WINFIELD — On a warm mid-morning earlier this week, with a flock of purple martins wheeling and chirruping high overhead and a soft wind rolling through the tallgrass prairie at the southern tip of the Flint Hills, Barry Barber invited me to look closely, and with care, at a large pile of dung.
“Patties are a whole ecosystem unto themselves,” said Barber, who along with his wife Nadine owns and operates one of the most highly regarded grass-fed beef operations in the state, Turkey Foot Ranch, a mixed-grass pasture nine miles north of Winfield.
The care Barber takes in evaluating a cow’s excreta is not an incidental point of concern. It’s one of the most efficient ways of assessing the health and well-being of cattle.
“When I first started our grazing system, I wanted to check the quality of the grass. I found a place at Texas A&M that tests the manure and can tell you the quality of the forage that the animal actually digested in its rumen — the protein content, the energy content. From those results, I realized that I could learn a lot from looking at these patties.”
But it’s not just the nutrient profile of the manure itself. There’s also a defensive war being waged on the surface of these cowplops. A cow’s greatest nemesis is the fly, which transports a host of bacteria, and which Barber refers to as a winged “disease vector.” And, being flies, they delight in manure — it’s where they choose to lay their eggs — which means they’re a predictable nuisance in any pasture.
But Barber refuses to use chemicals to control the fly population. As with every challenge Barber runs up against at Turkey Foot Ranch, his fix is all-natural. And since he doesn’t use antibiotics or hormones on his cattle, the imperative to reduce the number of disease-carrying flies on his land is that much more pronounced.
Anyway, Barber and I peered at the poo a bit longer. “You see that?” he asked.
Focusing the eyes, a kingdom busy with insect life hove into view, each bug laboring away on the manure’s surface. Dung beetles. “Dung beetles,” said Barber, “are about the best thing you can have on the prairie. In a day or two, that pat will probably be gone. These guys take the dung and they bury it in the ground, so they’re fertilizing the ground for me. And you know what? They work for free. See, everything out here is participating in a larger, holistic system.”
Besides keeping conditions in the pasture ripe for dung beetles — namely, by avoiding chemical sprays — Barber also employs vast armies of tiny parasitic wasps. These he buys from an ag company in Arizona. They come in small plastic bags full of woodchip material. Each wasp, mixed among the woodchips, is about the size of a grain of rice. Barber stuffs handfuls of the material in large tufts of grass and other shaded areas across his pastures. He isn’t introducing a new species into the region; the wasps are native. It’s just that they don’t reproduce at the rate of flies. “Their job is to burrow into that cow patty. They then lay their eggs inside the larvae of a fly. The wasps then eat the fly larvae, killing them.”
BARBER knows that, to the layman, it may seem frivolous — or, worse yet, gross — to dwell at length on an animal’s waste. But it’s important to understand that this is the microscopic level of care that Barber pours into his operation on a daily basis. It’s his and Nadine’s commitment to the holistic aspects of grass-based ranching — to the minute, complicated, interconnected ecosystem from which they derive their livelihoods — that allows Turkey Foot Ranch to produce, time and again, some the state’s highest quality, gourmet beef.
AN IMPRESSIVE figure in many ways, Barber mixes in his person the knowledge and deep curiosity of a pro fessor of agriculture with the hands-on mentality of your average Kansas rancher. Still, he’s not a million miles from the kid he was growing up in Allen County, the kid who always wanted to be outdoors, whose favorite place in the world was his grandpa’s farm.
Sometimes in the evenings, Barber goes and stands in the deep grass among his cattle. Or he’ll pull up a 5-gallon bucket and just sit and watch while the animals go on munching around him. He watches them graze, he listens to them tear at the grass. “I want to know that they’re eating well and that they’re digesting well.” Clean in, clean out. “Do you know my two favorite sounds in the world?” asked Barber. “‘Chomp, chomp,’ ‘plop, plop.’”