Rafter J Cattle Company breeds bulls for riding competitions and competes at events in the state and across the nation, all stemming from a rich rodeo history in the family.
Jesse Dick grew up in a rodeo family — his mother, Tracey Wegener, went to college on a barrel-riding scholarship, and his father was a team roper.
"They raised Jesse in a rodeo family so naturally, Jesse grew up wanting to ride bulls," Dick's step-father Darrell Wegener said.
Wegener said the family sat down five years ago, when Dick started having children of his own, and discussed doing something "different" — that would turn into a partnership racing and hauling bucking bulls through Rafter J Cattle Company. Now, Tracey describes her son as "the other side of Rafter J," taking the experience he earned during his own time as a rider and lending it to Rafter J as a contractor.
Rafter J, in its current form, has a five-year history, but the brand has actually existed since 1905. Joseph Plaff first registered the brand with the Kansas Brand Commission that year after moving to Barber County, Kansas from Chillicothe. The brand changed hands a number of times over the years — in 1921 to cattleman and wheat farmer Frederick B. Plaff, in 1946 to Frederick P. Plaff Sr., and in 1990 to Frederick P. Plaff Jr. — before ending up in the new generation of the family's hands today.
The current iteration has grown pretty quickly since five years ago, Darrell Wegener said. In fact, this year has been Rafter J's first as part of the PBR Velocity Tour, a bull team event including PBR's riders ranked 36th to 75th in the country. The top 35 in country compete in the regular PBR, Wegener said, but the riders Rafter J works with are still of a high caliber.
Rafter J focuses on team bull riding competitions such as this one — contractors put up an entry fee for anywhere from two to four of their best bulls, depending on the format, and team riders with the tour will ride for each contractor. That format allows contractors to compete without needing a higher number of bulls to haul, so Rafter J has been able to focus on a smaller head.
"Honestly, you could have two bulls and that's it," Wegener said. "If they're staying healthy, you could haul those two bulls anywhere to compete with these guys. You don't have to have that big of a space."
That's especially helpful since Rafter J runs the operation right in Wegener's back yard — bull pens sit only a few feet behind the family home's back patio. Beside 15 acres of leased land that houses some cattle, that's all Rafter J has had to work with in its short history. Wegener said they "love" the current set-up, though, since everything is so close by and allows everything to be taken care of more easily.
The Wegeners refer to their bulls as "athletes," taking into careful account bloodlines, genetics and health when considering which bulls to bring to competitions. The bulls get MagnaWave therapy to work out their muscles, and the team tries to stay on top of their health.
"The back story to what you get to at the arena when the bull just bucks out of the chute and people are like 'Heck yeah,' your average people don't understand the process that goes into that, the genetics and the breeding and the studying of bloodlines," Tracey Wegener said.
Of the 15 to 20 Velocity Tour events around the country, Rafter J has picked five or six to compete in. This year, the tour has taken the team to Pensacola, Florida and College Station, Texas. Rafter J took first place in the event in College Station, and second in Pensacola. The team has also made stops in South Carolina, North Platte, Nebraska and Fort Scott, Kansas for PBR competition.
Along with its out-of-state trips, Rafter J also appears at a number of competitions around Missouri. Rafter J was preparing to leave for competitions in Warrensburg and Savannah last week, for example, and has a stop in Cuba on the agenda for later this month. The events in Missouri are part of the Amped Up Pro Bull Tour, based out of Warrensburg, Darrell Wegener said. Similar to the PBR Velocity Tour, these are also team riding events.
A lot of the riders Rafter J draws for Amped Up competitions follow the PBR events, but teams will also take their own riders to smaller events. Usually, they're riders that have done well on their bulls before at past events, Wegener said. One of those riders, Austin Martin of Russellville, works with Wegener full-time and previously spent time as a PBR rider when he was younger. Martin has picked up riding again after some time away, and Rafter J has welcomed him into the fold.
That experience makes a difference when working with team riders, Tracey Wegener said.
"He's a good friend of my son (Jesse), " Tracey Wegener said. "(Jesse) used to be a bull rider, too, so he's grown up with these guys, he's come up with them. He got hurt pretty bad and he kind of just decided to hang it up and go the direction of contracting versus continuing to ride, so he knows all of the guys."
Dick, now 27 with his third daughter on the way, said he and Martin have a wide background in rodeo. He said it pays to have an "eye" for how bulls buck when pairing them to riders for competitions.
Dick certainly has an eye for it — while the average person might just see bucking, he said he's looking for what kind of lead they're taking, how they're moving their feet and extending their legs, whether they stutter step when coming back around. Dick could point to any bull in the nearby pens and give a quick synopsis of how that particular bull should move the majority of the time, or at least what to expect from their general patterns.
Having ridden before helps when thinking about who to pair with a bull when at competitions where Rafter J is drawing riders, Dick said. Oftentimes, he's basing that process on whether he himself would get on a bull. It also helps when raising or buying a bull to add to the head.
For the second year in a row, Rafter J will be bringing the Bull Bash to the Moniteau County Fair. Fair-goers can see Rafter J's bulls in action Wednesday, Aug. 4 for mutton busting at 6:30 p.m. and bull riding at 7 p.m., plus a freestyle bullfighting competition.
Dick said when speaking with the fair board about Rafter J putting on the rodeo, he said the team could bring something "they've never seen before." In years past, county fair rodeos might have included a dense pack of ropers and barrel racers, but events through Rafter J will thrive on people "getting thrown through the air."
"We're excited about doing it," Darrell Wegener said. "We're excited about bringing it to our community and showing our community what we're about. It's neat — there's hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people that raise bucking bulls every year. I mean, not everybody gets to haul bulls for the PBR, not everybody gets to the level that we've taken it to in this short amount of time, but it takes a lot of work."
In the meantime, Rafter J is shooting for building its own arena out on the family farm with bucking chutes to host its own community rodeo events and, of course, continuing to travel and compete.
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