The deed to the first land purchased in southeast Kansas by Roscoe Gaither hangs in his grandson’s office. The date is 1886, and the price for 160 acres was $3,000 — or $18.75 per acre. Roscoe put down $2,100, and the deed also describes the financing of the balance of $900 by the previous owner — at 9 percent interest. By today’s standards, the price of the land would be considered a good value, but the interest rate not so much.
One might imagine the work and sacrifice necessary to carve out a living on the Kansas prairie 123 years ago. That deed hangs on John Gaither’s wall as a family heirloom, but it also serves as testament to the virtues of hard work and perseverance. Today the Gaither Ranch, near Columbus, Kan., includes that original quarter-section, as well as many others.
But the Gaither Ranch story isn’t just about decades of success. In 1959, when John was just a junior in college, his father died suddenly. With John the only child, the future of the ranch seemed in doubt. John finished his degree in animal science at Kansas State University and returned to the ranch where he says he knew success was not guaranteed. “But I decided I was going to give it my best shot,” he says. That meant hard work and sacrifice, not unlike what his grandfather had endured nearly a century before.
Gaither started building a cow herd in the early 1960s, while farming corn and other crops. But by 1980 he was in the process of switching his operation to stocker cattle. He quickly gives a list of reasons why.
“I like to merchandise my corn through a growing animal,” he says. “And there are certainly labor issues with a cow herd, such as the intense work that comes with calving season. I’ve also found that you can take care of your grass a little easier with stocker cattle.”
The main reason, however, was the 75 to 100 pounds that Gaither saw every year that he could not sell. “When you wean a calf in the fall the cow is thin,” he says. “And you have to put weight on her so that she is ready to calve in the spring. I just saw 75 to 100 pounds on the cows every spring that I couldn’t sell.”
Stocker cattle, however, present a different opportunity. “Every pound you put on them you can sell,” Gaither says. “Grass is our business, and we have seeded a lot of marginal farm land back to grass. Stocker cattle provide an excellent way to market the production off that land.” The ranch utilizes fescue and warm-season grasses — such as bluestem, crabgrass amd bermuda — that provide excellent gains for their animals.
Stocker cattle also provide options during challenging times that are more difficult to manage with a cow herd.
“If it’s dry and we’re short on feed we’re not locked in,” he says. “We can market stocker cattle anytime if we have to. With a cow herd, a forced sale at the wrong time of year could be disastrous financially.”
Gaither buys most of his stocker cattle in the fall, when prices are lower seasonally, and he likes to market them in the spring as prices rise seasonally.
“We’re in the business of buying mismanaged cattle and straightening them up. We don’t confine anything in a dirty pen. Our cattle are on grass at all times.” New arrivals are often newly weaned calves, and Gaither says as soon as those calves stop “walking the fence” they are turned out in clean grass pastures.
“Straightening cattle up is a little easier than it used to be,” he says. “We have better medications for sick cattle and better management practices, too.”
With nearly 50 years at the helm of the ranch, Gaither has weathered a lot of storms and seen many changes to his business. The cattle markets in 1973 and ’74 are remembered as particularly difficult. But, he says, “you have to be an optimist in this business.”
The optimist in Gaither believes the role of the stocker operator in today’s cattle industry will continue for at least another generation — long enough for sons Jim and John to become firmly established.