A cattle rancher spends much of his time outside wearing boots and a cowboy hat, but he has to be able to think like someone who wears a suit and tie.

Decades ago, ranching may have been nothing more than buying some cattle, turning them loose on whatever land was available and rounding them up later. The business is a lot more complicated today, although the goal is still simple: Raise cattle and sell them for a profit.

“Cattlemen have to be very agile and sophisticated business people because markets change and move,” said Jeril Benedict, whose family was in the cattle business for decades as owners of Benedict Feeding Co. in Pinal County. “It’s a market-driven business. We’re buying and selling cattle all the time. We’re buying commodities for the rations all the time.”

Cattle, along with copper, cotton, citrus and climate, was one of the five C’s at the core of Arizona’s economy in its early years of statehood.

“Cattle was very, very important, and that went pretty strongly for years,” said Dick Powell, a Casa Grande city councilman who has been active in rodeo and the agriculture business throughout his life.

Although the number of cattle in Arizona today is only about half what it was at the peak 100 years ago, the beef industry is considered part of Pinal County’s “economic base,” according to a 2014 report by the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension. The inventory of cattle in Pinal County in 2014 was estimated to be 306,517 head. That’s 34 percent of Arizona’s inventory, which is the largest share of any county.

Pinal County had 135 farms or ranches with more than 50 percent of their total agricultural sales originating from the sale of cattle and calves. The total contribution of the beef industry to the Pinal economy was almost $600 million per year.

When Pinal Ways visited Dunn Ranches near Kearny, owner Bill Dunn was in his office on a computer checking DNA results for his cattle and updating information that will go on tags attached to their ears.

Dunn raises pure-bred Angus cattle and some cross-bred cattle. He sells calves to feedlots and other ranchers and has an enterprise selling beef directly to consumers or through farmers markets. Like most ranchers, he owns a small piece of the land he works, and he leases the rest from various government agencies. He’s been a rancher there since 1974.

When asked whether he spends more time on a horse or a computer, Dunn said, “at least as much time on a computer, maybe more.”

In additional to business savvy, ranchers have to be part lawyer. They have to know a maze of environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

“Ranchers are pretty sophisticated people now,” said Dunn, who has a bachelor’s degree in business from Arizona State University. “They have to know a little bit about genetics, they have to know a little bit about conservation, they have to know a lot about financing.”

And, Dunn said, “they have to know a little bit about plant physiology.” He proves it while driving around his ranch in a pickup truck, pointing out and naming a dozen types of grasses and shrubs his cows eat. The plants just blend together to the untrained eye.

“People have maybe a picture that a rancher is not an educated person,” Benedict said. “They’re just comfortable being a good ol’ cowboy. As an industry, to survive, these people have made sure they have good educations.”

How about a master’s degree from Harvard University? Paul Schwennesen, who owns Double Check ranch near Winkelman, has a master’s in government from the famed Ivy League institution and is working on a Ph.D in 16th century Spanish history with an emphasis on livestock introduction.

He grew up on a ranch near Willcox. Today, his family runs two ranches. His parents, Eric and Jean, work Cold Creek Ranch near the Arizona-New Mexico border. It’s a traditional cow-calf operation, in which a herd of cows is kept to produce calves for sale later. Paul’s ranch, the Double Check, is a finishing operation. The cattle are fed until they reach optimum age and weight, then are slaughtered and sold as beef. It’s an unusual operation in that it’s “pasture to palate,” with the slaughterhouse on site.

“It’s very complicated to manage,” he said.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Cattle are not native to Arizona. Spanish settlers brought them here more than 300 years ago. In addition, in the late 1800s, overgrazed pastures in Texas led ranchers there to drive their cattle to Arizona.

By the early 1890s, the cattle population in Arizona had reached a peak. In just 20 years ranchers overgrazed the pastures and permanently changed the landscape. Scrub plants replaced many of the original grasses, which never grew back as the topsoil eroded, according to a report published by the state of Arizona. The state also suffered a drought around the turn of the century and lost between half and 75 percent of its cattle.

The herds rebounded and peaked at 1.75 million in 1918, according to the state, and have been up and down since then. As of the 2012 United States agriculture census, about 900,000 cattle were in Arizona, many of which were dairy cows.

Drought, boom-and-bust markets and development forced many ranchers out of the business. Dunn grew up on a farm in Maricopa. His father and grandfather were in the cattle business, but they went broke in the 1950s when there was a big market crash.

The Triangle L Ranch, the 3C Ranch and Rancho Linda Vista in the Oracle area were former cattle ranches that became guest ranches. The Kannally House at Oracle State Park was once part of a working cattle ranch. The 96 Ranch south of Florence was abandoned. The property sits unused to this day, with buildings crumbling and ripped apart by vandals. In other parts of the county, ranch property was sold to developers.

“So much of the old ranch land is covered with homes right now,” Powell said.

In the mid 20th century, ranching changed with the growth of commercial feedlots. Ranchers oversaw the birth of calves and then sold them to feedlots, where they were fed to optimum weight and then slaughtered for beef. The feedlots gave farmers a market for excess grain to be sold as feed. Beef production became more cost effective with so many cattle in one relatively small place eating grain, which helps the animals put on weight faster than grass.

The feedlots grew over the years. The Benedict family feedlot in Pinal County had about 3,000 head in 1957 and expanded. In 2007 the Benedicts sold the 20,000-capacity operation to Pinal Feeding Company. Today Pinal Feeding operates three feedlots in the county, each of which has more than 45,000 cattle, Jeril Benedict said.

“One-hundred years ago there was much broader and smaller-scale beef processing facilities,” Schwennesen said. In later years, there’s been a “rise of the very large feedlot operations, with 60,000, 70,000, 100,000 head there. That’s neither good nor bad; it’s an evolution. It’s incredibly efficient and helps make beef widely accessible to people at lower prices.”

The traditional ranch, Powell said, “started to phase off, depending on the weather, in the 1970s and the ‘80s. It was a different kind of thing. A lot of guys that did have ranches would raise (cattle) to a certain size and put them in the feedlots.”

Today, the future is in doubt as ranchers cope with a historic drought in its 21st year. The Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at alarmingly low levels. Mandatory water cuts will be triggered if the situation doesn’t improve.

IT’S TOUGH WORK

In December 1913, Oracle ranch owner George Wilson and his foreman rode their horses to Willcox about 100 miles away to pick up 18 head of his cattle that had been found there, according to an account in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Oracle Historian. They loaded their pack horse with groceries and started through the rough country they knew little about. They got lost and ended up on a windy mountain with about a foot of snow on the ground. They could look down and see Willcox, but couldn’t get there because it was straight down. They were stuck for two days on the mountain, where they had to scrape off snow to bed down and woke up damp from melting snow. They decided to backtrack through Copper Creek and made it there.

On the way back home, the cattle got spooked, stampeded and scattered into thick woods of mesquite. All but three were lost forever.

Ranchers today don’t have it quite this difficult, but even if they’re smart and lucky enough to survive droughts and market crashes to stay in business, they still have to get outside and do the dirty work.

“It’s a tough way to make a living right now, and it always has been tough,” Powell said.

Wells, livestock drinkers and water pipes need to be maintained. Schwennesen has 18 miles of pipeline and 16 livestock drinkers on his property.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said.

Cattle are branded, castrated, dehorned and vaccinated. Cows give birth to the product — calves — and ranchers have to check on the birthing process.

Equipment and horses need to be maintained. Horses need their hooves cared for, which is an ongoing chore. Ranchers need the horses to access the rough, rocky land they work, which often has steep elevation changes.

“You gotta get dirty, and you gotta like working outside,” Dunn said.

At Dunn Ranches, pastures are sectioned off from one another with fences, and Dunn and his ranch hand ride horses to drive cattle periodically from one pasture to another. This avoids the overgrazing and degradation of the land that occurred so many years ago.

Ranchers check and fix their gates and fences. The public, with whom ranchers share most of their land, causes headaches.

People shoot up or steal tubs that contain salt and minerals for cattle, they leave gates open, and they ride all-terrain vehicles that tear up the land and roads. Once, Dunn had to call authorities when he saw signs on Forest Service land promoting an unauthorized ATV race.

“Eastern Pinal County has become the playground of the East Valley residents and northern Tucson residents,” Dunn said. “This is where they come to play and hike and hunt and picnic and all that stuff. ... We picked up half a pickup full of garbage yesterday.”

Ranchers and ranch hands freeze in the winter, sweat in the summer (and the winter) and wake up with sore muscles.

Despite these challenges, those who enter or stay in the cattle business make a choice to live in close relationship with the natural world rather than the asphalt and loud noise of the city.

“I really always had a hankering to be part of a ranch operation, to live on the land and to make my living with cattle and a landscape I could intimately relate with,” Schwennesen said.

Said Powell, “ranchers have always worked hard and almost to a man they love what they do.”

Dunn tells a story about his neighbor, a 70-year-old who has been ranching in the area as long as Dunn has.

“He was hauling water. He fell off his water truck. He said, ‘I was lying there in the mud thinking, “what in the hell am I doing here?”’ Then he thought, ‘well, what else would I be doing?’ ‘So, I got up and climbed back up there and went pumping water again,’” Dunn said.

“It’s just something that’s in your blood, like farming or doctoring or anything else.” | PW

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