Deeply in debt and with his ranch on the line, Ron Stilwell sought consultation from the Noble Research Institute to turn his operation around.
Rancher Ron Stilwell, right, discusses operational strategy with Noble Research Institute Consultation Program Manager Hugh Aljoe.
Ron Stilwell never minces words. Ask any question, and he'll serve up unfiltered truth like an ace pitcher whipping high and tight fastballs at social etiquette.
On a particularly bright spring morning, Ron Stilwell stood in his kitchen, hot mug of joe in hand, delivering a bevy of colorful anecdotes too blue to print as he chronicled a life story with his hallmark brand of blunt-force humor.
Decorum might dictate personal subjects remain unspoken, but the 58- year-old, who embodies a real-life Rooster Cogburn, right down to dusty black cowboy hat, worn boots and half-cocked smile, lays his life bare for visitors.
See, at the Stilwell ranch, new acquaintances are treated as old friends, and old friends have no secrets, just straight talk and acceptance.
For two hours, he regaled his captive audience with tales of his life, always returning to the two constants his relationship with the land and the organization that helped it prosper.
Answering the call
Stilwell might blame his fascination with ranching on Ben Cartwright. At 6 years old, he fell in love with ranching through the TV Western Bonanza. "Yeah, I was riding around on a stick horse and shooting my toy gun," he said. "I wanted to own cows. The only happy people I saw had cattle and land."
Flash forward a dozen years and Stilwell graduated from Durant High School the year Nixon took office for his second term. He initially pursued higher education, then opted for a career with Central Sales Promotions in Oklahoma City, where he rose through the ranks to supervisor.
Life in an office was far from the rolling plains of his dreams. In 1980, he returned home to live on 35 acres in an electricity-less trailer. His estimated net worth: $100.
That same year, he fulfilled his boyhood ambition by purchasing his first two cows. After leasing hundreds of acres and building his herd up to 80 head on "used-up land," Stilwell purchased his current ranch along the Red River in 1993, about 2.5 miles from Kemp, Oklahoma, selling 20 cows to make the down payment. "I didn't want to do anything but run cows," he said. "I found this place, and everybody told me I was stupid. People kept telling me I needed to quit. I have heard that all my life, but this was my dream. This is all I ever wanted to do."
His dream required a full-time job, however.
Stilwell worked for the Pillsbury plant in Denison, Texas, from 1988 until 2002. He was a dough maker by day and a rancher in between sleeping and work. Things were admittedly not going well.
In 1995, he sold a crop of 57 calves for $14,000, which didn't quite cover his land payment. He needed to buy bulls. He needed to purchase fertilizer. He had only debt. His trial-and-error method was loaded with red marks, and the ledger said his window was almost closed.
"I didn't know a thing about selling. I didn't know how to vaccinate cows. I didn't know what I needed to know," Stilwell said. "Everyone was doubting me, and I started to believe it."
Then Stilwell met Hugh Aljoe.
A sweeping change
The 1996 drought had just begun to leather the Oklahoma prairie when Stilwell embraced the Noble Research Institute's consultation team.
As part of its mission, the organization provides farmers, ranchers and other land managers with no-cost consultation services and educational programs. The service helps agricultural producers achieve production, financial and quality-of-life goals, while fostering good land stewardship.
His decision to work with the Noble Research Institute coincided with the arrival of the consultation team's newest member. Aljoe had just arrived from managing a private ranch, and the pair quickly found common ground. Aljoe liked Stilwell's dogged determination. Stilwell appreciated Aljoe's seemingly endless wealth of knowledge. It was a match.
"The day I met Hugh, I was screwed like a cooked turkey," Stilwell said. "I was $150,000 in debt. I said to him, 'Hugh, I'm in bad trouble. I can do the work. I just need to know what to do.'"
Stilwell outlined his simple vision: He wanted healthy, heavier calves and to raise his own cows enough to make a living without a second job. Aljoe, along with other members of the Noble team, formulated a plan.
The first step was to get the pastures producing again. Aljoe had Stilwell focus on soil testing and fertilize according to those numbers. This simple step doubled production on grazing pastures and quadrupled hay production.
Aljoe then showed Stilwell how to use EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences)in the bull selection process instead of just visual evaluations. They focused selection on low birth weights, calving ease and high weaning weights. The end result: Stilwell raised weaning weights from the low 400-pound range to the mid-500s. Today it is more than 600 pounds. Aljoe even accompanied Stilwell to bull sales and showed him proper methods for bull selection. "I wanted more than a college education. I wanted to know everything these guys did," Stilwell said. "Every problem I had, I called Hugh and the Noble Research Institute. If I hadn't had him and the other Noble guys, I would have quit."
More Noble Research Institute consultants began to lend expertise.
Steve Swigert, economics consultant, convinced Stilwell to market calves in Oklahoma City as opposed to local sale barns. The trip up I-35 increased sale revenues more than 15 percent.
Soils consultant Jim Johnson helped Stilwell solve a problem with a new pasture that refused to yield any life. Johnson dug a few holes and found what he suspected hardpan about 12-14 inches below the surface, caused by years of tillage before Stilwell purchased the land. Johnson recommended deep tillage to the pasture. Stilwell obliged, and the pasture sprang back to life. Once barren ground soon became an emerald sea of thriving bermudagrass.
Director of the Agricultural Division Billy Cook, Ph.D., then a livestock consultant, helped him select a Brangus bull to be the foundation sire of his replacement breeding program. He then provided a live demonstration of how to synchronize and artificially inseminate (AI) cows. "I couldn't AI a rabbit. Billy comes down and helps. He taught me right there and right then," Stilwell said. "Who would do that for you? Who?"
Stilwell now has one of the best commercial Brangus herds in southeast Oklahoma and a more uniform set of market calves. "Just to be able to pick up the phone and have that kind of knowledge on the other end what is that worth?" he asked. "You can't put a value on that." As Stilwell talked, Aljoe sat in the corner of the kitchen, sipping a soda and smiling as he listened to his friend retell their almost two decades of improvement. "This is what the Noble Research Institute was created to do advance agriculture," Aljoe said. "We do that in so many ways, from national programs right down to the individual producer. This is our mission, and the outcomes of that mission can be seen right outside."
A little more straight talk
As the morning sun began its march west, Stilwell left his perch in the kitchen to tour his sprawling 1,200-acre ranch, complete with two "guard" bulls dozing by the front gate. Today, the Stilwell ranch owns more than 220 cows, and Stilwell has not a single penny of debt. One of his proudest moments came in 2001 when he purchased neighboring land and paid the balance in six months.
"If it wasn't for the Noble Research Institute, I would have kept on the way I was going, and I know I'd be out of business," he said. "They've made all the difference in my land and my life."
He wheeled his grey pickup through the fields, pointing out an eagle's nest and fencing construction with equal excitement. Every tour stop elicited another conversation with Aljoe as Stilwell constantly picked his friend's brain for the latest morsel of knowledge.
With the fundamentals far behind him, Stilwell has moved into advanced operations. Swigert and Aljoe are currently helping him manage his annual net profits through wise investments into his cattle operation, including ranch and herd expansion.
As he wrapped up the tour at a field brimming with healthy, fat, black Brangus cows, he recounted one last personal tale. In 2002, Stilwell was laid off from his job at the Pillsbury plant, a seemingly significant setback.
"It's the best thing that ever happened.That's when I became a full-time rancher. No more jobs, just cows," he said. "Cows have always been good to me; so have the Noble guys. I've never had anyone put up with me like them. It's pretty simple. They're the reason I'm still here."
And that's some straight talk.