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 cholla cactus. They burn off the spines with a propane burner and the cattle maul the defenseless succulents (see sidebar 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 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 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 the only truly important economic measure 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 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.