Kansas winters that usually produce wet moisture mixed with cold temperatures during calving that starts in February.
“Feeding silage got us into a position where we had to completely change the equipment we used to feed and how we fed,” Darren says. “The drought forced us into finding cheaper ways to feed and to access feed. That is what turned our minds around. The way we are doing it now is still cheaper than straight alfalfa.”
With a bale processor for alfalfa, they added a bin and commodity bay to handle rolled corn. The triticale silage is added for energy and rations are used to develop weaned calves and to feed the cows. The dry soil also makes for feeding the silage-based feed directly on the ground a good option for the cow herd. When it’s really cold, Dayul says the minute the feed hits the ground it’s neat to watch the young calves hit the warm pile of feed to take off a little of the winter chill.
With good nutrition as high priority, it enhances what’s sure to be a watchful eye on animal health. Dayul’s veterinary perspective keeps the herd healthy from prior to conception through to the feedyard.
With AI assisting with a tight calving window, Dayul says they reduce any chance of harbored disease by moving older pairs from the calving ground.
“We’ll pull all the calves that are born in one month and move them to a separate lot. That gets them away from the disease potential of the calving lot, but still keeps them on some sandy soil that allows us to feed their mothers silage on the ground,” Norman adds.
Facility enhancements have played a major role in handling cattle. From sorting pens to alleyways to bring cattle up to the chute, the facility works as one seamless system.
“About 4 or 5 years ago, we started roping and dragging our calves when we processed with the help of neighbors. We do this before we go to pasture. There’s a number of us in the area that does it with us,” Darren says. “We have a guy come out who starts at 4 in the morning and he starts a fire and cooks breakfast so our crew can have eggs and hashbrowns and he’s got old cast iron pots and has biscuits and gravy and a lot of other types of great food for the crew to eat.”
While roping and dragging calves makes it easy to recruit a workforce in an area where ag labor isn’t abundant, the Dicks say it’s also quick and less stressful for the crew and the calves to get through 300 head in just a couple of hours. The family has always used horses with their herd, so it’s something they all enjoy together and with the community.
One of the largest threats to the summer grazing that’s already in limited supply is the invasive eastern red cedar tree and blackberry bush that are encroaching much of the sand dune prairie. Producers are coming together to address this concern as well.
“We’re starting to see more fires pop up because of that, and we’re seeing producers trying to establish a program where we pre-burn pastures to keep them cleaner. It’s producers getting together to pool resources and burn pasture proactively,” Darren shares. “We’ve had a lot of unintentional fires get away in the last few years, and it’s gotten everybody’s attention. It’s pretty much driven by farmers and ranchers. “
Norman set the example of building partnerships for his sons, and Darren and Dayul continue to invest in the partnership mentality. Dayul says they are in Year 5 of a 10-year plan to continue to move the cowherd to a commercial Simm-Angus program. Darren adds, “There’s a lot more science and economics in this business than there used to be. We’re more in the commercial arena now, but the constant use of AI has really helped enlarge our marketing options for our herd.”