of Trigg Ranch
It’s been twelve years since Steve Trigg died and the “Gaaaawwd-daaaammn” with which he larded every sentenced was silenced. He was the last of the Second Generation of the Triggs who have owned this ranch for almost a century. Founders SL and Bess Trigg, together with SL’s father and brothers, bought part of the Bell Ranch and brought the first herd of Aberdeen Angus to New Mexico in 1918. When Steve died in 2002 the Third and Fourth generations – all twenty-two of us -- found ourselves with a ranch on our hands.
Before Steve’s death, we seven grandchildren of SL and Bess Trigg -- the “Third Generation” -- had already decided that, rather than inheriting pieces of land, we wanted the ranch to “keep on being a ranch” and we all wanted to be able to come to visit or work or retire there. So, with cousin Sally’s legal skills and tenacity, we had created a perpetual trust into which all of us deeded all our ownership of land and shares of the Cattle Company; there will never be death duties to pay, and never any cash paid out to beneficiaries of the Trust. And we can come to the ranch.
The day before Steve’s memorial ceremony, the beneficiaries of the trust – the three trustees among them – met to carry out a plan we’d been talking about: we hired Steve’s daughter Kristen Holmes as ranch manager, with her husband Rick. Kristen had lived on the ranch all her life, and with Rick had raised their two daughters there, while working for Steve as cowhands; but Steve had ignored her and shared nothing at all of the management. Kristen was suddenly tossed from the bottom of the heap to the top, with two cowboys to boss. We have to keep reminding her that as ranch manager her word is law.
A few years later something momentous for the future of the ranch happened. Kristen’s elder daughter Caitlin graduated from Southwestern University magna cum laude in English and discovered a serious talent for making pottery. But then in-law Effie asked a question, which planted a seed, which grew into Caitlin’s spending a year in TCU’s Ranch Management course, and the next year Caitlin joined the ranch staff as Cowherd Manager. She brings a broad awareness of the ranching business and many tools to apply to the work. She’s serving on the local Soil and Water Conservation District Board and she keeps in touch with the NRCS and FSA people in Roy. She – and one year’s Work Week – turned the little guest house at Steve’s into a darling home. And then something else momentous happened – she brought a husband to the ranch: Josh ---! He’s teaching school in Mosquero and working half-time on the ranch. He’s fallen in love with the heritage chickens cousin Robin gave them as a wedding present. And we have all fallen in love with him.
Caitlin and Josh are toasted 2013
When Steve died in 2002, given his unwillingness to discuss anything with anybody, we really didn’t know what we had on our hands, besides the 50,000 acres of land. There was a herd of cattle, descendants of those early Angus, now well adapted to our rough country and well-regarded for our breeder and stocker calves. The cattle were also well known to be hardheaded and uncooperative – like us, I suppose; and they were unwilling to leave their familiar corners of the large pastures. But we didn’t know how many there were. Or how much of the fence was in decent condition. We knew the grass had taken a beating over the years, and mesquite and juniper have flourished. There were a dozen windmills and lots of surface tanks. There was no debt on the ranch; Steve was always reluctant to spend money. But we had little idea what we could expect to earn and what it cost to run the place.
Maybe the biggest challenge has been learning how to make decisions; one spouse says we can’t even decide where to have lunch together in town. However, four years before Steve’s death, we had begun to renovate our grandmother’s home, the old rock house built in 1924, full of our childhood memories but standing empty since her death in the 1970s. The annual summer “Work Week” draws twenty-five or thirty folks – now ages seventy-eight to eight -- to sweat together replacing – well, almost everything: plumbing, wiring, the water system, the propane system, curtains and upholstery, screens and porches, plus refinishing floors and reglazing all the windows.
As soon as we began working on Nana’s house, each of us had ideas about how to do every little thing. There was no boss. Steve was still alive, and he was paying for everything – we assumed – but he mostly left us alone. We soon developed a rule-of-thumb: whoever is particularly committed to a project -- like cousin Stephen who was worrying about the kitchen door – decides how it is going to be done. Everyone else gives advice freely and often; but the honcho decides. When the time came for eight women to get down to redesigning the kitchen, spouses and friends fled; it took three years, and there were a few tears, but the result is a delight. We’ve also done the bunkhouse, and now we’ve started on Steve’s house.
Crew just finished gutting the kitchen 2009
By the time Steve died, we had four years of experience of working together. But it was a couple of years before we realized that “the whole” we were managing included not only the cattle operation but also the family with its varied interests and its wide range of experience and skills. With the help of a consultant, we set up a structure, in addition to the three trustees, which is focused around a board of directors elected annually during Work Week by all the beneficiaries present. The seven-member board, which always includes two members of the Fourth Generation, meets monthly by phone. That works pretty well, scattered as we are from Texas to Hawaii – and cousin Eric the airline captain could be anywhere. Our decisions are made by consensus; the one formal vote was to buy a piece of land and borrow the money to do it – and that vote was unanimous. Mostly we ask questions, hold Kristen’s hand when she worries, and encourage her in the decisions she has made.
There are broader decisions to make, as well. We do have a Holistic Plan; it’s pretty general, but helps us stay focused. When we hold annual meetings of the beneficiaries and spouses, during Work Week, there’s general discussion of new ideas or enthusiasms – or worries. And we have made some decisions about what we won’t do. No hunting parties, no dudes, no B&B, no bike trail on the old railroad bed. No seismic exploration with heavy trucks driving over our precious grass. No electric fences, for now, and no investment in a photovoltaic installation. No sheep, no llamas, no goats. Certainly for the time being, we are a cow-calf operation, and in most years we make a profit. While we have talked to Country Natural Beef and sent one truckload of calves to be fed out in Oregon, we quickly decided that marketing into the natural beef niche would take way more time and attention than we want to give it.
We’ve all learned a lot. During their first year as managers, Kristen and Rick had taken the Holistic Management course, and they asked Jim Howell to come down to consult with all the beneficiaries during Work Week. And many of us have made good use of various kinds of learning – Bill Zeedyk workshops, the Quevira Coalition conferences, Bud Williams’ low-stress cattle handling, and inviting other specialists to the ranch.
I think the biggest surprise has been how much easier it is now to handle the cattle. Kristen, Rick, and Caitlin have paid good heed to everybody’s advice: “you’ll avoid many a wreck if you take it slow.” So, slowly they have made good use of EQIP grants and other funding to divide some of the 2500-acre pastures into 600-acre paddocks, and they’ve taught the cattle to come for goodies – cottonseed cake – when they hear the siren. Cranky old cows have been replaced by a younger generation which are eager to trot through an open gate to fresh pasture. Low-stress cattle handling turns out to be low-stress on the cowhands;
one of our favorite stories is that the first time cattle were led to fresh pasture by the feed-truck with its siren going, a dubious cowboy riding behind the herd commented to Kristen: “I could get used to this!” Gathering cattle in a paddock now takes half a day, compared to two days of hard riding a decade ago. Sally has trained the purchased bulls – the home-bred ones have been culled – to come eat out of her hand, and she’s trained even the youngest of the Triggs to move cattle through a circuit in the shipping pens. Caitlin can now keep pretty close tabs on the three herds, and even testing bulls annually isn’t the nightmare it was when trichomoniasis was discovered in the neighborhood a decade ago.
Kristen and Caitlin had cut the stocking rate in half by the time the second drought in ten years set in; last year half the ranch was mapped as “extreme drought” -- and the other half as “exceptional”. The calves have been weaned early for the last couple of years in order to keep the cows in the best condition possible. So, despite the drought, the cattle look better than ever. New genetics have been brought into the herd by buying registered Angus bulls from area breeders. The goal, as Caitlin puts it, is to maintain the smaller, well-adapted cow that has thrived in our hard country, while still producing a marketable, growthy, easy-fleshing calf that buyers will want. Because of our rough terrain, Caitlin rotates the cattle in three independent cells. The managers have a rough grazing plan on paper, but they actually move the cattle when the grass indicates, staying a little longer or moving out earlier than planned.
A big disappointment has been the re-sprouting of mesquite which looked nice and dead the year after aerial spraying. That had been expensive, even with an EQIP grant. We have persuaded ourselves that dead mesquite is beautiful: bare gray sticks all across our three best valley pastures. But re-sprouted mesquite is downright ugly. Hand spraying from a 4-wheeler keeps certain areas under control; and at least for the time being the pastures are more open. There’s a lot of juniper, too, which we have decided just to live with for the time being, despite Sally’s itching to get at it with the skid-loader.
A surprising amount of work – maybe more than handling the cattle – goes into maintaining more than ninety miles of road. Kristen has always had a deft touch with heavy equipment, and she is often on the big front-loader, the grader, or the back-hoe. Many a “rolling dip” has she created, slowing erosion and keeping the water – when it rains – where she wants it. And she cleans out the tanks when they are dry, and clears the path for new fences. Rick spends most of his time maintaining or replacing all that equipment. Anybody know where we can buy a two-year-old Ford 250 with bench seats?
Monitoring on Wild Horse Flat 1
The most delightful of our new practices is monitoring. Jim Howell came down to our rough country in 2003 to teach us the benefits of plant litter – none of us had any idea what he was talking about – and showed us how to lay out a transect and led us through a fairly elaborate process. So now we and some dedicated friends gather in nice fall weather and spend five days going to the far reaches of the ranch, taking detailed photos and gathering a lot of data on each of twelve transects. We can compare that data from year to year; it would be fun to see dramatic changes, but at least we are headed in the right direction. And when carbon credits were hot on the market we were able to say, “Yes, see what we are doing”, and we sold credits for some nice money. The most valuable thing, though, has been learning to look at the land; we count species of plants, carefully estimate the percentages of bare ground and litter and live plant, make note of rabbit poop and spider webs and other indications of the ecological community. And we argue. We still laugh about the year cousin Sally and in-law John got thrown off the team for arguing all day about what percentage of plants in a circle are “desirable”: does that include cactus, yucca, and mesquite which provide a nursery for the grasses? After that we reworded the question: “what percentage of plants are edible by cattle?” We do need to find ways to make all that data easy to compare; a friend has created a couple of apps to try this year, and we’ll practice entering data on screens in bright sunlight.
We’ve had fun learning about what’s here on the ranch. For over a decade now two dedicated birders have made a monthly survey of the birds which come through this transition zone; we get eastern birds from the Great Plains, and western birds from the high desert, plus the migrants. Other knowledgeable folks have drifted through to talk about native plants, archaeological sites, and geology. Maybe butterflies are next.
Teaching the young ones about branding 1
It seems to me that the area where we have failed is in “passing on our heritage” and keeping the whole family well informed. The farthest-away cousins are, naturally, the least interested; and it seems impossible to fit Work Week or even Kids Week into the lives of young soccer players. Interest does seem to flare, however, when the college kids bring their friends out for a visit. Another project is getting down on paper our memories and the lore.
Meanwhile, the old gardens at Nana’s are transitioning to native plants. The spring is running strong, to our amazement. The renewed kitchen is a joy. The ruined dirt dam above the house is as ugly as ever. But the second-generation cottonwood tree we have planted in the patio is growing and has already sheltered both a wedding party and a funeral. Now we are starting to plan both a baby shower and a party for the Centennial.
May 2014Linda McCullough Decker