Monday, April 8, 2013

Love Crosses Borders - Alyssa's Story

Today we welcome Alyssa. Alyssa is a Colorado native who lives in Mexico with her fiance on their 15,000 acre cattle ranch!

Hola from north Mexico! My name is Alyssa; I am 25 years old, a Colorado Native and author of, Love Crosses Borders. Much like the title suggests a fairy tale story led me to Mexico and to a 15,000-acre cattle ranch I now call home. My fiancé and I met years ago, and were great friends, while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. However, that is not when we started dating. Some time after college we ran into each other while he was in Colorado for a summer vacation in 2011. Since that summer day bumming into him, after not seeing him or talking to him for four years, I knew instantly I was going to marry him. So that is more or less of the, how I got here and involved in the cattle industry, as sappy as it may sound! With that said, if you are further interested in our story you are welcome to check out my blog and go under the “Our Story” tab. It is quite cute if I can say so.

Let’s get down to the real topic at hand: cattle, agriculture and my life. Until I moved to the ranch in January of 2012 I had no previous experience or knowledge of ranch life. I grew up a city gal, lived in the suburbs of Denver, and enjoyed my morning Starbucks visits. Needless to say those days are long gone. The nearest city is an hour and a half away from us, we totally live of the grid, meaning we have no electricity and actually operate solely on a generator and batteries. Some folks might think that sounds scary, but it is actually not bad at all and things are quite normal. We even have the internet! We only run the generator at night so often times during the day we are without power, which is fine because if you know anything about ranch life there is plenty to do! Since day one of stepping foot on the ranch it has been an adventure! The whole reason I developed my blog was to more or less document my day-to-day life and to be able to share it with my friends and family. Not to mention I have taken a real knack for photography and use my blog to share some of my favorite pictures.

As I said our ranch is 15,000-acres and is located in north Mexico. We live in a desert climate that is very similar to west Texas or New Mexico. With that said, the drought that the States has been experiencing has also drastically effected us. We are going on year four of hardly any rain and things are bone dry. Before the drought began we had 800 female cows. That figure does not include the bulls, steers and female yearlings. However, over the last few years the drought has forced us to destock little by little.

My fiancé is the 5th generation to take over and manage the family ranch. The ranch has predominately been a cow calf operation. We export all of our yearling steers to the United States and keep all of our females as replacements. We put our females into production once they are two years old. We then sell our cull cows, which are usually not pregnant, old, or in rough condition, to a local butcher. We have a saying that once a mother cow does not get pregnant her time at the ranch is up, they must pay their rent and there is no free lunch here.

When my fiancés father got the ranch from his father nine years ago it was a bit of a mess. There were wild cows everywhere and no one knew how many animals were on the ranch. Not only were the cows wild there was no uniformity at all. The ranch had every breed imaginable, some cows with horns and some without. There were also 75 wild donkeys roaming the land. It took almost three years to get things cleaned up, cows herded, donkeys sold, ect. So our operation is fairly young under our management style.

We utilize Holistic Management, which is a decision making tool, and it has helped us turn things around rapidly. Over the last six years we have been focused on genetics, animal handling, pasture and land improvement, intensive pasture grazing and rotation, and fencing/dividing the ranch into several small paddocks. Holistic management has also helped us establish several goals and shapes our quality of life.

The breed we are focused on is Beefmasters. Beefmasters are a cross between Herefords, Brahman and Shorthorn. We have found that they are very heat tolerant and also a good meat-producing animal. Not to mention, I find them to be particularly adorable with their brown and white coloring. The calves are absolutely divine. We still have a mixed herd because we have used the animals the ranch inherited. We purchased a few Beefmaster females and bulls four years ago and through natural breeding our herd is becoming predominantly brown and white. Now all of our bulls are Beefmasters. We only keep them for four to five years. We find that bulls are most productive and effective when they are young.

Our rainy season is cyclical and dependent on storms in the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, July thru September are usually our wettest months. We find that a pregnant cow needs the most nutrition two months before calving, which leads to the next topic. Our breeding season begins in November and lasts for 60 to 70 days. We separate the bulls from the ladies in January, then just like clockwork we can expect calving season to begin in August. This allows the mother cows to get the nutrition she requires in July and to be in great condition when she gives birth. We also time calving around the rainy season so there is plenty of grass and vegetation for the lactating mother. Our expectation is also that there is plenty of grass and feed for the calves to eat. We do not supplement or give feed to our animals they are strictly free-range animals.

We keep our bulls and steers separate from the female mother cows and heifers. We have five smaller pastures we use and rotate the bulls and steers on. We then have nine larger pastures we rotate the females on. As I mentioned fencing and separating the ranch into smaller paddocks is a huge goal and project for us. When we inherited the ranch there was only one fence that separated the mountain area from the flat land. I guess you could say there was two pastures. In the last six years we have divided the ranch into 14 paddocks, the five for the bulls, and the remaining nine for the females. Fencing is quite a task especially when the ground is rock hard. Our goal is to continue to divide and separate the pastures. Ideally we would like to have around 25 pastures. This will help with our management style and we can better utilize an intensive grazing and rotation system. We also find that having more pastures allows us to give parts of the ranch a break and they are able to rest and recover for longer periods of time. Needless to say, land management and improvements are also a big objective for us and we find fencing to be a great tool to help us achieve this. Or as my fiancé says, “Cows are the best bulldozers I know.” We also try to use animal impact from the cows to help us with land management and grass growth.

We really value and pride ourselves on calm animal handling practices in the corrals when we are working cattle and also when we are rounding up animals in pastures. We try not to yell and scream at the animals, because as those in the industry know, it does no good anyway. We also do not use lassos or ropes. We find that eliminating some of the old practices of roping an animal has really made our cows and herd calm and approachable. Over time this makes herding, roundups, and pasture rotations a lot easier. In fact, some times the cows just walk strait into the corrals with little struggle because we have eliminated the stressful aspects and experiences in the corrals as best as we can. We have doctors and veterinarians comment on how well our animals, herd, system, and animal practices are. Many of the vets love working with us because we are very efficient. This is also due to a very well thought out corral design. We find it to be much more effective, accurate and less traumatic to use a cattle chute and press when working cattle instead of roping the animals.

We do all of our dehorning, branding and castrating. Typically we wait until the animals are six months old and have been weaned before we start working them. Once again their health and condition determine the timing of the necessary steps. For example, this year we just finished weaning and branded the calves from the fall season. We will wait a while to dehorn and castrate because the condition of the land and grass supply is not great and the next three months will be the most difficult and we do not want to put any additional stress and strain on the animals.

On a relevant topic for some ranchers affected by the current drought, we have found it to be a blessing at the same time. With our grass supply and capacity of the ranch decreasing over time we have had to destock. We have used this opportunity to keep the best of the best. Our thoughts are that it will of course help us speed up our genetics and help us have a very strong, hardy, and heat tolerant herd in the future. Essentially you could say this is a “natural” selection process. We have gradually been selling all the old cows that are in poor condition, and did not have a calf. Ironically enough, the breed that seems to look the best and is repeatedly pregnant are the Beefmasters. This is great news because all of our old Charolais, Angus and Brangus, amoung other breeds, that we inherited with the ranch are disappearing.

Even though times are tough we have stuck to our guns and model when it comes to our operation. We have continued to export our yearling steers, sell our old mama cows and retired bulls, and have kept all of our female calves as replacements. We know several ranchers in our area that have not been so luckily and have had to destock and sell almost their whole herd. Including their female replacements. In my opinion this is very scary for the future of the cattle industry because cattle prices will be too expensive in years to come for ranchers to buy back heifers and establish a herd again and that’s if there is any cattle available.

Fortunately because of our management style, we did not have to start selling at the first sign of the drought. We actually had enough grass and reserves to host the herd for a while and we continue to have enough natural grass to host our current herd of 220 mother cows. We have tried to be very conservative and conscious on the capacity of the land and to make sure we are not keeping too many animals and that there is enough grass for the animals to be comfortable and meet their nutrition requirements. 

One last comment about the drought that I find interesting and maybe those in the industry might be able to relate or learn from, is how the price of beef and sticking to our model has really helped us financially. We have been able to stay afloat in these difficult times and actually reinvest in a few winter ranch improvements. What I mean by all of this is that we have not seen a huge financial burden during the current drought because we have been able to sell our cattle at record prices. As most know cattle prices are almost double what they were two or three years ago. Therefore, we have continued to see a steady source of income from our exported steers, and selling our old cows and retired bulls to a local butcher at outstanding prices. In fact we just sold 30 animals last week to our butcher and he is already begging us for more animals. There are no cows left in our region and our animals, considering the tough times, are in great shape. Not only have we profited during this tough time, we have kept our animal count and inventory steady. We also have replacements for all of the old cows we are selling. Thus, we have not had to see a huge decrease or loss in our herd. The only loss has been planned and we consider it to be “destocking.” Plus, we will not be struggling to find heifers in the future when times get better. Great management practices and planning for natural disasters and to credit for this!

That is more or less our cattle operation summed up. I briefly wanted to talk about our lifestyle and upcoming projects. Like I mentioned holism has become a life style for us and we really value our quality of life on the ranch. Therefore, we have a large garden and grow most of our own vegetables when the seasons allow. Once again, gardening was a totally new concept for me, but I quickly got the hang of it. You name the vegetable and we grow it, have grown it, or have tried to grow it. Desert gardening can be a little tricky and you really have to plan things out and plant them at exact times because there are three months during the summer that it is to hot to grow anything except for melons and squash.

Some of you might be wondering how the heck we can grow anything in the desert. Luckily, there is no shortage of manure around here and we also compost and have a large worm “farm.” We have a large bed lined with plastic and filled with corral dirt that we cultivate earth worms in. We also use the bed to burry our compost. We then put the worms into our garden beds and also collect some of the liquid moisture the bed collects and use it as fertilizer. This project has been very helpful and successful for us.

Last year I even gave canning a shot, which was once again a first, and a total success! We made some incredible dill pickles, hot peppers, salsa, marinara pasta sauce, and a tomato broth that I use to make Spanish rice. Cooking is also one of my passions and the guys at the ranch are very grateful for my skills. We have planned this year’s garden around some of our favorite canning recipes and experiments from last year. I also grow all of my own herbs that I use for canning. Last year I had more dill than I knew what to do with. In fact, I tried drying it in one of our bedrooms and the poor room still smells like dill!

A ranch, or farm, would not be complete without chickens or dogs. I absolutely love chickens and often joke that I am the mother hen around the ranch. We currently have 27 chickens and continue to expand our flock. We are interested in selling the eggs to a local store to continue to supplement our income and help us live of the land as best as possible. I also have three black labs that I refer to as, “The Boys.” Their real names are Wrangler, Stetson, and Levi. A ranch dog had a litter of puppies last summer and I kept three of the males. We also have a family yellow lab named Max and he is the father of the boys. So it is never a dull moment around the ranch with four dogs.

One final project that is in the making is an orchard, vineyard, and larger garden. With the current drought it has really forced us to think outside the box and brainstorm other ways we can continue to diversify ourselves and continue to be fully self supporting and sufficient. Therefore, we recently cleared an acre of land and just planted 34 different fruit trees. It is more or less of a pilot to see what desert fruits do the best. We planted figs, pomegranates, apples, pears, apricots, peaches, quinces, and even a pecan and olive tree. In the same area of land we will be planting seasonal vegetables that do well in the area. Our ambition is to sell our produce to a local market. In fact, we will be planting 1,000 sweet corn plants next week. We are very excited and look forward to the results of the plants and what does.

Like I said, I am new to this lifestyle and one thing is for sure, I would not trade it for anything in this world. I am very grateful the family has let me get my hands as dirty as I want and has been very patient and encouraging of my involvement. I adore every minute on the ranch from collecting fresh eggs to helping the guys in the corrals to gardening and everything in between. The serenity, simplicity, and genuine life I have found at the ranch is one that I can not describe. The morals, values and lessons you have the chance and opportunity to experience are so precious. I speak for my family and myself when I say we treasure our life on the ranch and love working together. We would not trade it even in the toughest of times because we love the freedom it gives us. At the end of the day we are solely responsible for the consequences of our choices and decisions. Anyone that knows a thing or two about ranch life knows there are good times and bad times, mistakes and triumphs, highs and lows but we are accountable and remain open minded and learn from all experiences. My family and I work hard to persistently improve our livestock, land, and quality of life because we cherish and take great pride in them and want to make sure the ranch and its future is around and in good hands for years to come.

Thank you Alyssa for telling us about your life!!! You can follow her story on her blog "Love Crosses Borders" - and Like her on Facebook!

Do you suddenly find yourself on the farm and ranch? What is your story? Contact us today on how you can be the next FOA feature!