It may not match the Chisholm Trail cattle drives of old in magnitude or volume, but for at least one Marion County farm-and-ranch family, the task of herding cattle through the Flint Hills comes around twice each year.
Rod Just, who describes himself as a full-time school teacher at Hillsboro and full-time farmer-rancher from the Aulne area, moves his herd of around 100 mature cattle from the home place to an 800-acre family-owned pasture in the Flint Hills in the Elmdale area.
“In the spring, we’ll load up a couple of semi loads of cattle, plus trailers of calves, and go dump them in one of the neighbors’ catch pen, which is along the road,” Just said. “People are really good about working with each other out there.
“From there, we get them all settled, get the horses ready, then open up (the catch-pen gate) and start heading to the pastures.”
The “we” includes a small corps of family members and friends, most of whom are regulars for the twice-yearly moves.
“It’s kind of an unspoken role,” Just said. “Everybody kind of goes to what they’ve done in the past. Donnie Hett has been one who has helped for years. Donnie’s kind of been up front, taking the lead role.
“Then there are those of us regulars who will be flanking on each side of the herd. We’ll go to our positions to keep (the cattle) from going off either side. Then, those who help us who aren’t necessarily experienced, or aren’t always a part of it, are the ones who keep the pressure up from behind.”
In spring, the herd is trucked out to the catch pens by mid-morning. The team of herders will then lead the cattle to the family pasture and be back to the pen with their horses around noon or so. The actual cattle drive through the hills takes only a couple of hours—usually.
“The biggest mishap one time was going out and sometimes others have already put their cattle in the same pasture,” Just said. “Usually, it’s not a problem. The cattle stay off to the side, but we had a whole herd of heifers that came running just before we got to our pasture and completely mixed into our herd.
“With the cows and calves and all their heifers, we had to hold them with the horses and sort off all the heifers of the neighbors, and get our cattle moved in through the gate. Luckily, most of ours are black and theirs are pretty much red, so that did help.”
Roots in ranching
Rod’s father, family patriarch Eugene Just, used to be a dedicated chicken farmer with around 23,000 chickens under roof.
Then, in the early 1990s, a severe ice storm came through the area and the weight of the ice caused the roof to collapse, killing a majority of the birds.
“That put him out of the chicken business,” Just said with a smile. “He turned around from that point and instead of spending money on the chicken house, he instead spent money on this pasture and then built up the cattle herd.”
The Justs operate their cow-calf operation year around, with calves arriving in both fall and spring. Once born, each calf is tagged, checked and worked.
“Around April 15, that’s the time when we move them out (to the Flint Hills) in the spring, and the time they come out in the fall is Oct. 15.
“Between family members and friendly neighbors and horses, that’s how we do that now,” he said. “We’ll have six to eight horses helping move in and out. If Dad’s involved, he will be on his four-wheeler, just kind of keeping an eye on things.”
The team also includes daughter Erika and her husband, Cole George, from Uniontown, who bring their own horses.
“It’s good that she married an experience rancher—he’s very good with cattle,” Rod said. “My one brother, Randy, will ride on a horse and help out also. Then my son, Evan, whose done a lot of cattle and ranch work, is on a horse, too.”
“We’ll take in others occasionally who want to help and are willing to get a horse.”
Moving the cattle to and from the Flint Hills is an enjoyable activity, mostly because the crew puts safety first.
“We are a little careful,” Rod said. “It’s not just a joy trail ride. It’s good if you have some cattle experience to help, so we’re not having to worry about an inexperienced rider. We’ve never really had any troubles.”
But danger is always a possibility.
“The thing is you never know with live animals what’s going to happen—such as other cattle joining in, such as all of a sudden stopping and refusing to go any further, or actually charging a horse.
“You always want to make sure nobody gets hurt. We’ve never had anybody get hurt, but it’s always possible.”
Weather occasionally can be as unpredictable as cattle.
“One time, as we were gathering and we’re already miles out in the pasture, a big thunderstorm set in,” Just recalled. “It was completely pouring and lighting and splashing and thunder. You’re out in the pasture on a horse, and there’s no buildings, no safe place to go.
“That was one situation where we were experiencing the nervous part of anticipation. We had to finish gathering, we were already there, but there was just nowhere to go. In that case, we just kept plugging along, knowing it was not a good situation.”
When the drive is finally complete, the team celebrates the accomplishment.
“Usually when we come back, Dad and my mom normally make cinnamon rolls and coffee. There’s never a time that we do this without food involved.We usually eat a meal together, sit and talk and have a good time.”
Not surprisingly, the schoolteacher in Just can’t help but think about the history of cattle in the Flint Hills and the ranchers who cared for them generations ago.
“The Flint Hills is grass that’s never been farmed and is still looks like it did years ago,” he said. “You think back to what it would have been like for the cattlemen that were here, what it would have been like for the buffalo that were here. We know there were Indians who lived in that area because artifacts have been found—not in our pasture, but a few miles from that area.
“And there’s still a lot of wildlife to see out there.”
Just defends the practice of burning pastures in spring because he knows it’s best for the grass. At the same time, cooperation and safety must be priorities.
“The thing is, when you own pasture that has nothing but a fence between you and the next guy, the fire won’t stop at the fence line,” he said. “So all of the owners out there have to work together on where to burn or not burn, because you can’t really save yours from burning if they’re going to burn.
“If you light one part of it, you’re going to burn the whole thing. That’s where you see the huge amounts of smoke and fire. It doesn’t last a long time, but it will affect air quality only for a short while. That’s part of a natural process of keeping the grass good, keeping it green and keeping trees and brush from growing up in it.”
Just has decided to take a break from teaching this next school year, although he holds out the possibility of returning to the classroom sometime later. Just will be doing some mechanical work for the school district next year, but his primary focus will be on the family farm and ranch.
“I guess it’s something not everyone has a chance to do,” Just said. “I don’t want to feel prideful that we do this and others don’t. It’s just that we have the opportunity to do this—not only the opportunity, but if we’re choosing to raise cattle in this way, this is the way we have to do it.”