By KAYLLE TRAVIS
OK Dept. of Agriculture
FREEDOM — Since 2012, Julie Russell has been “on call” for her grandchildren – and her cattle.
With five grandchildren ranging from age 2 to 7 and 200 head of cattle, this is no easy task.
Alongside her husband Tom, the two run a commercial cow-calf operation on about 1,500 acres near the Cimarron River. They also bale their own hay.
“I’m the [hay] raker,” Julie Russell said, “and then we haul the bales in. I help with that too, but mostly I do the raking. Then I drive a tractor pulling a trailer and haul the bales in to the bale yard.”
Russell says this is a “major project” for them each spring and summer. They can only haul 10 large round bales in at a time.
“It’s really kind of enjoyable,” she said. “We go out early in the morning, and the countryside down where we have our property is just beautiful. There are bluffs, and maybe you’ll see a momma deer with her baby over in the weeds. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about it, I guess. It’s like the sun is just lighting up all the scenery.”
Russell was born in Freedom to Wesley and Maxine Nixon who both worked at Freedom State Bank. Her father also raised wheat and cattle, which is where Russell first experienced agriculture.
“From an early age I enjoyed helping my dad and older brother with the farm work,” she said. “I enjoyed this much more than helping my two older sisters and my mom with the housework.”
As Russell grew up, she began taking on more responsibilities on the farm.
“Early on I just rode along with my dad to feed, check cattle, break ice in the winter or whatever else needed done, anything to be outside and around the cattle,” she said. “As I grew older, I think I became more help. I drove the tractor to farm the wheat ground and drove the wheat truck during harvest.”
The most thrilling part of this job was maneuvering the wheat truck “with questionable brakes” across the old narrow Cimarron River Bridge, which was not quite wide enough for two trucks to cross at the same time.
“You know we didn’t have real new equipment. I’ve often said I didn’t know wheat trucks had brakes,” she laughed.
Russell joined 4-H as soon as she was old enough and FFA as soon as female membership was approved. She showed cattle and sheep and judged livestock.
“My parents saw the value in this and were great supporters of our activities,” she said. “We learned responsibility and created many great memories through 4-H and FFA, along with gaining an understanding and appreciation for agriculture.”
Russell received a bachelor’s degree in physical education and math, which led to a 34-year career in education at Freedom Public Schools. Although she enjoyed the relationships she built with both her students and colleagues, her retirement in 2012 gave her the chance to spend time with her aging parents, volunteer at church, serve on the Alfalfa Electric Cooperative Board as a district director, and devote more of her time to the cattle.
“Now that I am retired from teaching, I am the ranch hand since my husband is still holding down a full-time job,” she said. “Most of my duties are from November to April when the cattle need fed and the ice needs chopped. Come rain, snow or shine the cattle need tended to.”
The land has been in the Russell family since 1906.
“When Tom and I got married, and probably even prior to that for Tom, we went in with my in-laws, Virgil and Helen Russell, to raise cattle out on the ranch, and that was in 1977,” Russell said. “Then we bought half of the business in 2002.”
Caring for the land and cattle was a partnership for many years.
“A lot of the time Tom’s dad was still living out at the place,” she said, “and he worked and did most of the feeding of the cattle until he was at least 90.”
He had personal relationships with the cattle.
“The bull would come and look in the window at his house if he didn’t get down there early enough to feed it in themornings,” she laughed. “He’d just come up and peak in the window to see what was up.”
Tom and Julie bought the remaining half of the land after Virgil passed away in 2011. Now, it is just the two of them working on the farm, but occasionally their three sons and their wives, Corey and Jill, Jordan and Jessica, and Lucas and Heather, come to help.
“We all feel that growing up on the land makes it become a part of you,” she said. “Our love of the land is definitely continuing on through the generations.”
Russell’s children and grandchildren, Nixon, Nolan, Nash, Elsie Kate, and Jackson, all love going to Freedom to “help work calves, put up hay, or just ride the Gators around and enjoy the land and animals,” Russell said.
Jackson, 7, is “always trying to make a deal for something that he sees out there that he wants,” Russell laughed. “[He’ll say], ‘Oh that’s a pretty good bull calf out there. You think PePaw would sell that to me?’”
The Importance of
the Land and Cattle
Russell is a member of the Freedom Chamber of Commerce, the Freedom Education Foundation, and the Freedom American Legion Auxiliary. Both her and Tom received the Honorary State FFA Degree in 2003. For many years, Russell was a 4-H leader. All three sons were active in both 4-H and FFA, participating in leadership activities and exhibiting livestock. She recalls one of the show steers being rather difficult, but everyone knew her son Lucas could handle it.
“We decided we’d take it and see if we could tame it down,” she said. “My husband kind of fortified the barn, so it wouldn’t get out. They had it all set up to just run this steer into the barn, and then it was supposed to go into this little back corral in the most back part of the barn. Well I decided that somebody needed to be in there to get that gate closed, so I slipped in there and just kind of got off to the side.”
Tom and Lucas did not see Julie go into the barn and quickly slid the barn door shut once the steer was inside.
“That calf was pawing dirt,” she laughed, “and he came after me. And I thought, ‘Oh he’ll stop when he gets around that corner,’ but he didn’t. He chased me clear to the other end of the barn, and I had to jump up on a ledge that was down there. I was going to run out, but they’d already shut and locked the door so the steer couldn’t come out. I mean he was just like a little fighting bull, pawing dirt and snorting at me.”
Surprisingly, the steer was able to be shown and was tame by the time show season arrived.
“For the longest time we would just take a stick and shove feed under the gate because nobody could get in there,” she laughed. “It was some perseverance. After spending some time over there we finally got him tamed down.”
The Russells are proud to be stewards of the land and have spent time improving both the fences and land.
“We’ve tried to clear brush and cedar trees to allow for improved grazing,” she said. “We’ve also built and repaired a few ponds for the cattle as well as wildlife. We are dedicated and feel obligated to care for our land for the next generations.”
The land and the cattle truly mean something to Russell. Some of their cows have been around since Tom and Julie took over full time, and others are newer to the herd. Although they sell cows regularly, Russell does get attached to some of them. “We have a few of our favorite cows,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen when we have to sell them.”
Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series of stories on Significant Women in Oklahoma Agriculture. The project is a collaborative program between the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry and Oklahoma State University to recognize and honor the impact of countless women across all 77 counties of the state, from all aspects and areas of the agricultural industry. The honorees were nominated by their peers and selected by a committee of industry professionals.