The Klickitat County 2023 Cattleman of the Year Field Day & Picnic took place Saturday, April 20, in honor of Don Slater who was voted Cattleman of the Year at the Annual Livestock Growers Banquet in March. The day began at 9:30 a.m. at Slater’s Ranch near Bickleton where coffee and doughnuts were served. A group of local ranchers and other interested parties had gathered for the event that consisted of a tour of Slater’s ranch followed by a picnic.
Each year a committee from the Klickitat County Livestock Growers Association selects a local rancher to be Cattleman of the Year. As Klickitat County Livestock Growers Association President Dan Lee explained, the selected rancher can come from any part of the county. “Last year it was way over on the west side of the county. It’s completely different ranching over here than it is on the west side where it rains all the time.” Of the benefits of the Cattleman of the Year Field Day, Lee said, “You just see how other people do it, and it gives you ideas.”
Before the tour began, Dr. Fred Muller of Ag Health Laboratories, Inc., gave a short talk about cattle health and nutrition. A bovine with a faulty diet can mean a loss for the rancher. “Probably the biggest thing is if they lose weight before they’re calving, then they have trouble calving and then rebreeding the next year,” said Muller. “With livestock, we need them to calve every year to get another calf crop. That’s our income stream to keep us in business.”
Muller is the founder and owner of Ag Health Laboratories and a practicing veterinarian specializing in bovine health and milk quality. They offer blood tests for cattle such as the BioPRYN test, a safe and accurate tool for detecting pregnancy in ruminant animals that is an improvement on previous methods. They also offer comprehensive feed nutrient analysis for alfalfa and grass forages. This helps cattlemen find superior ration formulations for their cattle feed, information they can use to engender optimal cow performance.
Slater has about eighty head of cattle. He is a reticent man with a bushy, white beard, and that day he was wearing a short-sleeved button-up shirt printed with black cows. His mother and father purchased the land where his ranch stands when they returned from serving in World War II, and he added a few parcels of land to the property after returning home in 1985. Prior to ranching, Slater worked at a pharmaceutical company out of Chicago and then for Farm Credit, a company that provides credit and financial services for rural communities and agriculture in the United States. He helped his parents run the place while it was still a wheat farm, then in 1992 he took over the farm and started running cattle. Today they are solely a cattle ranch.
After Muller’s presentation, the group walked down to look at Slater’s corral. Beyond the fence stood a herd of black and brown cattle, steer, and heifers. They weren’t used to such a large group of people, strangers to boot, so they ran off to the far side of the corral. Starlings darted in and out of an old barn while the group stood around chatting and admiring Slater’s setup. One group of men, including Neil Kayser, was discussing a cow chute, a large green contraption with the words “Powder River” along the side. Like Slater and many other farmers and ranchers in the area, Kayser’s family has been in the area for several generations. “Our family came in 1876, and no one’s been smart enough to leave,” said Kayser.
Everyone then got into their cars and trucks to drive to the next part of the tour. They drove along dirt roads kicking up clouds of dust until they stopped at a crossroads. Rows of electrical poles and windmills looming over the land were the only things visible in all directions besides flat grassland. This was one of the areas where Slater puts his cattle out to pasture.
“This place here we usually summer the cows in here both sides of the road,” said Slater. Someone asked if the cows lay in the shade of the windmills, and Slater said they do if the deer don’t beat them to it. “The game department said that it was just going to ruin the deer habitat”, said Slater, referring to grazing his cattle in this area. “They’ll run out to the end of the shade and if you don’t bother them, they’ll come right back,” said Slater of the deer. “If you put water out there, they’ll never leave. It hasn’t affected them a bit. Most of the time they’ll just lay there when they get used to you.”
Another person asked what variety of grass Slater had growing north of his house. “It was one of those natives that wasn’t native, you know,” answered Slater. “It’s been so long I don’t know.” Someone else asked if the grass was palatable to the cattle. “They tend to eat it. In the winter they graze it right down. Now you can see they’re on the north side of the driveway, and they’re getting the new stuff.”
In the summer, Slater splits his herd. One part he grazes in the area they were currently stopped at, and the other he grazes north of Bickleton, which was the group’s next stop. The caravan of vehicles drove on down more dirt roads, passed through Bickleton, then continued up into the hills. They stopped along the side of a road surrounded by tree-covered hills and grasslands. The fields were full of bright yellow flowers. Slater pointed out different parts of the land he owns and described what he uses it for, revealing the inventiveness it takes to pasture cows efficiently.
“I’ve got a place over here that I lease up to this next fence line, and then I own this down below here. Everything’s divided up into fairly small pastures, so we just rotate through. We have to haul some water, like that trough there I hook onto the neighbor’s well; he lets me keep water there. Then where the red barn is we usually end up in there at hunting seasons.”
For the last part of the tour, the group went to check out a solar-powered well Slater had installed at the south end of a nearby butte. “That’s been the best project we ever did,” said Slater. “We got a real good well, 150 feet. I think he hit it at 340. He said it lifted the drilling rig about two feet off the ground when he hit that water.” Some of the touring party who were driving smaller vehicles hopped into other’s pickup trucks, as the ground to get to the well was rough. While navigating over the uneven road in his GMC pickup, Lee spoke about the reputations of farmers and ranchers.
“You kind of get a bad rap from environmentalists thinking you’re not doing things right, but people have been farming for years and years, and a lot of these guys have been pasturing up here, and if you ruin the land or you do something bad, you’re not going to be doing that forever. So you learn to take care of the pastures and take care of the land. You see these places are not overgrazed. It would be nice to have a lot of different people come out on these tours to see what’s actually happening out here and how things are managed, and the different changes like this solar pump he’s putting in. There’s just a lot of unknowns that a lot of people don’t understand about farming and ranching.”
The group arrived at the site of the well where two large, gray, 1,500-gallon storage tanks could be seen in a clearing within a forest of trees and wildflowers. Next to the tanks was a metal structure to hold the solar panels, but the panels weren’t there since Slater removes them when he’s not grazing cattle in the area. The solar-powered well is able to pump five to seven gallons a minute. The water is pumped along 700 ft of underground piping down to troughs where Slater can water the cattle in the area. “The only problem we’ve ever had was two years ago when we had so much smoke. It cleared up just enough to run it.”
With the tour concluded, everyone hopped back into their vehicles to drive down to the Alder Creek Pioneer Rodeo and Picnic Area in the town of Cleveland for the picnic. It was a beautiful, warm day, and people grabbed food before finding seating in the shade of trees. Next to the picnic area, a group of men were busy renovating a portion of the old rodeo grandstands.
When everyone was settled in, Lee got on the microphone. He introduced Chelsea Hajny, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, a group that works to preserve, protect, and promote the cattle industry in the State of Washington through producer and consumer education, legislative participation, regulatory scrutiny, and legal intervention. “I’m really not supposed to play favorites, but you guys in Klickitat County, it’s just been amazing support, and we appreciate you at the state level so very much. You guys have been with the WCA through thick and thin.”
Hajny handed the mic back to Lee, who then presented Slater with a carved cedar sign from the Klickitat County Livestock Growers Association for being Cattleman of the Year. He also presented a similar sign to the Stephens who were Cattleman of the Year last year but didn’t receive a sign then. Lee handed the mic to Slater to say a few words. “Appreciate everybody coming, and what a beautiful day. We couldn’t have hit a finer day, so thank you very much.”
Slater’s daughter Kirstin Meyer was at the tour and picnic that day. She works for her father one day a week when she’s not working her other job at a dairy farm. Meyer said that she’s the only person that her father has to pass his ranch onto. “I’ll be the sixth generation on the ranch. My grandma was born just about a mile up the road from where we started today… My grandpa came from Oregon and his dad was a logger; he had 19 brothers and sisters, and he grew up in a house with a dirt floor.”
Like her father, Meyer gave up a previous career to start working in agriculture. “I went to WSU and then worked in a bank, had a company car and a company credit card, all the things that you’re supposed to strive for in life. And I just said, ‘I don’t like this, see you later.’” She spoke about the life of a cattle rancher. “It’s probably more difficult than a lot of people would be willing to take on… There is a lot of risk for reward if you were to look at it from a financial basis. Very few investors would come in and be like, ‘Man, this a great business to be in.’ But getting to work outside, getting to know these kinds of people; it’s pretty awesome.”