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Bruce and Sunshine Shanks

Bruce & Sunshine Shanks find natural resource management makes more than good sense on their Osage County farm.

Bruce and Sunshine Shanks

Written by Joann Pipkin

The air is especially crisp this early, late fall morning. Over-the-road truckers and weekday commuters zip by as we trek east along the interstate into the South-Central Missouri hub. As we leave the interstate, we venture north along the thoroughfare connecting the hub with the capital city. Cows graze peacefully amid the glistening pastures while autumn hues paint the horizon as the city fades in the distance.    

Sassafras Valley Ranch sign

Settling into the Ozarks countryside, we route east again down a quiet, two-lane that leads us through the metropolis of Belle, tucked just inside the Maries/Osage county line.  Picking up another two-lane, we venture over hill and around the bend until we arrive at our destination. The sign reads “Sassafras Valley Ranch,” but it might as well be “Paradise” as this day the palette colors Missouri agriculture like no other. 

Down the gravel lane, Bruce and Sunshine Shanks’ immaculate, picturesque spread carves out a unique family farm, melding the state’s natural resources into an operation that truly is all about business. 

Settling Into Home

Raised in Poplar Bluff on a small farm, Bruce Shanks studied animal science at then Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. There, he met Sunshine, a Missouri farm girl from Dixon. 

After they graduated and married, Bruce had an opportunity to go to Montana where he earned a master’s degree from Montana State University. A Ph.D. from South Dakota State followed before the couple’s big circle eventually brought them back home to Missouri. 

“I had several great mentors throughout and really met a lot of interesting people, saw different ways of doing things,” Bruce explains. “As we start talking about the cattle, one of the things that I try to emphasize is that we’re really into grazing management and we’re really trying to keep our inputs low.”

South Poll cattle and Katahdin sheep grazeIt’s a philosophy Bruce says was instilled in him when he visited Deseret Land and Cattle in Nebraska. One of the nation’s largest commercial cow/calf operations, the agribusiness also owns land in Florida. 

“It was a pivotal time for me, and that really hit home,” Bruce says. “I always look back and think that was kind of one of my ‘aha’ moments in life that really set the foundation for what we are really wanting to do here.”

The Shanks farmed with Sunshine’s family for a while, then Bruce spent some time managing a large commercial cattle operation on the other side of Osage County. Then for the next 10 years, he was an instructor in the animal science department at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. All the while, the couple worked to grow their farming operation into its current state.

Today, Sassafras Valley Ranch overlooks a scenic Ozarks valley amid the rugged landscape of southern Osage County just outside of Belle. While a herd of about 250 registered South Poll beef cattle are the centerpiece of the operation, some 250 sheep and goats are key to the farm’s diversity and help complete the couple’s mission of matching animals to their environment. 

“We started out just a typical cow/calf operation like everyone else, and then went back to that principle of trying to reduce inputs and really watching what we were spending,” Bruce explains. “We didn’t really have the right kind of cattle to do that.”

South Poll cattle grazing

After discovering South Poll beef cattle, which was started by Teddy Gentry of the country music group Alabama, the Shanks learned the stock would be a good fit for their management plan. 

Additionally, the Shanks assist small agribusinesses with livestock research projects, performing trials on cattle, goats, sheep, hogs and even poultry. 

“These are small companies that don’t have their own research facilities, nutritional additive companies,” Bruce notes. 

That aspect of the operation started accidentally, according to Bruce. 

“We like attention to detail and that was my college background,” he says. 

The couple’s son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Lainyn, are both in the livestock nutrition and animal science fields as well and plan to be involved with the operation when they complete their move back to the area.

Still another unique segment to the Shanks’ operation is Sunshine’s work as an educator and author of children’s books. A teacher at nearby Maries County R-2 School at Belle, Sunshine has written two children’s books aimed at educating students about agriculture and where their food comes from.

Keeping Their Focus

The Shanks manage their cattle operation with a different mindset from more typical Show-Me-State counterparts, having chosen to invest in managing their resources rather than hay equipment. 

It might send some neighbors scratching their heads, but to them the decision makes perfect sense.

“Some people told me along the way about the expense of baling hay, but it really boiled down to running the operation like a business,” Bruce explains. “At least for us, both from a time point of view and equipment ownership, we just feel like it works better. It’s a business decision. We feel like we’re money ahead.”

That said, the Shanks focus on grazing management, bound by their mission of producing a product that fits the environment of the Osage County hills and Missouri’s native fescue. 

“You can see these cows are behind an electric single wire,” Bruce says. “That’s really almost an unfair advantage because we can utilize some ground that other folks can’t. We don’t feed the cows any supplements other than mineral. They’re on grass or hay only.”

Cattle in the Shanks operation must adapt well to the Osage County hills and Ozarks’ fescue. Bruce adds they must be easy-keeping cows with low inputs.

“The cows have to be fertile and live long in this environment,” Bruce notes. “And, if they’re not suited for that, then we’ll send them to a new home.”

The Shanks ran commercial cows for several years, and as they began leasing land, Bruce says they focused on reducing inputs, so the cows needed to adapt to that management regimen. However, they soon discovered that too many in their commercial herd were open and mismatched to the environment. 

By accident, Bruce says he noticed a magazine article that prompted him to make a call to a “573” area code — the same as theirs. 

rotational grazing is key to the Shanks operation

The gentleman on the other end of the phone answered and told Bruce about an up-coming field day he was having. Bruce went, liked what he saw and then found himself accompanying his son, Paul, to Alabama to purchase the couple’s first South Poll cows. 

“It just hit what we were trying to do,” he says. “The cattle are really gentle and easy to handle and work well with low inputs.”

At 1,100 pounds, the mature South Poll cow is a bit smaller than most typical Ozarks region beef cattle. 

While Bruce admits they might sacrifice some performance because of that, he still says they are saving on inputs. 

“At first, we would sell some steers, and we’d get beat up a little bit (on price at the market),” he explains. “And I thought, ‘boy, but I love these females.’”

The Shanks have never looked back. 

Marketing females via private treaty, Bruce says they’ve developed a market so that now he has them sold after a couple of phone calls. 

“I fully realize this is a niche, but this grass finished beef market has still grown a bunch,” he explains. “For several years we have sold all of our steers to grass finishers. These calves that we will be weaning that won’t make bulls, will go to Missouri, Texas and Georgia. They will be grass finished in those areas and eventually direct marketed to individual consumers.”

On the bull side of the equation, Bruce says they have customers in about 20 different states, but most are sold to cattlemen in the South and the Midwest. 

“To me, it still boils down to needing a lot of land resources for cattle,” Bruce explains. “For us, it’s what all cattlemen face; it’s about trying to either purchase or lease enough ground to be able to run the numbers that we think we need.”

Investing in Diversity

Katahdin sheep graze on grass

With a mindset that diversity is healthy both for their operation and for the ecosystem, Bruce says sheep and goats compliment their farm. “They can utilize some forage resources that cattle won’t readily consume,” Bruce explains.

The diversity helps the operation’s cash flow, too. Bruce adds that the sheep and goat market has seen an increase, perhaps from a growing ethnic population. 

“We’ve tried to build a flock that’s based off the same philosophy as our cattle,” he notes.

Bruce leans on the sheep experience he gained while growing up as well as when he spent time in Montana and South Dakota. 

Their productivity gives them a real advantage, he says.

According to Bruce, the Katahdin hair sheep they raise can be maintained inexpensively and that helps keep costs in check while still getting impressive production from them.

“They’re going to lamb on their first birthday,” Bruce explains. “Cows can’t do that. And, they’re going to have a lot of twins and raise them. Plus, you can wean them quick, so the turnover is really fast.”

Still, Bruce says he constantly reminds himself that simple recipe management is key to maintaining the sheep and goats. 

“They’re just out here doing their job,” he notes. 

The Shanks’ herd of Kiko-Spanish cross goats are maintained on another farm, helping to keep brush at bay.

After adapting their facilities to better accommodate the smaller livestock, Bruce says electric fencing has been a good, inexpensive option for them. 

Predator control can also be a problem, so Bruce says a donkey runs with the goats while two guard dogs make their home with the sheep. 

Bridging the Gap

With nearly two decades under her belt as an elementary teacher, Sunshine Shanks wanted to find a way to incorporate agriculture in the classroom. She turned to Missouri Farm Bureau for assistance.

“They have the Agriculture in the Classroom program and offer information for teachers to help bring agriculture into the classroom,” Sunshine says. 

After attending the National Ag in the Classroom conference, Sunshine says she was hooked. Sunshine became a presenter and later wanted to incorporate a STEM (Science, Technology, Math and Engineering) activity around barns. When she couldn’t locate an appropriate book for elementary students, she decided to write one herself. 

children's books written by Sunshine Shanks about agriculturePublished in 2019, The Perfect Barn has been well received.

“Kids are more and more removed from the farm,” Sunshine says. “They have some misconceptions, and I think it’s really important to bring in those ideas and teach them where our food comes from.”

To help tell agriculture’s story, Sunshine says she relied on her own farm background – both from her youth and her current farm operation. Missouri Farm Bureau’s resources were helpful, too, she says. 

Her second book, One Thousand Black Walnuts, tells the story of a walnut harvest. Brian Hammons, Stockton-based Hammons Products, played a key role in helping her words come to fruition. Both books were published by KDP Publishing through Amazon.

“Growing up in the 80s, there were a lot of times I would go out and as a family we picked up black walnuts. Took them to the buying station,” Sunshine says. “It was a big integral part of our farm, utilizing the resources that you have available on the farm.”

To further advocate for agriculture, Sunshine has written grants to help fund a poultry house on the Maries County R-2 school grounds. The school’s agriculture education program assists with The Chicken Learning Lab and helps provide information to the elementary students. 

“Last year was the first year we used it,” she explains. “We brought in laying hens, and then created an educational unit about the life cycle of the chicken. The kids would go out and help care for the hens and then collect the eggs each day.”

Securing an Ally

Bruce and Sunshine Shanks with FCS Financial loan officers, Brad Deeken and Joe Abbott.

Admittedly all about business, when it came time for Bruce and Sunshine to locate a financial partner for their operation, they appreciated the competitive fixed interest rate offered by FCS Financial. 

Working with a lender that could offer a fixed rate was important to the Shanks because both remember what variable interest did to the generation before them. 

“FCS Financial worked with us,” Bruce says. “When we purchased another farm, they were willing to go through all the paperwork and work with us and create that partnership.”

And for FCS Financial, working with the Shanks family is exciting especially in a time when livestock margins have been thin.

“Finding an operation that runs it as a business and is controlling their expenses but has matched what they are doing to their resources, is tremendous,” says Joe Abbott, vice president, commercial livestock team leader, for FCS Financial.

Farming In Harmony

Bruce and Sunshine Shanks aren’t just serious about raising low input cattle. The couple is passionate about the natural resources surrounding their farm. 

From grazing management to wildlife restoration and timber stand improvement, the couple is all about maintaining their Sassafrass Valley Ranch for the next generation.

Working with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Shanks installed rotational grazing systems and have partnered with the agency on other soil and water restoration projects as well.

“We’ve done several EQIP programs and just about every conservation stewardship program available,” Bruce explains. “We’ve installed several miles of water lines, many miles of fences, fencing out a lot of woods.”

Sunshine adds that an eroded area existed on the farm when they first purchased it. NRCS helped them correct the area so that it is now better suited for grazing and wildlife.

Designated areas for pollinators, wildflowers and native grasses are also home at Sassafrass Valley Ranch. Warm season grass was seeded, and now Bruce says quail flock to the area. 

Niche or not, Bruce and Sunshine Shanks' efforts to match livestock with environment are a shining example of how keeping inputs in check returns more than dividends. 

“We’ve got our way of doing things and (the livestock) need to be raised in that sort of a system or they just won’t really work for us,” Bruce says. 

Author’s Note: Lesson plans are available at no cost to teachers in grades K-12. Visit National Agriculture in the Classroom at

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