Longtime Rancher at Home Amongst Herd of 6,000 in Flint Hills
July 31, 2020
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July 31, 2020
Photo Credit: Justin McClure Creative
Bill Oates is as steady as the Kansas wind and as solid as the flint that likely protected the tallgrass prairie from the plow. He’s the manager of the 10,300-acre Rosalia Ranch, a branch of the legendary Gottsch Cattle Company. Set in the Flint Hills of Kansas, the Rosalia Ranch is in Butler County, about 15 miles east of El Dorado. Oates reflects on his vocation, “Oh, you know, I’ve lived here 16 years, but I’ve worked for the company most of my life. I just haven’t found anything better to do yet. Not a lot of people work anywhere that long … it seems like people don’t stick around – especially the younger ones anyway.”
The Gottsch Cattle Company, which started in 1957 and stretches across three generations and the great plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, has grown to become a premier cattle production company. Besides being a very successful and fully-integrated producer of beef, the business is based on the leadership and character qualities of honesty, integrity, perseverance, commitment, affirmation, and endurance. They still believe that a job is not worth doing if it’s not done right.
How did Oates land this job that suits him so well? “Really, I just love cattle. I like to look at them and I like being around them. They are a lot friendlier than most people,” he chuckles. “It’s all I’ve ever done. I like to wake up and just have cattle around me. And this job … there’s cattle here almost all the time. And, you get to work with family every day, so that’s good.”
Oates and his wife, Joan, are the lone human inhabitants of this vast ranch under a big sky. Joan does the book work and is not averse to helping with the cattle when she has time. The rest of the operation is left to just three people – Bill and sons, Cody and Jake, who live offsite. But you can bet the Oates’ six grandkids (especially the older ones) love to come help when they get a chance. Oates adds, “… unless it’s like 20 below – really cold or something!”
The Rosalia Ranch is a “backgrounding” operation. Oates breaks that down: “We receive sale barn calves and get them ready to go to the feed yard, keeping them anywhere from 70 to 90 days – mainly just getting them weaned and eating and healthy.” He adds, “Most of them are weaned on the truck. We have a ‘small’ feed yard that holds about 4,500 head. We start them all in the feed yard and then from there, depending on the time of year, we’ll put them on the outside grass.” It’s all about the grass; essentially there are three seasons – Spring Grass, Summer Grass, and Winter Grass. When not grazing, the cattle are fed a total ration of corn, hay, corn silage, dried distillers from ethanol plants, and a special liquid protein.
Currently, there are a little over 6,000 head of cattle on the Rosalia Ranch – 2,483 steers and 1,107 spayed heifers on the summer grass, with the balance in the feed yard. When asked what breed of cattle they run, Oates responds, “I’m going to say 90 percent are Black Angus cross and the other 10 percent would be Red Baldy Charolais.” As a cattleman and conservationist, Oates stocks the ranch’s native Flint Hills pasture according to the weight of the cattle. He puts 250 pounds per acre of grass. He adds, “Well, we try to do everything good – we spray, we burn every spring, and we try to leave plenty of grass there for wildlife and everything else.” Expanding on that, he says, “You can just sit out here and listen to the coyotes at night … and it’s such pretty scenery also.” Besides two people and 12,000 cattle per year, the Rosalia Ranch is home to prairie chickens, quail, deer, and turkeys.
There are 12 working horses on the Rosalia Ranch right now, and they are used to check on the cattle. When fencing or water tanks need inspection, four-wheelers are employed. His family had horses and Oates reminisces, “Well, I guess, growing up, all we had for entertainment was horses. Back then, we were always just on horseback and I always liked it.” Oates was raised outside of Grafton, Neb., where his Dad worked for the railroad. On the weekends, his dad also worked on a farm that had cattle. When he was little, Oates would go along and help. He expands, “You know, back in those days, there was nothing on TV and we were outside all time.” Not that much has changed.
SKT has provided the Rosalia Ranch its steady connection of phone and internet services for a long time now. Oates says, “I mean, you have to have internet to do anything anymore.” They use the internet for their animal health system, emails, and “looking things up on Google is real handy,” Oates adds. “It’s a good internet connection.”Learn About SKT Internet
The Rosalia Ranch has another claim to fame. In 2014 and then again in 2018, this gorgeous, rolling piece of prairie in the middle of Kansas hosted the Symphony in the Flint Hills, a spectacular sunset evening concert by the Kansas City Symphony. With a mission to heighten appreciation and knowledge of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie, this iconic annual event also features an entire day filled with art, poetry, prairie walks, covered wagon rides, food and beverages, a dance, stargazing, and much more. Attracting 6,000 to 7,000 people, the production requires a giant stage, huge tents, and parking for over 3,000 cars! “It looked like there’d be a lot of damage, but there really was not hardly any at all,” Oates says. “You know, those people did a really good job – setting up and cleaning up. There was no trash anywhere and you could hardly tell they had been here a year later.”
One of the awe-inspiring moments at the end of the concert is when cowboys drive a herd of cattle for the guests to see and enjoy. Oates recounts the 2018 scene, “Yes, me and the boys, and of course several other people helped with that deal – that’s why I missed a lot of the symphony thing because I was busy! Yeah! There was probably 400 head [of cattle] there that day … whatever the head count was in that pasture is what we did (and that was several years ago … and a lot of cattle) but the wranglers kind of had them held up before we got there, because that’s a busy day – I mean you get to meet with the governor and got all these people wanting to talk, and all of a sudden you’ve got to turn around … so the wranglers did 90 percent of all that work. They did a good job. We just helped them move the cattle along, is all. They are hired by the symphony; I think a lot of times they have a lot of the same people … but they are all working cowboys – they know what they’re doing!” Bill Oates remains positive, and by all accounts – with the beautiful scene, the sky ablaze, and thousands of voices lifted with the symphony in a rousing rendition of “Home on the Range” – it’s been reported that there were tears in the eyes of not a few.
The keeper of the Rosalia Ranch sums it up in this way, “The one thing I will say is with this pandemic going on … we have social distanced ourselves for so many years … that’s just the way it is. Nobody else lives out here, so we are kind of social-distanced. We see people once in a while, but not daily. Peace and quiet is good for me. I don’t need the big towns. We have a big deck, and at night you can sit out here and look at the stars. You can actually see them really good, whereas in town, with all the lights and the trees, you just don’t get the chance to see that stuff ….”