Archive for Thursday, March 25, 2004

Tonganoxie longhorn ranch a labor of love for father and son

March 25, 2004

One more month and it all will be finished.

This year's crop of some 25 longhorn calves will be romping in the field. And if only for a moment -- before the rush of summer farming takes hold -- Mike McGraw and his son, Travis McGraw will relax.

This year the calving season, which generally runs from January through April, took an unusually brutal start.

Single digit temperatures.

Snow melting during the day then refreezing into treacherous sheets of ice at night.

Weeks of snow-covered ground, days where it seemed the arctic blast would linger forever.

On a recent January morning when it looked as if the temperature would top out at 8 degrees, all was quiet on the longhorn front.

Two miles south of Tonganoxie just off of U.S. Highway 24-40, dozens of stalwart longhorn cattle roamed the icy range.

At the gently rolling property, which longtime locals know as the old Gordon Harman farm, the father-son team tend to their herd morning and night. During calving season, it's more often than that.

But despite the work, which adds to the men's vast county-wide farm operation, it's not so much of a chore as it is a delight.

Even with the longhorns' intimidating appearance, the cattle are surprisingly docile. Travis easily gives his 1,800-pound purebred longhorn bull a pat on the head. But still, admitting a sincere respect for the beasts' broad span of arching chisled horns, the men are careful in their midst.

A falling snow muffles the crunch of hooves on ice -- only the gnashing of corn between molars and the occasional plaintive mooing break the winter stillness.

Travis and Mike carry buckets of corn through the herd of 50 or so longhorn cattle, scattering piles of golden grain to fill their ravenous appetites.

From the back of a pickup, Travis has already lured the longhorns to this field near the pond by tossing hay on the ground, as if he were a pied piper luring children. And true to form, the animals followed the jostling truck. To ensure the cattle can find water, Travis raises an ax over his shoulders and chops into the ice-covered pond.

Odd man out

Now with spring's approach, Travis, Mike and Cinch, a rat terrier whose official duty is to stay in the truck and bark at the longhorns -- he keeps them from denting the sides -- can breathe easier.

Winter has faded. No more ice to chop. The calving season is well under way. There are 16 calves on the ground right now. In a month their number will be closer to 25.

For the McGraws, the farming operation, which covers a 25-mile length of the county from south of Reno to Springdale, is non-stop work.

But father and son wouldn't have it any other way.

Travis, a fourth-generation Kansas farmer, takes a stubborn and admirable pride in his work.

"I do what I want to do and when I want to do it," said the 30-year-old Travis. "I might have to do it a lot harder than people do at their other jobs, but I'm doing what I want and how I want it."

Travis admits that being a farmer, especially in an area that's becoming increasingly urban, makes him feel as if he's the odd man out.

Travis noted the price of grain has recently climbed to a decent level.

"But most farmers don't have any grain left to sell -- they've already sold it," he said.

Travis believes that his father, who is 55, will keep farming forever. But he doesn't know what he will do.

"It depends on what the future brings," Travis said. "Agriculture's changed a lot in the last 30 years -- it's hard to tell what it will do."

Travis paused, then added: "I'd like to think about having enough money down the road that I can think about retiring."

For Mike, too, at least at this point, retirement is a big question mark.

"Retire? No I don't see how I can," Mike said with a dry chuckle. "Not with my job -- self-employed farmer -- it's going to be hard to retire."

One thing's certain, Mike said. More and more people are moving to the area. Fields that used to grow wheat are now sprouting rows of new homes.

Mike, who lives near the house where his parents still live, is a little edgy about what some would call progress. Yet at the same time he realizes it's time to become a part of it.

"I grew up on the farm we're living on," Mike said. "If there was a car coming down the road, it was coming to see us, because nobody lived on the road but us. Now there's cars coming down the road once an hour -- it's changed a lot."

Of course with the higher land prices, it's no longer feasible to buy land for farming, he added.

"You can't buy land and use it as agriculture and make it pay," Mike said. "It just won't work."

In fact, Mike said he and his wife, Karen, planned to sell land off one of their road frontages for houses.

"When you can get $5,000 an acre, it's time to be thinking about selling some of it," Mike said.

He noted the county's proximity to the growth around Kansas Speedway, an easy 10-minute-drive to Tonganoxie.

"Everybody wants to move here," Mike said. "You can't stop it -- you just have to go with it, I guess."

A longhorn start

Travis and Mike didn't set out to raise longhorn cattle. It was more a matter of convenience.

A few years back, Travis and a friend leased longhorn calves to rope one summer. Travis had been roping since he was 16.

At the end of the summer, Travis kept five heifers, planning to raise his own roping calves. Eventually he had enough to sell. When used for roping, the calves are about a year to 14 months old and weigh from 350 to 450 pounds.

Novices might think that's a hefty chunk of beef.

"That's not really as big as you think," Travis said. "They're getting huge when they weigh in at 700 pounds -- then they're too big."

Generally, a calf can be roped only about seven months. After that, they tend to become a little too smart.

"When they get roped over and over again they start learning how not to get roped," Travis said.

Travis takes pride in his herd. He grins when told that drivers on the nearby highway slowed to get a glimpse of the horned animals.

"It started as a little bit of a hobby and turned into something bigger," Travis said. "It just keeps growing every year."

Mike said longhorns are a little easier to raise than commercial cattle, which the men also raise.

The longhorns are more resistant to diseases. Flies don't bother them as much. And because their calves are about half the size of those from a commercial cow, they give calve easier.

And at the very least, looking after the longhorns is almost a form of entertainment for Travis and Mike, who, because of their constant farm chores, can't take a day off together. Even they shake their head in amazement when they think about the vastness of their farming operation.

"It's just me and my dad -- it's the same way with everything -- the row crops and the cattle," Travis said. "I don't have a clue how we get it all done, but we seem to."

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