Before the construction of Highway 70, a narrow dirt road connected the small southern Oklahoma towns of Ringling and Waurika. Off that lane was, and still is, an early 20th century farmhouse. A metal gate wraps around the white-planked house, which has been updated through the years; inscribed in horseshoe letters above its side entrance gate is the name "Howard."
Jim Howard and Steve Howard, brothers who grew up in that house made the Howard Cattle Company's office adjacent to a metal shop just a few paces away. They share the space with their two partners T.J. Neble, Jim's son-in-law, and Kade Howard, Steve's son who represent the fifth generation to ranch on this land.
Tucked in the corner of the office is a framed newspaper clipping from 1992. Its subject is Don Howard, Jim and Steve's father. At the age of 70, Don was recognized as the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association's Cattleman of the Year. True to Don's character, the article's subtitle reads: "All work and no play."
"He didn't have a hobby, and he didn't take vacations," Steve said. "He did what he wanted to do buy cattle and make us work."
The brothers laugh but are quick to say it was Don's vision and dedication that has enabled them to continue making their living off the family land. Don instilled the value of hard work in his family. He and his wife, Vella, had four children: Jim, Steve, Jessie Kay Moore and Dona Brooks; 15 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren.
Don also passed along a resource a relationship, really that the Howards continue to use: the Noble Research Institute.
In 1973, Don signed up for the Noble Research Institute's consultation program, which provides Oklahoma and Texas farmers and ranchers with access to a multidisciplinary team of agricultural consultants at no cost. The Howards have worked with Noble Research Institute consultants for 42 years, making theirs one of the longest, time-tested relationships in the Noble's Foundation's history.
The Howards continue to ranch on the land Noah purchased in what is now southern Oklahoma.
Ahead of the curve
Don was born in 1923 in a little white house between the Crooked and Mud creeks in Jefferson County, Oklahoma. The land belonged to his grandfather Noah Howard, who in the late 1880s became the first of the family to ranch in what was then Indian Territory.
When Don returned home from fighting in the Pacific during World War II, he went straight to work on the ranch. Over the next several decades, his focus became building up the operation and expanding.
"Daddy only had a high school education," Jim said, "but he was always a step ahead of the curve."
Don was willing to try practices that no one else was using. The neighbors laughed when he started running yearlings in the predominantly cow-calf country. They thought he was crazy when he planted bermudagrass in the 1960s. Now both practices are not only common on the Howard ranch but in the region.
Don's desire to learn more, to understand more, drove him to ask questions about how he could improve his operation. When he heard about soil testing which would enable him to know the nutritive content of his soil he was intrigued. The only group conducting soil tests in the area at the time was the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, about 40 miles away. So, he reached out. By the mid-1970s, Don's key source of agricultural information was the Noble Research Institute.
When Don's brother, a pioneer in the pecan field, died and left a crop in the trees, it was Noble Research Institute consultants who helped him learn the basics of pecan production so that he could bring the harvest in for his sister-in-law. Don ended up buying his brother's equipment and pecan orchard, and he continued the business. Thirty-six years later, the Howards still call upon the organization's horticultural consultants when they have questions.
Don was also known to seek out new forage varieties that he could incorporate into his grazing plans. He went to the Noble Research Institute for recommendations on what would be compatible with his standard fields of wheat.
"He relied heavily on the Noble Research Institute's word," Jim said. "What they said weighed heavily on what he did because they weren't and still aren't trying to sell you something. They were just trying to help you."
Noah Howard ranched in Montague County, Texas, before renting then buying land across the Red River.
A new era
In 1979, Don was asked by Noble Research Institute consultants to share his management practices with other regional producers by presenting at a beef cattle conference.
More than 36 years later, Jim holds the proceedings booklet from that conference while Steve, Neble and Kade look over his shoulder. They are silent for a few minutes, intently reading their father's and grandfather's description of their operation. They were, and still are, raising a cow herd and stocker steers as well as growing dual-purpose wheat. So much remains the same. So much has changed. "One of the biggest changes we've made since then has been no-till," Steve said.
About five years ago, the family started putting away the plows and disks at the recommendation of Jim Johnson, Noble Research Institute soils and crops consultant. They started with one field, and each year or two have added another.
Although no-tilling requires them to decrease stocking rates, they save on fuel and machinery wear. They also have a longer grazing season. No-till enables them to graze these fields until July, whereas they have to start preparing fields for next year's crop by May or June with conventional tillage.
"It's been fun working with the Howards," said Johnson, who has worked with the family since the early 2000s. "I consider them my friends. They're ranchers, cowboys, land stewards, businessmen. They're in it for the long haul they are making a livelihood for multiple families from multiple generations. It's their business, but it's also their life."
Johnson brought out a soil demonstration on the effects of no-till versus conventional tillage on the soil's ability to retain water. "With no-till, the soil soaks the water up like a sponge instead of getting washed away," Steve said. "He made it to where you can see it, and it's plain to see."
Instead of sowing straight wheat, Johnson has encouraged the Howards to add other species like oats and turnips into the mix. They have also stopped treating ryegrass in their fields as weeds. Jim likens the more diverse varieties to providing their cattle with a salad bar instead of plain lettuce.
"We're lucky to have the Noble Research Institute here," Steve said. "We could pick up the phone right now and call them about a problem with an insect, weed, anything, and they would help us out."
Earlier this year, Steve and Kade were out cutting hay when they found some tall unknown weeds. Steve texted a snapshot of the weeds to Johnson's phone. Johnson replied with the identification: mare's tail. "There's nowhere else in the world you could have texted that picture to and have gotten an answer in 15, 20 minutes," Steve said.
"We don't do everything they say, but we doggone sure do listen to it," Jim added. "I don't know where you could get more accessible unbiased information."
It comes down to family
Don never stopped working on the operation until just a few months before his death in 2011. The ranch was his life, which has enabled his children to continue making it theirs.
Near the south wall of the ranch office sits a child-sized, primary-colored table and chairs set. This is where Steve's youngest children, Rance, 8, and Lakin, 9, will spend their post-school afternoon while their mom, Kelly, an English teacher at Ringling, takes care of the farm records.
Rance has recently upgraded to a larger pony, which he rides alongside big brother Kade and their father, Steve, when feeding cattle. They feed cattle within sight of the same little house that Don was born in. On the same land that Noah Howard first purchased more than 125 years ago.
A tradition never more than an arm's-length away.
"I hope for the same thing Daddy hoped, that this land will stay together as one farm and these boys will be able to carry on what we've built as a family," said Jim, who credits his wife, Betty, for supporting his part in the family endeavor.
So far, the next generation seems willing, if not eager, to take the baton. The sixth generation is well on its way, too. Neble's 14-year-old son, Ethan, helps out with hay during the summers. Kade smiles as he says his 4-month-old daughter, Dylann, will be helping out before he knows it.
"You never quit learning," Steve said. "If they'll watch and learn, then maybe they'll do things even better. Of course, if they need help, they'll know to call the Noble Research Institute."