All Hands on Deck
The Dewels find out what it takes to relocate their herd to Oklahoma
Sometimes the pathway to farming and Oklahoma is a long one. For Bill and Ruth Dewel and their son, Alan, this is definitely the case. Bill and Ruth met and married while attending college at the University of Arizona. Then they moved to Boone, N.C., to work at Appalachian State University where Bill taught biology and Ruth managed a microscopy facility for multiple science departments.
In the meantime Ruth became interested in cattle. When the couple started looking towards retirement, they bought land along the San Pedro River in Arizona with the intention of just owning the land. However, once there they realize they needed to do something with the land to avoid outrageous taxes, they started a Red Angus herd. They had absolutely no farming background. Ruth said, “We learned through studying, mistakes and help from the people around us.” They chose Red Angus because they thought the Arizona climate would be easier on red rather than black cattle. Eventually, however, the aging irrigation system became too expensive and too hard to maintain. They began looking for a new home for their Red Angus herd, someplace with rain.
After investigating multiple properties in several states, they settled on a 500-acre dairy farm in Warner, Okla., two and a half years ago. They believed this property had the best potential and value. Alan preceded them and began the long and ongoing process of decommissioning the dairy farm and transitioning to a grass fed Red Angus operation. Bill said, “We were very concerned about moving the cattle. However, that turned out to be a lot easier than moving us. We were fortunate to have both a good vet and an excellent driver who was sensitive to animal needs. We, of course, had a whole household to move.”
One unusual aspect of their move was that they shared the land with the owner for over a year which gave them time to become accustomed to the property and to learn more about the cattle business. Alan, in particular, learned how to run all of the equipment needed for haying. Last year they put up 170 bales of rye in the spring and 200 to 300 bales of native and Bermuda bales in the summer most of which they sold since their cattle subsist on grazing with added protein through minimal alfalfa hay.
One of the biggest challenges in the decommissioning process was and is the removal of vast amounts of extraneous metal. The land also has to be reconditioned. One of the plans is to add legumes such as White Clover to increase higher protein grazing, lower fertilizing costs and eliminate the need for Alfalfa hay. Another aspect of their land management plan is developing 40-acre intensive grazing blocks for a rotational grazing pattern for the main herd with smaller sections for younger animals and for a few who do better when more isolated. This requires new and extensive permanent fencing.
At the current time the Dewels have 28 momma cows plus bulls but are looking forward to using AI. Parents and son have different long-term goals for the eventual size of the herd. One limiting factor is that grass finished beef are kept for two years because of a slower maturation rate. While mom and dad look to an eventual herd size of 50 momma cows, Alan is hoping to have a herd large enough to support a family of four with a herd of 100 cows.
Alan feels the biggest challenge ahead of them is marketing. He pointed out that the amount of money farmers receive for their products has not kept up with their expenses. However, many people have a growing awareness of health and the advantages of grass fed beef, and they anticipate that demand for their beef will increase. The Dewels sold beef to individual customers in Arizona but are looking towards farmers markets and niche chain markets here. At the current time they are keeping their heifers to increase the size of the herd.
Ruth is mom to the cows, and when she comes out and calls, they come running. They also like to run and chase Alan’s dogs. Ruth said, “I just love being outside especially as the sun is setting and the cattle are content.” Then Alan added, “At that time they almost glow because of their red hair.”
Not long ago Bill attended his 50th high school class reunion. He remembered FFA kids and town kids being in separate groups. At that time town kids felt a bit superior to those in FFA. Not so for him anymore. At the reunion, when Bill said that farming was the hardest combination of physical and mental effort he had ever done, several farmers came up and warmly shook his hand. Bill said, “I’ve gotten a lot smarter and know that farmers know every bit as much as I do, probably more.”