Through floods, heat and bugs Dezeré Richard loves life on the ranch

Kyle Peveto  |  4/5/2018 4:02:06 PM

In January 2018, Dezeré Richard, of Calcasieu Parish, became the first woman to receive the Outstanding Master Farmer award from the LSU AgCenter Louisiana Master Farmer Program. She is committed to improving soil health and management of fertiizer on her 1,500-acre operation.

Kyle Peveto

The cattle at Dezeré Richard’s Ox Yoke Ranch thrive in the roughest of conditions — the hot, humid and soggy pastureland of southwestern Louisiana.

“They’re tough,” Richard said from her office on the ranch. “It just takes a different kind of cattle. You can’t buy some high-land cattle and bring them down here.”

It takes a tough breed of rancher to make it there, too. The 77-year-old Richard was born into agriculture, and for decades she has raised hay and cattle south of Bell City in Calcasieu Parish. Farming and ranching is the only life Richard knows. And it’s the only one she wants.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 job, and it’s not a big-paying job,” Richard said. “You’re not going to go to Europe on your earnings. But I’m making a living.”

In January, Richard became the first woman to receive the Outstanding Master Farmer award from the LSU AgCenter Louisiana Master Farmer Program. Richard stood out because she has made significant improvements to soil health and management of fertilizer use on her 1,500-acre operation, AgCenter associate vice president Rogers Leonard said at the award ceremony.

It doesn’t take long to see that Richard is single-minded about farming and ranching. But she’s also quick to smile and joke about life on the ranch. An accomplished horseback rider, she gave up horses a decade ago. Now she tells people she works on the ranch with a Mule.

“Is riding a mule easier than riding a horse?” one friend asked her. “It is if it’s a (Kawasaki) Mule,” she told her with a laugh.

That Mule all-terrain vehicle is Richard’s most reliable form of transportation on the ranch. Over the past two winters she has had both knees replaced, but it hasn’t stopped her from tending to her chores — after each surgery she has recovered quickly and had no complications. Richard has just one ranch hand, and she does just about everything.

Richard grew up baling hay and working cows, whatever was needed. Her father raised cattle and rice.

“We were treated just like one of the hired hands,” she said.

Her father bought the land in the 1930s, and he eventually amassed a little over 3,000 acres. Richard learned her work ethic from him, and he taught her many lessons. The most important lesson, she said, was to make the most of what you have.

“Take advantage of things when they’re handed to you,” she said. “Don’t wait for that better day or better money.”

After high school, Richard earned a home economics degree at McNeese State University in nearby Lake Charles. She competed in barrel racing as a teen and in college, rising to race on the Women’s Professional Rodeo circuit. She’s more likely to brag on her daughters’ and granddaughters’ racing careers, but the trophies and photos decorating her office shelves tell the story of her success.

“I wasn’t the best,” she said with a grin, “but it took the best to beat me.”

In 1966, Richard and her first husband, the late Wayne Foster, bought the soybean fields that would become her homeplace and part of her cattle operation. It’s about 5 miles from her father’s land, of which she inherited a portion. In these pastures Richard raises Braford and Brangus cattle. She keeps about 200 cows and raises calves for sale. The sturdy part-Brahman breeds withstand the climate well.

“That’s the only way they would survive in the heat and humidity and the insects,” Richard said. “They’re marsh cattle.”

She and her husband of 42 years, Larry Richard, also grow more than 90 acres of hay for their livestock. He runs his own separate cattle operation on land he leases nearby. While some producers prefer to buy hay instead of raising it themselves, Dezeré Richard said growing hay remains practical for them. And they aren’t at the mercy of high hay prices when drought or floods affect the crop.

“We have the ground — we have the hay already planted,” she said. “You just keep the equipment and do it.”

The greatest challenges she faces relate to flooding and drainage, and Richard continually lobbies local agencies to maintain drainage systems. One of the worst floods she has seen struck last year when Hurricane Harvey dumped 22 inches of rain in late August.

Driving her trusty 20-year-old pickup down a dirt road between her property and her sister’s in late January, Richard pointed out the high-water lines on trees and the debris still snagged in fences.

“The cattle were belly deep in the water,” she said.

Richard and her ranch hand and friends and family rescued 120 head of cattle and transported them to another rancher’s pasture 30 miles north.

Other more manageable challenges are met with better education, Richard said. The Louisiana Master Cattleman and Master Farmer classes have helped Richard stay on top of many of the issues that farmers and ranchers face, and she learned more about topics like cross-fencing of pastures and identifying noxious weeds.

“I like education,” she said. “I like learning and studying.”

Richard said she is proud to be the first woman to win the Outstanding Master Farmer award. But being a woman in agriculture has never been much of an issue, she said.

“I know the cattle industry, and I know the farming industry,” she said. “I can talk to people on their level. I’ve done it all my life, and it’s just who I am.”

Agriculture can be tough, but Richard said she is thankful she has been able to make it her life.

“It’s not about making money as much as it is a lifestyle,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle I love.”

Kyle Peveto is the publications editor with LSU AgCenter Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.

(This article appears in the winter 2018 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine. The article was edited to include the correct manufacturer of the Kawasaki Mule all-terrain vehicle.)

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Dezeré Richard stands with replacement heifers at her cow-calf operation, the Ox Yoke Ranch, near Bell City, Louisiana. Richard was chosen as the Outstanding Master Farmer in January 2018. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Replacement heifers stand in a pasture at Dezeré Richard’s ranch south of Bell City. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Hay is stored along with tractors at Dezeré Richard’s ranch. She and her husband bale hay on about 90 acres each year. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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An expert horseback rider, Dezeré Richard competed as a barrel racer in college and on the professional circuit. Her daughters were also successful on the racing circuit. Photo provided by Dezeré Richard

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