By Sarah Wentzel-Fisher
Originally published in Edible Santa Fe, Summer 2014
After a rushed breakfast, and with the sun barely above the horizon, I found myself outside a pink barn brushing Murphy, an aging barrel horse. Murphy and I, along with eight other horses and a crew of about fourteen people would travel to the heart of Ranney Ranch for the annual branding. After loading horses into a large trailer, I rode with ranch manager of thirty-one years, Melvin Johnson, a local cowboy named Ryan, and Ana, a young college student from Laramie, Wyoming, to the section of the ranch where the herd grazed. Our drive took us over rugged roads that rose and fell with particular drama. Later I learn that the topography of the road itself is intentional—designed to prevent the road from becoming a river during big rains, and to turn the channelized water back out onto the land where it can irrigate the pastures.
Johnson unloaded the horses and Nancy Ranney (one of three siblings who own the ranch in family partnership with their offspring) discussed the plan for the roundup. Two teams on horseback would move the cows through a pass between gentle hills to holding pens to the southwest. For late June, the landscape is remarkably verdant for high elevation shortgrass prairie. At Ranney Ranch, the herd is moved every few days to a new section of the ranch. Rotational grazing allows cows to eat their fill without overgrazing. The herd’s movements mimic more active, wild herd animals that would have foraged on this landscape before fences. Since implementing holistic management in 2002, the identifiable grass species on the ranch has grown from five to forty-five. In short order, the soil is healthier and holds more moisture, grass is more productive, and biodiversity has increased.
By eight we had moved the herd about a mile into holding pens where experienced ranch hands separated the cows from the calves, one of the only times in their lives they will be confined or separated from their mothers. Our jobs for the day include vaccinating, branding, and tagging the calves.
By noon we have completed our work, and we retired under the shade of a juniper to enjoy lunch. The juniper is one of a few on the landscape as the Ranneys have proactively removed much of the shrub to encourage growth of more grass. Junipers produce allelopathic chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants, giving them a monopoly on water in their vicinity. By limiting the number of shrubs, grass is able to compete, the soil can hold more moisture, and the landscape fosters better habitat for small rodents and insects.
After eating, a small group mounted up and headed southwest into a wide canyon down an old service road. One of several that run latitudinally across the eighteen thousand acre ranch, each canyon is a small watershed that feeds into the Pecos. The health of the small tributary watersheds and the larger Pecos watershed requires careful maintenance of the lands their waters traverse. In relative terms, this land can’t support much, but the animals, plants, water, and soil that thrive on the arid plains share essential and delicate bonds of life.
For the Ranneys, a commitment to keeping their shortgrass prairie healthy meant many changes to the way they thought about beef production, including making a commitment to raising grassfed beef, joining the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Allianace and the Quivira Coalition, and operating within American Grassfed Association and Animal Welfare guidelines. Before 2002, the Ranneys’ parents operated the ranch as a traditional cow-calf operation with continuous grazing, running over 300 cows annually. Now, using holistic management and carefully considering acreage and annual waterfall (recent extreme drought as a major factor) to prevent overgrazing, the ranch supports about half that number.
Traditionally, beef cattle forage in pastures until weaned at six months, and then are sold to be finished in a feedlot where they consume high calorie grains for weight gain and muscle marbling. This is an expensive process economically and environmentally, where the cow-calf operation only gets a small cut of the overall profit from the ultimate sale of the meat. Further, it also means a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to transport the cows several times over the course of their lives and to grow the grain (often more than three thousand pounds per cow) necessary to bring them to full weight. The Organic Consumers Association, who tracked the typical supply chain a cow would follow, report that conventional beef travels over thirty-five hundred miles from ranch to distribution center, not accounting for the return trip miles.
Grassfed means a cow was raised on its mother’s milk and its growing years are spent on open range pasture. In the Southwest, most cattle graze on rangeland grass (rarely on irrigated pasture due to the arid conditions) and are supplemented with hay when necessary. Grassfed beef requires far fewer inputs than conventional beef production, but can still present challenges in the finishing process, particularly in New Mexico, where grass is sparse and spare, and where slaughter facilities are few and far between.
Ranney Ranch beef is unique in that it is not finished. They sell most of their cattle as young beef direct to consumers shortly after they have been weaned. The Ranneys process the beef in Fort Sumner, and this short trip, for most of their cows, is the only fossil fuel their production requires. The meat tends to be lighter in color and more tender than meat from a more mature cow. Because the cows are raised on both pasture grass and mother’s milk, their meat is high in omega three and six fatty acids, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and conjugated linoleic acid. But ultimately, the reasons for selling their cows younger have everything to do with economics, sustainability, and good land management practices.
By two in the afternoon, we have arrived back at the pink barn with tired but happy horses and riders. We retire to the house for showers, refreshments, and a little reflection on the day. We discuss the state of ranching in the West. The reality is, much of New Mexico’s landscape has been over grazed by conventional cattle production, and contributes to environmental issues like invasive species, desertification, drought, compromised watersheds, and climate change. Some would argue that New Mexicans simply shouldn’t be raising beef in such a dry and fragile environment. The Ranneys would argue that although cows have created many of the land and watershed issues we currently face, they could also be the key to solving these issues. By raising cattle in ways that reflect the limits of our landscape and resources—through careful range management and reducing inputs—ranching in the Southwest presents an opportunity to restore land, watersheds, biodiversity, and economic vitality.