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Tough Challenges, Big Possibilities on the Trigg Ranch

by Jim Howell

First published in "In Practice" by the The Savory Center

 

Conscious management toward a triple bottom line, where decisions are simultaneously evaluated in light of social, financial, and ecological soundness toward a holistic goal, is a concept unique to holistic management. This is the Land and Livestock section, so most of what appears here is weighted toward discussions of grass, soil, sunshine, rain, and grazing planning &endash; all the ecology stuff. However, as Allan Savory realized several decades ago, an ecologically regenerating ranch is ultimately doomed to fail if expenses exceed income, and family members, ranch staff, etc. are pulling in opposite directions. In many, if not most, situations, the people and money issues are actually the most daunting challenges. Sorting out relationships, clarifying and articulating shared values, developing disciplined financial habits, and climbing out of a draining debt load are not only challenging pursuits &endash; for many of us, they are painfully dreaded pursuits. It's just way more fun to build fence, move cows, and watch the grass grow.

 

With that said, it's encouraging, eye-opening, and inspiring to come across a ranching family that is heads and tails above the norm in the social and financial realms. I recently had the chance to visit such a family on the Trigg Ranch, just north of Tucumcari, New Mexico. Rick and Kristen Holmes (and daughters Caitlin and Hilary) are the managers and part owners of the ranch. Both are currently enrolled in the Savory Center's Ranch and Rangeland Manager's Training Program. We met last summer when my wife, Daniela, and I hosted the first session of their program at our ranch in western Colorado. I've been trying to get down for a visit ever since, and finally worked it into my winter schedule last February.

 

Ranch History

Kristen's maiden name is Trigg, and her ancestors founded the ranch in 1918. Her grandfather, Steve Trigg Sr., his father D.C., and Steve's brothers partnered on the vast XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle in the early years of the 20th century. They were some of the first cattlemen to introduce Black Angus cattle into the West, upgrading the native Texas Longhorns into a more marketable brand of beef. During World War I, they hit a good lick peddling their black-hided cattle to the federal government, and when circumstances led to the dissolution of their XIT lease, the brothers headed straight west to the current location of the Trigg Ranch to start new lives. Originally 238,000 acres (96,300 ha), the surviving lineage of Steve Sr. still holds title to just under 50,000 (20,200 ha). The ranch was carved out of the famous (and enormous) Bell Ranch, which still lies to the north and west, and a big chunk of it was part of the massive Pablo Montoya Spanish Land Grant. Like lots of New Mexico, it's an area rich in tradition and colorful local history. The Triggs have taken the time and made the effort to capture their own history on the ranch. Numerous photo albums of the old days, and a memoir written by Kristen's Aunt Adaline, document scores of important events, memorable stories, and daily ranch life through the years.

 

Kristen's father, also named Steve, ran the ranch throughout most of the past 60 years after the death of Steve Sr. He took over at a young age and developed a rigid set of management policies that didn't bend much over the years. Kristen and her sister Sally (who was also at the ranch at the time of my visit) remember their father with tremendous affection and respect (he passed away in July 2002), but they're quick to point out that he was the boss and wasn't overly open to suggestions. Since the early 1970s, Rick has spent most of his adult life working on the ranch, and he can't recall Steve asking for much advice either.

 

 

Family Bonds

While Steve may not have been much of a collaborator, he evidently did something right to maintain family harmony. His sisters Adaline and Louise were adamant about keeping the ranch intact and under Steve's management after their mother passed away in 1976. They didn't create a family war and fight for their share of the pie. They loved the ranch and knew Steve deserved to continue to derive his living from it. They valued generational continuity and a connection to place.

 

Louise, Adaline, and Steve successfully passed these same values onto the current generation of Triggs in charge of the ranch. Prior to Steve's death, the family established a creative set of legal structures (including a family limited partnership, a trust, and a corporation) to prepare for the smooth passing of the ranch onto the next generation. The fact that Steve and his family had the foresight to take these vital actions says a lot about Steve's character and leadership qualities. Without going into any details, these legal structures have enabled the ranch to maintain the extremely strong financial position that was generated by Steve's management over the years (more on that below).

 

Continuing with the theme of "family working together", the Triggs have established an annual tradition that they call "work week." All of Kristen and Sally's generation (which includes two brothers, Eric and another Steve, as well as several cousins), plus all of their children, get together for a week in the summer and tackle a meaningful ranch project. Several years ago, the family decided that comfortable, inspiring accommodation was lacking when they came for visits, so during work week in recent years, they've been remodeling/refurbishing one of the original ranch houses where Kristen's grandparents lived. It's a beautiful, expansive stone house at the head of a dramatic canyon, and no doubt will receive lots of use as future generations of Triggs continue to work on and visit the ranch. The whole family maintains a reverence for their grandmother (Bess, who was Steve Sr.'s wife), and have wonderful memories of spending time up at "Nana's house" in their youth, so remodeling the house is also a means of preserving a meaningful part of family and ranch history.

John, Christine, Colton, Linda, Eric, Dorothy, Sari, Sally, Ellen, Hilary, Caitlin, Kristen, Rick and Tom at "Nana's".

 

Financial Frugality

So that's a taste of the social/people side of the ranch. As with all families, little nagging conflicts will always be present, but with their common purpose and aligned values, the likelihood of mole hills turning into mountains seems slim. Moving into economics, the ranch is in very sound financial health due largely to Steve's extremely frugal spending habits over the years. The ranch is totally debt free, with no money owed on either land or cattle. A healthy cushion of operating capital also eliminates any need for operating credit. On our trips visiting ranches around the world, the most financially stable, and often the most financially prosperous, are the operations that keep things simple and focus on basic essentials. That's definitely been the Trigg philosophy for many decades.

 

Black Angus Longhorns and Bighorns

Steve wasn't into anything fancy, including cattle. With the exception of a brief experiment into Charolais bulls in the 70s (which, according to Rick and Kristen, was totally out of character for Steve), he never bought a fancy bull from a fantasy world seedstock producer. He actually was reluctant to buy a bull period. At branding, Steve would occasionally direct the man with the knife to "let that one go," and those lucky few bull calves grew into herd bulls. Rugged terrain also lent to the establishment of a few groups of wild cattle. The ranch's convoluted, steep, rocky canyons and buttes led to the natural selection of a strain of bovines more akin to wild bighorn sheep than domestic cattle. Bull calves from these "wild bunches" also added to the bull battery. No cattle are ever vaccinated (except for a couple initial shots at branding), and they're never wormed or treated for external parasites in any way. Bulls are never pulled, and the cows are left to calve as nature sees fit, which in their part of New Mexico means a calving bulge in the spring. Historically, cows were kept in the herd for years, and were never individually identified in any way. As long as she could hold her condition and breed back, she had a home. The only significant direct input into the cow herd is a little protein cake during the cold months of mid-winter. About three years ago, they also started to use an abundant and renewable resource to raise the winter plane of nutrition &endash; cholla cactus. They burn off the spines with a propane burner and the cattle maul the defenseless succulents (see sidebar &endash; maybe you could make one up with the photos I sent, including the captions I wrote on the back of them).

 

The result after all these years is a herd of small framed, easy keeping, incredibly tough, and very fertile black cattle. When they're fat in the summer, they might weigh 900 lb. My visit coincided with the widespread drought currently sweeping most of the West, and grass was scarce at best across the ranch. Considering their meager rations, these little black cattle were all in excellent condition. They had a good shine for late winter, and the few calves that had already hit the ground were frisky and healthy. The cows are feminine and the bulls are small but thick, and very easy fleshing. They don't look anything like the Black Angus cattle typical of the breed today. And they aren't. With the exception of their black hides, they have a lot more in common with their Texas Longhorns ancestors than their Angus contemporaries.

 

Historically, the ranch sent all the weaned calves to a nearby leased ranch and marketed them as yearlings, or ownership was retained through the feedlot. Incidentally, their adaptation to their wild, rocky home didn't diminish their performance in the feedlot. Feeders were continually amazed at how efficiently these funny little cattle would gain in the pen. They've since lost the leased ranch, so are now marketing calves at weaning. They've been selling to ranchers who lease winter wheat pasture to grow out yearlings through the winter and spring. The calves have developed a reputation for being so tough and maintenance free that Rick and Kristen can't meet the demand. Rick says that, when it comes to settling on a price, "We don't have to do any haggling." The ranch has historically run 1000 cows (give or take), and has averaged a weaned calf crop of about 800, with average weights of about 400 lb.(180 kg).That's pretty good for an extremely low input, survival of the fittest management philosophy. If success is measured by profitability and happy customers, it's hard to argue with their results.

 

Keys to Ranching for Profit

Gregg Simonds, vice president of Ensign Ranches of Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska, emphasizes that profitability in ranching is determined by three primary factors &endash; cow fertility, cow longevity, and low feed costs (which means not feeding hay), and that "everything else is recreation." Those are exactly the factors Steve Trigg emphasized all those years. Allan Savory emphasizes a fourth factor, which he places at the top of the profitability list &endash; stocking rate. A ranch has to efficiently utilize its forage resources, which means that stocking rate has to be pushed as high as possible under well-planned grazing, while also leaving the appropriate forage drought reserve. Unless a ranch is using its grass (in a sustainable and regenerating manner), maximum profit per acre &endash; the only truly important economic measure &endash; will never be reached. Fertility and low feed costs mean nothing if they're not examined in light of profit per acre.

 

Also entering this equation is cow mature body size. A ranch that is maximizing its stocking rate with large framed cows will always carry less animal numbers than a ranch stocked with small cows. For example, on the Trigg Ranch, we estimated the long term historical stocking rate at about 1,000 of these small-framed black cows. If they wean 800 calves weighing 400 lb., that's 320,000 lb. of total production. If they had cows that could wean 500 lb. calves at the same age, we figured the number of cattle they could run might drop to 800 cows, since the cows would have to be bigger, produce more milk, and therefore eat more grass. Assuming the same 80% weaning rate, that's 640 calves weighing 500 lb., which is also 320,000 lb. of total production. But when you figure those 400 lb. calves will always bring 5 to 10 cents more per lb. than the 500 lb. calves, those small cows come out much more profitable. As a percentage of total body weight, the big cows would probably need more protein and energy supplementation to maintain acceptable body condition during the winter as well. This is the reason the beef industry's obsession with weaning weights and per head production hasn't resulted in more profitability. Steve Trigg must have known that all along.

 

After having said all that, Rick and Kristen nonetheless have long thought that they need to upgrade their cowherd with a little more mainstream type of bull. They're also concerned that after years and years with no outside gene infusions, inbreeding might be starting to become a problem. I encouraged them to stick with what they had. The results speak for themselves. There is definitely room for improvement with their selection and culling policy, but they've got a set of cows that are supremely adapted to their country. If they really think a few new genes might be necessary to slow down some possible negative consequences from inbreeding, sourcing bulls from similar country and from ranchers with stringent, straightforward culling criteria is a must. To reiterate, placing an inordinate degree of focus on complicated selection criteria, fancy genetics, and traits other than fertility is almost never profitable. Keep it simple, push stocking rate under sound grazing planning, and let nature sort things out.

 

Back to the Land

That's the good news. We've covered the social and financial dimensions of this outfit &endash; now for a little ecology. Like nearly every other western ranch, the Trigg Ranch has been living on biological capital for a long time. It's been a slow and gradual decline. Steve probably wasn't conscious of it. Rick, Kristen, and the rest of their generation have been aware of it for a long time, but Steve's inflexible management style stifled most serious attempts to address it. Now, with Rick and Kristen at the driver's seat, the whole family is excited about turning this trend around. Eroding soil, mesquite and cedar proliferation, stunted grasses, bare ground, and blue grama monocultures (a low growing warm season perennial grass that is highly resistant to continuous severe grazing) are the norm across much of the ranch.

 

Jim Howell does some educating on the Trigg Ranch

Rough Country Logistics

As they plan how to address this ecological decline, Rick and Kristen are faced with several genuine challenges. One is the tough nature of most of their country. On the drive down to the ranch across northeastern New Mexico, easy rolling short grass prairie is overwhelmingly dominant. This landscape persisted all the way to the tiny town of Mosquero, just 17 miles (27 km) north of Trigg Ranch headquarters. Rick and Kristen had told me they were in rough country. Based on the view out my windshield, I just couldn't believe it. I began to think that maybe their definition of rough was different from mine. Then all of sudden, everything changed dramatically. Just south of Mosquero, the landscape quickly transformed into a maze of cedar-studded canyons and cliffs. It's not impossibly rough (with the possible exception of a couple of pastures where the wild sheep-cows hang out), but it's rough. Figuring out how to create big herds of cattle, and then move them in a logistically feasible manner, requires a serious commitment. In this sort of country, it takes several years of trial and error before the best way to get from "here to there" with several hundred (or several thousand) animals becomes apparent. The chance of having demoralizing and energy sapping wrecks is high (100% in my experience). But I've never seen a case where determination and "sticking with it" failed to overcome logistical obstacles to sound grazing planning. The important thing, I think, is to not expect to walk before you crawl, not expect to run before you walk, and not expect to sprint before you run. It will take a long time before things are really humming, and that's true even on flat country, let alone vertical cliffs. Just be aware of it and don't give up.

 

Caitlin and Christine observe as Kristen examines some Rough Country

 

Cow Culture Considerations

It's not just the logistics of moving cattle from one canyon or plateau to the next that's challenging; dealing with the entrenched habits of the cattle is also tough. Animals that have lived their whole life in one canyon or mesa understand how to make their living there. They know where the grass is sweetest. They know which mesquite plants taste good and which ones are too bitter to bother with. They know the easiest route to water, the best places to give birth, the coolest spots when the temperature climbs to 110 F, and the best hollows to take cover in when the mercury plunges below zero. They know their place, and have developed a culture to successfully survive within it. It's really no different than any other critter, including ourselves.

 

When we decide all our cows need to be in one herd, animals that aren't familiar with their new surroundings suddenly lose all these advantages they had back in their old neighborhood. The combination of all those tidbits of knowledge that result in survival (which translates into calves to sell) suddenly no longer applies. They also have to figure out how to get along with a bunch of new faces they've seldom had to deal with previously. This all creates stress, not just on the livestock, but on the people trying to implement the change. It can also break the bank account and can lead to even worse ecological conditions without careful planning, and continual monitoring, controlling, and replanning. The goal of the manager is to accomplish this transition from sedentary, overgrazing, land degrading herbivores to moving, impacting, resource-revitalizing herbivores with a minimum of overall stress. It will be stressful, no matter what, but it should also be fun, motivating, and satisfying.

 

So that's what Rick and Kristen and I talked about for most of a day &endash; making the transition. Understandably, the complexity of their challenge had left them unsure where to get started. Taking into account the above realities of logistics and bovine culture, Rick and Kristen got started by first identifying regions of the ranch that made sense to manage as distinct units, or grazing cells, at least initially. They looked at topography mostly, as well as water sources, trying to imagine how a herd of cattle could get up and around and down and through all these mesas and canyons, where they could get a drink, what fences needed significant attention, etc. In most cases, they could visualize making things work, but it took some creative thinking. They also looked at how the cattle currently are spread out around the ranch, and allocated these different bunches to different grazing cells. We surmised that even though a cow will tend to spend most of her life in a fairly small area, she certainly must have ventured over the rim and down into the adjacent canyon at least a few times. On the other hand, a cow that's spent her whole life down in the Creek Pasture probably never made the fifteen mile (23 km) trek north to Wild Horse Flat. Combining existing small bunches of cattle within an area that they already know (and with other cattle they most likely know), even if they don't know it intimately, is a lot less potentially stressful than pushing them into totally novel surroundings already occupied by a bunch of strangers. Just imagine how you'd like it.

 

Rick and Kristen ended up identifying three regions of the ranch that they felt made sense to manage as distinct grazing cells. Each cell ended up having 5-6 paddocks. We did a practice grazing plan for the coming growing season for each cell, just so they could see how it could all potentially come together. The prospect of a majority of the ranch being free of grazing pressure for most of the growing season was exciting. Time control, stock density, and herd size will still be a long ways from the ideal, but they'll be a whole lot more well-managed than anytime in the past. They're going to keep thinking about it all, and between now and summer rains, refine this quick and dirty plan to make it even more achievable. Once they've made this first step and have a few seasons under their belts, have monitored carefully, adapted accordingly, and are comfortable that things are moving in the right direction, it will be time to test further refinement of their fencing layout and grazing planning toward the ranch's holistic goal.

 

It was a pleasure to meet a ranching family with so many positive things going for them. With people and financial issues well under control, Rick and Kristen are well-poised to begin working on the ecological side of things. With locally adapted cattle, the support of the entire family, a healthy financial cushion, and a strong desire to improve, the Trigg Ranch really is bursting with possibility.


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