Final Reflection from Mitchell Robert
November 10, 2019
My time at Ranney Ranch has been a wild, gritty, challenging and beautiful roller-coaster ride. I have experienced high highs feeling capable and confident. Having moments of complete (or at least almost complete) clarity, using the accumulation of all my learned knowledge and skills to make judgment calls that six months ago I thought I would never be able to make. At times though, my confidence sagged and I wanted to scream at the closest cow as the waterline that I just fixed burst again five feet away. I was pushed to the edge mentally, physically and emotionally. This job and lifestyle calls for flexibility and determination in all those realms. Along with growing, pushing, and learning about myself as a human, I will also walk away with many valuable skills and information.
To be a rancher you have to wear many hats. In one day you can go from operating heavy machinery to being a vet then a plumber and then a range scientist and at the end of the day a mechanic. That is what makes this job so intimidating but rewarding at the same time. One of the first things I learned about was water. It only took a week to understand the importance of making sure cattle had drinking water. You can have perfect fences and pastures with grass up to your knees but if cattle do not have water to drink it all means nothing. This is especially important in the dry arid SouthWest. With only a handful of wells and eighteen thousand acres of pastures being able to keep up with a herd of two hundred cows and their calves is a challenge. There is over fifty miles of pipeline and dozens and dozens of valve boxes that adjust where the water flows. Learning how to fix a leak in a waterline, hook up a solar pump (without getting electrocuted), replace a valve, locate all the valve boxes and knowing which valve to turn just right to get water to where you want was my first lesson and one that I continue to learn about. It is the most important job and probably the one that I spent the most time on. I never thought I could get such a sense of satisfaction just from seeing a storage tank full of water.
After water management the next most important skill is managing the land. I have had the privilege of working on a ranch that values the land. There are three main practices that Ranney Ranch implements to improve the health of their rangeland. They practice rotational grazing, manage the way water flows on their land, and clear and burn brush to encourage grass growth. Rotational grazing is probably the biggest impacter in improving soil conditions. At its most basic it is an attempt to mimic large herding mammals’ migrational patterns. These large herds would come through an area, disturb the earth with their hoofs, fertilize the land with their urine and manure, and stimulate growth and create healthier plants by eating them down. They wouldn’t stay in one place long due to pressure from predators so they would not overgraze and by the time they were back the following year the land was healthier then it was previously. In rotational grazing, instead of predators we have smaller pastures and horses to move them from one pasture to the next. Ranney Ranch hires Kirk Gadzia, a range consultant, to help plan how long the herd should stay in one pasture. To create this grazing plan we go out to all of the pastures twice a year, once in the spring to plan for the growing season and once in the fall to plan for the dormant season. At each pasture we estimate the animal grazing days per acre, basically how many days one animal unit could feed on one acre and still leave about 40-50% of forage behind. Once we have this number we can calculate how many days the herd can stay in a pasture. After we have repeated this process on the whole ranch we can create the grazing plan. As with almost all the skills I learned, to really understand the health of the land it takes years of being on the land noticing its changes but even after my short time here I feel I have the tools to build upon and replicate this process on my own.
Ranney Ranch has spent years increasing the amount of water that is retained on the ranch. While I was on the ranch we started another one of many water retention and erosion control projects. This project focused on arroyos and specifically addressing them at the head cuts. The idea was to slow erosion and to keep water on the land not letting it run off. I was able to go out with engineers from NRCS and help map out where we were going to build rock structures that would do just this. The structures were based on the designs of Bill Zeedyk. They are rock structures that are non-invasive and slow and alter the flow of water. He has many designs but we focused on and built three types. Media Lunas: which are quarter moon shapes that are built above a head cut. Rock Laydowns: these are put in place at the head cuts after they have been graded. One-rock Dams: these are placed below the head cuts in order to slow water down and restore the arroyo bottoms. The three work in tandem to keep water on the land. I was able to help design and build all of these structures (this meant countless hours of gathering rocks throughout the ranch but also the chance to create giant rock puzzles out of them).
The final tool the ranch uses to improve the land is clearing brush. I was never directly involved in this process but I saw first hand the benefits. The ranch is situated in a pocket of mesa canyon country that over time due to the lack of natural wildfires and overgrazing is being choked out by juniper trees. These trees, even just the small ones, can soak up 80 gallons of water a day thus taking that water away from the grasses. The ranch has cleared thousands of acres opening the land back up and allowing grasses to thrive.
Though it seems counter intuitive working the cattle is probably the least important aspect of ranching. After you take care of the land and provide adequate water there is really only a little cattle work to be done. But when you need to do it, it has to do be done well. Handling cattle in a low-stress and safe environment is key. Having proper corrals and keeping calm, knowing how to move them, are things you learn by doing and seeing. To get them to the corrals you have to know how to ride. This is when I got to be a “real” cowboy. Before coming to the ranch I had ridden a horse maybe a half dozen times but after six months I feel comfortable doing ground work, saddling, and working cattle. It is a joy to see this ranch on horseback. I drove all over it in a truck everyday but there is something different about the way you see it on top of a horse. Some of my favorite moments on the ranch were on horseback. Riding up mesas onto beautiful meadows then down into a little canyon where you feel completely alone and at peace. Though I would be lying if I said after eight hours on a long cattle drive I didn’t want to get off and sit on something other than a saddle.
I feel privileged to have been able to see and work in this beautiful part of our country. I will hold onto the memories I made here and think back on them fondly. I will also take the skills and knowledge I gained, and the mental toughness I acquired with me to my next venture whatever that may be.