Many years ago, they went broke farming in the Panhandle of Oklahoma. Now, much like the grasses to which they give so much attention, Bill and Karen Payne are thriving.
To understand the Payne’s unconventional method of cattle production, it’s important to understand their love and dedication to what they do. They have a stocker cattle operation, taking full advantage of their land by practicing a form of rotational grazing known as mob grazing. With mob grazing, Bill and Karen discovered with the right equipment and time, their operational methods required less work, yet produced higher returns while improving the land.
The Paynes thoroughly enjoy cattle production, which has always been a family enterprise. Before moving to the panhandle, where he met Karen, Bill lived on a high mountain cattle ranch in Wyoming. Karen, on the other hand, grew up in Oklahoma’s panhandle. Her family were homesteaders. Her grandfather was fortunate enough to make it through the dust bowl and purchased acreage from farmers that were leaving the area. After the Bill and Karen married, they started a hog operation in the area, but eventually the harsh conditions led them away from the panhandle and the Paynes started a 400-acre cattle ranch in the mountains of Colorado. It was both family and greener pastures that, in time, eventually brought the two back to Oklahoma. They viewed land all across the state, trying to find the perfect piece of property to start fresh. It was their daughter, Sherry, who mentioned a 900-acre ranch just outside of Saint Louis Okla. The property was in bad shape. Barns as well as other structures were run down, and the pastures were hardly usable. In spite of the overall poor condition, the Paynes realized the property’s potential. They decided to purchase the ranch.
Today, when Bill is called away for other projects, Karen operates the ranch by herself. Typically, however it’s the two of them working side by side, managing about 1,000 head of cattle a year. Because of their passion and attention to detail, the Paynes have been able to prosper with mob grazing on the given amount of productive ranch acreage. The clean and natural look of their place didn’t just happen over night, but careful evaluation and a minimal amount of equipment enhanced nature’s ability to provide what was needed to create a productive business for this dedicated couple.
The Paynes purchased their place near Saint Louis with rotational grazing in mind; however, they knew it would require some work as 75 percent of the land was covered with trees. Improvement began with evaluation of the desired operation. With the aid of the Noble Foundation, they found their land had the potential to support rotational grazing. Bill commented on their plan for improving the grass.
“First, we didn’t plant any of the native grasses that are here growing today. The seed bank is there, and we have good ground moisture. We just gave it the opportunity to grow. After clearing trees with my skid steer and tree saw, we eventually were able to start grazing. There are two things we utilize to improve the quality of our grass; one is hoof action, and the other is speed. By concentrating cattle groups on our one-acre grazing tracts, hoof action creates seed-to-soil contact and fertilization. By speeding up the rotating process, we found that it actually strengthened the grass and improved weight gains among the cattle,” said Bill.
Over time, the once over-grazed and under-managed ranch began to improve. By working with available natural resources, and providing growth opportunity, the Paynes’ mob grazing methods have created an environment that produces returns for their cattle production and a haven for wildlife. Wild turkey flocks thrive, quail have settled in the area, and deer are thick due to their conservation efforts. The Paynes have completely transformed their land in seven short years in spite of several years of severe drought. Now, they have some of the prettiest grass one could see, and they achieved this result utilizing very little equipment.
To completely alter the look of 900 acres, one could naturally assume a vast amount of heavy equipment would be required. However, using their skid steer mounted tree saw (with its fast and versatile capabilities), both crucial to the clearing process, hundreds of trees were cleared for grazing in a short amount of time. An additional benefit was the exposure of non-productive land areas which could be eliminated as non-productive for grazing. Their tractor is especially useful for running their nine-strand Power Flex poly wire, which has played a key role in their rotational grazing success. They use a Polaris Sportsman to check fences, but prefer to leave it out of the equation when moving their cattle. In fact, the only machine to which the cattle are exposed is the Paynes’ red 1992 Ford Ranger! It is important the cattle readily recognize the Paynes’ truck as Bill and Karen spend a lot of time with these cattle. Bill relayed the important use of other tools which make mob grazing easier.
“For what we do, the true test is… Can it be moved easily? It’s extremely important that materials can be easily moved because we have over 30 miles of electric fence and 12 miles of poly wire. The Power Flex system is incredible. We should’ve been using this from the beginning. We use a nine- strand braided poly wire and we’ve yet to see it broken by the cattle. Our Stafix charger powers all our electrical fence, and with my remote, I can control the fence from any part of the ranch. Our grazing method is all about time and speed. Karen and I can move three groups of 80 or more cattle in less than an hour,” said Bill.
The Paynes’ mob grazing method is simple in design, but requires their devoted time, as explained. 80 to 100 branded and vaccinated heifer stocker cattle arrive on a truck. Once unloaded, they stay in a holding pen for three to five days. Here the Paynes introduce themselves to the cattle, and the concept of electric fences, water troughs, and feed bunks. After the cattle have settled in, they are released into a paddock that is sectioned off into one-acre tracts. Every morning, the Paynes rotate the group to a fresh section within the paddock. They rotate three different groups, staged 30 days apart, across fields of varied grasses. The cattle will stay on the Paynes’ ranch approximately 90 to 100 days before being sold to a buyer to whom the Paynes have developed a close relationship. This is a year- round process that keeps Bill and Karen busy throughout the week. Physically spending time with the cattle aids their continuous rotation of the groups. Karen commented on the importance of spending time with the cattle.
“We spend hours with the cattle, but this is especially true when they first arrive. By the third day, they are following us around. They recognize us as well as our red Ranger. When we drop a poly gate to rotate, they are already waiting on us,” said Karen.
The Paynes’ methodical mob grazing technique aids in conservation and yields positive results. It takes time and patience for this process to work, but for the Paynes, it’s a lifestyle which they equally love and are devoted.
Fields of Dreams was published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Great Plains living
the official magazine of Great Plains Kubota