As I turn down the mile+ long road which cuts through the ranch, the serenity of the scene can hardly be conveyed in words. Rolling hills. Lush green fields. A fertile valley that seems more the setting for an Arthurian novel than home to several hundred heads of cattle.
This picturesque landscape known as 5000 Ranch is the plot of earth Tracy, Julie, Isaac, and Alanna (and a few more children in their care) call home. And to add a little more sugar to that pitcher of sweet tea—just up King’s Creek, the Leonard family operates another verdant ranch known by the same name. Between the two sprawling properties and land they lease from neighbors, the Leonards manage over 1200 acres.
But they’re up to the challenge.
Julie Leonard knows the cattle business as intimately as Dumbledore knows magic. Raised in a family that worked a diversified livestock operation, the foster and adoptive mama has deep passion in her voice when speaking of her cows. On an overcast morning in her husband’s truck, she drove me around 5000 Ranch for what she called the fifty-cent tour. Window down, she often paused to tell me about her livestock.
“That one’s Louise,” she said. “Had a twin named Thelma—but she was too much like Thelma.”
Twins, I learned that morning, are a rarity for cattle and, often, one won’t survive. Her son had learned this lesson, too, and thanks to his sharp eye, he saved a newborn calf from abandonment.
Yards from Louise, Julie pointed out another cow.
I wouldn’t have known that black and white cow from another.
“She’s been with me a long time,” she said with a reminiscent sigh.
When I asked her age, Julie replied, “Sixteen. I know a man who sells all his cows at age ten. But not her—I’ll never let her go.”
And thus my eyes were opened to a new world—one in which a cow is not just a medium rare steak or a brown blur in a pasture along the highway—each is a unique and loved member of their family.
Julie’s compassion further comes alive when describing how she uses her agricultural business to help children from difficult places find healing.
“We’d drive around every morning looking for the sick ones,” she said speaking of time spent with a foster daughter. “Their noses run same as ours when they’re sick.”
Soon, her foster love could identify an ill cow from her seat in the cab of the truck.
Julie’s eyes were misty. “And then I’d ask her what she looks like when she feels bad.”
The introspective approach helped to bring awareness to feelings her foster daughter didn’t even know she had—and provided plenty of space for them to be honored but not overwhelming.
Profound wisdom can also be found on the hayfields at 5000 Ranch.
Julie explained, “Tracy strapped the car seat into the tractor beside him. Packed snacks and diapers. Our foster son rode around with him like that all day and loved every minute.”
When their young foster son later returned to them after two years of being with his birthmother, he mentally didn’t remember having lived with them—but his muscle memory did.
“He didn’t know our house from any other,” said Julie with a smile, “but he ran straight to the bathroom as though he had always been here.”
The children have not just found a refuge for healing, but they’ve found a place to share recovery as well. Each child was given a female calf to bottle feed and raise. When offered the chance to make a profit selling their grown cow for beef, every child turned down the offer. Instead, they chose to keep their mature cow to grow another calf to raise.
“It’s the circle of life,” Julie remarked.
I rarely think of cows beyond ordering my favorite Braum’s burger in the drive-thru. But for the Leonards, it’s an artform.
There’s the complex pasture rotation system that allows for the slow separation of mamas and calves, the isolation of volatile bulls, the congregating of pregnant mamas—all while minding that they keep the sick or weaker cattle nearer to the barn.
There are rounds of homeopathic treatments to keep the herd well—and the record-keeping system for the rare few which much be given antibiotics.
There’s the all-natural cotton-blend feed which is not only healthier but also is easier on the bottom line and a cinch to distribute to the entire herd.
There’s the virtual auction site they’ve mastered which sounded more on par with the complexity level of the New York Stock Exchange than eBay.
There are the acres of hayfields which are mown and the hay which is bailed, stacked, and, finally, sold, traded, or bartered depending on the needs of the interested party.
And there are always the unexpected hiccups, like a fallen tree downing a fence, which might take all day to resolve, causing the interruption of the normal duties.
When trying to understand it all, my brain turned to ground beef. I had to ask how Julie manages it all—1200 acres, 800+ cows, 4 kids (between the ages of 6 and 8, no less), and a marriage that’s 10 years strong.
“Well, self-care was the first thing to go,” she confesses. “But you just do. You just do and keeping doing.”
Choosing to drive her children to school instead of sending them on the bus, she also sacrificed the precious morning time spent with Tracy when the pair normally made the rounds together and checked on their livestock. A hired hand helps out with the task now, but the loss of that time remains dear.
And reining was once her passion, a deep source of enjoyment. But like the pre-child hobbies of many women, it’s also a part of her that has mostly taken the backseat to motherhood. Her horse, however, who didn’t take to reining quite as much is as happy as a peach just being a ranch horse.
One might expect the loss of a favorite hobby (and the fact that Julie was once a bigshot in the agriculture extension office) would give way to self-pity—but that’s a load of manure. Julie imparts there’s not another life she’d rather lead nor another place she’d rather be.
“I love sharing our agricultural story,” she wrote to me. “We’re here almost 24-7 unless we have a kid or church function.”
Fortunately, some play time can usually be worked into the schedule—at least for the kids. The creek serves dual purposes—a watering hole for the cattle and a swimming hole for the children. Beyond that, there are fishing and exploration opportunities.
And, of course, there are chickens and ponies and horses.
“How many horses do you have?” I wondered.
With a laugh, she said, “Oh, five here and five there and five there.”
She explained the longstanding joke has even become fodder for their pastor’s sermons.
As I drove away from 5000 Ranch, I had deeper respect for hardworking ranchers, crop cultivators, farmers who sacrifice from sun up to head-hits-the-pillow-time and who do the work even when the work is hard, all to ensure the rest of us have safe, healthy food to serve our families.
And as Julie would remind me, that’s just the circle of life.
Watch Julie and The Chex Factor at the 2018 Tulsa Reining Classic on YouTube. Find out more about 5000 Ranch at 5000Ranch.com or follow them on Facebook.
The Leonards recently read The Good King by Rachel Redins. Here’s Julie’s review:
“If you have young children, this is an awesome book!
I’ve been reading it to our 4 (mixed genders) ages 6-8 and they all love it. The chapters are short and there’s a life lesson with each chapter. I like to close with asking the kids questions like, what did Rupert learn in this adventure about (life lesson)? What could he have done different?
This is a great book to help with honesty, empathy, patience, etc.”
1 thought on “Circle of Life at 5000 Ranch”
Beautiful story and wonderful people. A farm/ranch is a great place to raise children.