Kansas rancher Rex Buchman enjoys the cowboy life while making his mark on the cattle and equine industries
Dust-filled winds sweeping through the vast plains. Native sunflowers lining the roads. Wheat fields, ghost towns and cattle drives.
This is rural Kansas.
Missouri author William Least Heat-Moon devoted his 624-page book, PrairyErth, to the geography, history and people of Chase County, Kansas. He described it as, “A paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness.”
Third-generation rancher and cowboy, Rex Buchman, understands and lives that feeling of limitlessness. For Buchman, the Flint Hills region of Kansas offers limitless potential, and there’s no place he would rather be than on his family’s Bar U Ranch.
“I was born on this ranch,” said Buchman, who lives in his grandparents’ 1889-model Sears and Roebuck two-story home that arrived by train and was assembled near Burdick, Kan., about 10 miles off the nearest blacktop. “I grew up right here with a beautiful little Palomino filly that my grandfather gave me, that .22 rifle (displayed on the kitchen wall), a coon dog and a fishing pole. I didn’t need anything more than that.”
Buchman’s father, Burton Lou, and his grandfather, Louis Charles (L.C.), instilled a love of ranching, breeding, animal genetics and entrepreneurship into the young Burton Rex.
“Ranching—cattle and horses—this is what I’ve always wanted to do. And if it wasn’t for horses, I probably wouldn’t like to have cattle,” Buchman said.
After graduating from Kansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 1976, Buchman tried his luck in the cattle business.
“I came home for a few years to raise bulls and went broke,” he said. “So I moved to East Texas where I was the farm supervisor at Stephen F. Austin State University. After that, I moved to New Mexico where I served as an extension county agent in agriculture. My primary responsibility was with 4-H and youth programs.”
In 2005, the Flint Hills and Bar U Ranch called Buchman back to his roots to help his father with the cattle operation, which had been established by L.C. in 1933. L.C. had originally moved to the ranch as a tenant farmer, leasing the headquarters and farm ground from an insurance company. The year he bought the ranch turned out to be plagued by drought.
“The banker helping Grandpa Lou tore up the contract and advised him to just lease the farm for a couple years, then try to buy it again,” Buchman explained. “Grandpa Lou decided to try something different and bought cattle from Clovis, New Mexico and Childers, Texas. The cattle were shipped up here by rail. He wintered the herd on harvested feedstuffs like corn silage and sorghum silage back in those days. He grazed them, sold them off grass and fattened some of them.”
Within three years of buying the first herd, L.C. was able to pay off the farm.
“The next set of cattle took him 10 years to pay for,” Buchman said with a chuckle. “It’s typical. That’s the way the cattle business goes.”
Turning black to red
When he returned to the ranch, Rex Buchman’s entrepreneurial wheels started to turn. What types of agribusiness ventures might thrive in the Flint Hills? He and his wife, Teresa, decided that their love of cattle and horses would blend nicely into a ranching experience.
They also starting thinking about ways to set their Angus-based cattle operation apart. He noticed that the red bred heifers were bringing $200 to $400 a head more than the black heifers.
“The red heifers were just more popular,” Buchman said. “That was the first thing that turned my head. When we moved from the bred heifer program to a seedstock development, my thought was red—it’s something new.”
Once he and Teresa started focusing on producing red cattle, several benefits became apparent, Buchman said.
“One was the heat tolerance,” he said. “Daddy used to run his black cows in one pasture and his red cows in the other pasture. There were hours of difference in how soon the red cows came out of the timber to start grazing as opposed to the black cows. One pasture doesn’t have any shade trees in it, and the red cows do fine in that pasture. The black cows suffer in it. Heat tolerance in Kansas is a big deal.”
The second aspect Buchman likes about red cattle is their docility.
“At calving time, these old red cows, they’ll come up and blow your hair back while you’re tagging their calf. They might lick your face,” Buchman said. “The black Angus cattle act completely different.”
Another positive, he added, is that gentle cattle are safer to handle.
“They really work well for our dude ranch program because people can do everything wrong, and we still get our work done without endangering our clients, the cows or the horses,” he said. “The cows move slow, so it is easier to teach someone how to handle them.”
Buchman’s ranch-raised custom beef business benefits from the calm cows as well. Genetics plays a role in the carcass quality as does the demeanor and handling of the cows.
“Our steers are walking off the trailer calmly and looking around while other cattle are nervous and wild,” he said. “That much adrenaline in them when they go to the slaughterhouse is going to affect the way the meat tastes. So gentle cattle are really important all the way through, and these red cattle have all those great traits.”
The Buchmans runs about 60 cows, smaller than many operations in the area. They also custom-graze 100 bred heifers for a friend and take care of 60 to 80 cows for another friend.
“It makes sense to have 60 of the best cows you can possibly have,” explained Buchman. “We can’t make $1 a head on a million cattle to make it work. We have to make about $500 or $600 a head to have enough income to keep us going. My plan is to move them from average to elite as fast as I can.”
With two clear creeks and rolling pastures covered with native tall grass, Buchman’s cattle thrive in the Flint Hills, an area that was once a shallow sea. The ranch encompasses 1,100 acres, and Buchman leases about 1,400 acres from neighboring ranches so the cattle can graze on the nutrient-rich prairie grasses.
“Genetics is part of the equation, but you must have the nutrition to match. Our cattle and horses have to be developed for a high-end, luxury market,” Buchman said. “Partnering with MFA for a nutrient plan has really improved our efficiency with the cows. When Brian (Bartels, MFA livestock key account manager) and I go out and look at the cattle, we don’t say, ‘Do they look good enough?’ We’re asking ourselves if they look too good. That’s where we’re at in our program right now.” (See sidebar on page 18 for details.)
Heritage of horses
Cattle and horses go hand in hand for the Buchmans. Rex and Teresa have decades of experience in raising, riding and training quarter horses.
“One of my favorite stories is when I came back home at the age of 50 and was cleaning out a grain bin with my Dad,” Buchman said. “He pulled out an old wooden rocking horse from the corner. He said to me, ‘Here, you take it home. Mother’s been saving this for you for 50 years. I tried my very best to make a cowboy out of you.’ He paused for a little bit, then said, ‘I might’ve overdone it.’”
Being back on the ranch may have been Rex’s dream, but Teresa took on his dream when they returned to their home state. To watch the couple work the cattle by horseback is a delight.
“I was a city girl before moving back, so it took me a little bit to get back into the groove of riding,” she said. “My parents broke horses and everyone brought their outlaw horses to my dad. He could break anything—horse teams, draft mules, draft horses, quarter horses.”
Buchman is well known in the horse community, whether he is riding, judging, coaching, training or breeding. While working in New Mexico, he was asked to help with local tourism. He worked with a number of different agencies, landowners and politicians to create a trail ride adventure on horseback, retracing the 125-mile journey of Billy the Kid.
“It took two or three years to get it done, and it was really an adventure to develop,” he said. “The first try we got lost, we ran out of food and water, and somebody had to rescue us. Once we had it all figured out, we had people from across the country and all over the world joining us to experience Billy the Kid’s journey.”
Combining their two passions, horses and cattle, along with the love of the Flint Hills region and Rex’s agritourism experiences, the Buchmans now host Flint Hills Ranching Adventures with Matt and Angie Jobe from Windsor, Mo.
“I’ve always wanted to come home and run the ranch. Yet, I knew that it wasn’t big enough and there wasn’t enough money in cows to make it work,” Buchman explained. “So, in the back of my mind, I was always looking for other streams of income. We’d like to build a business big enough that one of our five kids can come back and run it. It’s a serious goal. Tourism is money that’s not tied to drought or cattle markets. And there’s a huge market for it.”
The “dude ranch” experiences the Buchmans offer include trail rides, cattle drives, branding, cowboy camp, roping, horsemanship lessons and photography clinics. The ranch’s cattle drive provides guests a chance to experience a historical Flint Hills event like it was a century-and-a-half ago, when fat steers were sorted and sent by rail to Kansas City or Chicago. The Buchmans also operate a bed-and-breakfast near the ranch, and Teresa prepares all the meals.
The scenic beauty of the ranch, the quality of the Buchmans’ quarter horses and their hospitality are what keep people coming back for more.
“There is no set schedule for our dude ranch adventure, but it’s somewhat seasonal. The horses don’t act nice in the winter. We also have people who come here just to ride,” Buchman said. “The most common size group for an event is eight to 15 people. Many times, we just have a grandparent who brings five or six grandkids for a great experience. They prefer to provide a unique trip rather than buy them trinkets.”
Like the vastness of the surrounding scenery, Buchman has limitless plans for the future.
Invest in quality
Rex Buchman will tell you that producing quality animals means investing in quality, and that applies to both genetics and nutrition. The veteran rancher takes care of the genetics while he relies on Brian Bartels, livestock key account manager at the MFA’s feed mill in Emporia, Kan., to help formulate an effective nutrition plan for Bar U Ranch’s cattle and horses.
“When I started working with Brian, the customer service went through the roof,” Buchman said. “He works hard for us, and MFA is always doing what they can to help us succeed in the luxury cattle and horse business.”
The MFA Range Cube is one of the MFA feed products that Buchman feeds the cattle on his Flint Hills ranch.
“The quality and consistency of our Range Cube sets us apart,” Bartels said. “Our nutritional team has created a completely balanced ration made from high-quality ingredients. We have been using the same formulation for more than 60 years. The physical quality is second to none.”
Buchman also uses MFA’s Cattle Charge, Vitalix tubs as well as custom feed. EasyKeeper is Buchman’s go-to feed for his highly sought-after quarter horses. “It’s a quality product, and it really produces excellent results for us,” he said.
Buchman also forward-contracts his feed to estimate how many tons the ranch will use. “By doing this we can keep our expenses predictable while getting the best prices possible for superior MFA products,” he said.
“The quickest way to drive up the cost of production is to do something that doesn’t work,” Buchman added. “Partnering with MFA works.”
October Today's Farmer Magazine Cover Story.
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