Bryce Stephens, Stephens Land & Cattle
Stephens Land & Cattle, owned and operated by OSGATA Vice-President Bryce Stephens and his family, spans 880 acres in Jennings, Kansas. This land, in the Stephens family for five generations, is now divided almost equally between pasture for livestock and certified organic forage, grain, and seed crops.
A Diversified Operation
The Stephens’ tend some 50 cattle, 20 American bison, 6 hogs, 20 layer hens, and a few horses. These animals, aside from the chickens and hogs which have access to grain, are mostly grass-fed. They range both on pasture and browse field residue on select crops, like wheat stubble, post-harvest. “It’s cheaper to harvest it by hoof,” said Bryce. “The system lets animals move into a new territory.” All the livestock feed is raised entirely on-farm, including the supplemental grain.
The crop rotation in any given year includes a mix of wheat, alfalfa, clover, and forage sorghum. Since 1994, Bryce has been experimenting with crop rotation in an effort to find crops suited to the semi-arid high plains of Kansas and his certified organic growing practices.
“I have a seed bank of every grain ever trialed,” said Bryce. He no longer plants corn− fearing risk of contamination for genetically engineered (GE) corn from neighboring farms− but hangs onto the red, white, blue, and yellow corns he planted by the acre in years past.
“I’ve always saved my own seed and used it to re-plant,” said Bryce. When looking to trial a new variety for farm suitability, Bryce seeks out untreated, non-GMO seed as his initial stock. If a crop is deemed worthy of the farm’s rotation, Bryce will work on proliferating this stock seed, while also allowing the plant to begin its acclimation to his particular farm’s microclimate.
In this way, Bryce has built-up the farm’s ‘Turkey Red’ wheat seed. In 1919, this heirloom grain blanketed 9.2 million acres of Kansas farmland. Bryce trialed the winter wheat in the early 1990s, prompted by his mother’s longing for the wheat her own father grew.
“I liked the wheat,” said Bryce. So, he saved and re-planted. Stephens Land and Cattle’s now annual planting of nearly 200 acres of ‘Turkey Red’ has been called the largest planting in decades.
Replanting for Adaptation
‘Turkey Red’ is a landrace cultivar: meaning it adapts to the bioregion in which it is grown through the annual saving and replanting of seed.
Originally brought to the U.S. by Mennonites from the steppes of Russia in 1837, it soon swept across the nation’s bread basket. “It’s the basis of all the hard red wheats in the U.S.,” said Bryce.
Unlike modern cereal grains, bred largely with high crop yield in mind, this landrace wheat maintains all the genes capable of being expressed. He notes that every year the plant is different. In 2014, the wheat is the reddest he has ever seen it. The previous year, the seed heads were a blanched amber−and the plants were taller.
“It changes… the plant and environment collaborate,” said Bryce.“You have to have a willingness, an openness to be focused on seed,” he adds.
Turkey’s wide adoption is due to its performance in the kitchen as well as the field. The wheat’s high protein content and distinct flavor is praised by a growing number of artisan bakers. In the past few years, the Stephens’ have been selling small amounts of wheat seed to farmers and bakers throughout the country’s midlands.
Bryce says with every sale, ” Keep it going in your own area.”
Read more about ‘Turkey Red’ and the work of biodiversity conservation enacted at Stephens Land & Cattle here.
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