The Chico is a working ranch in the truest sense. We are surrounded by working animals here: working cow horses, working cattle dogs, and working humans, set within a working landscape. More often than not my coworkers are not human, and I quite like it that way. The cows, too, are my coworkers. We rely on their life cycle to make our living, and their eating habits can regenerate the land. Our cows are expected to work–to produce, that is–in the same way that all of the humans here are expected to work every day. They are lively agents of disturbance who, through their dynamic interactions with wild species help shape the restless ecological processes of the land: cycles of water, cycles of nutrients, cycles of growth and decay.
The working cows that we raise and rely on here at the Chico require special skills to do their job. They must be intelligent, gentle, resilient – able to be worked and moved, and to thrive on their own in adverse range conditions, through heat waves, blizzards, floods and droughts. These special cattle come from a breed called the Beefmaster, one of three breeds founded in the United States, and they were first brought to the Chico twenty years ago.
In 1989, Ranchlands founder Duke Phillips III purchased his first fifteen Beefmaster cows from the Lasater Ranch, home of the original Beefmaster breed created in 1951 by Tom Lasater. Ten years later, after winning the 25-year lease to manage the Chico Basin Ranch for the State Land Board of Colorado, Duke arrived to the new 87,000 acre ranch with only a truck and trailer, a welder, seven horses, a box of hand tools, and his small herd of Beefmasters, which had grown to 35 head. Today, that small herd of Beefmaster cattle that Duke brought with him has grown into a livestock operation of several thousand cattle, over a hundred horses, and around 2000 wild bison spanning multiple states, ranches, and ecosystems.
That exceptional growth and success is due, in large part, to the fact that a Beefmaster cow is more that an animal. The Beefmaster is a management philosophy embodied – a flesh-and-blood way of living with the land that represents how humans and their animals might do better to live in harmony with the indigenous patterns of the natural world than to try to fight them. That philosophy, which has become central to Ranchlands’ livestock and conservation operations, grew out of time Duke spent on the Lasater Ranch in Matheson, Colorado, while working for and learning from Dale Lasater, a visionary cattleman who understood well before his time that more than simply raising cattle, ranching is about land stewardship.
Dale, the son of the Beefmaster founder Tom, understood that pasture management is really the management of ecosystem processes, and that cattle management is really watershed management. The ability of the soil to hold water and nutrients, to recharge aquifers and generate water for humans and wildlife alike depends on the management of herbivory (a critical disturbance in grasslands), be it by wild bison or managed cattle.
To be a cattle producer and a conservationist requires utilizing an animal to both fill the ecological niche that the extensive migrating populations of bison once maintained and engage in dynamic symbioses with wild members of the land community. An animal that is highly adapted to the grassland environment. In short, an animal that is equipped to be a keystone species of the ranch ecosystem, a role to which the Beefmaster, by me ans of its historical development as a breed, is perfectly suited.
The Beefmaster cow of today emerged from a two-step process: first, the breeding of two hybrids to create a three-way cross (Brahman x Shorthorn females and Brahman x Hereford bulls), and second, decades of meticulous selection and rigorous culling for six “essential” traits: disposition, hardiness, milk production, conformation, fertility, and weight.
The Lasater philosophy, created by Tom, refined by Dale, and carried on today by Dale’s son Alex, emphasizes production and functional efficiency over superficial traits like hide color or horns. What should matter to the professional stockman, they believe, is that a cow comes up bred year after year, can calve without assistance, has mothering abilities that include producing enough milk to wean a healthy calf every year, is gentle enough to move easily from pasture to pasture, and can thrive in the climate in which she lives. Not what she looks like. In fact, the Beefmaster remains the only registered breed of cattle in the world that has no standard hide color, for the color of the hide has no relevance to the animal’s performance or the meat on the carcass that arrives to the butcher’s table.
From the outset, the Lasater family’s breeding program was based on traits that confer fitness and adaptability in the natural environment. For example, rather than shooting or poisoning predators, the Lasaters cull any cow that does not protect her calf. Rather than providing insecticides, the Lasaters cull any cow that is unduly bothered by insects or pests. The selection and culling process reduces complicated modern breeding philosophy and techniques to a simple emphasis on mimicking natural selection; it is meant to reflect the same choices that Nature might make, in the hopes that each successive generation will outperform the previous, that the next generation of cattle might be just a little better, so the land itself may be a little better for the next cycle of seasons and the next generation of humans.
The Lasaters’ early efforts to produce a more perfect cow that is more able to live harmoniously with nature as a fully-embedded member of a functional ecosystem are what led to the creation of the Beefmaster breed. “Remember that you are harnessing the power of evolution on the ranches you manage,” Laurence Lasater, another of Tom’s sons, wrote. The Beefmaster emerged from a humble awareness of the unknowable wisdom of the natural world, and that same awareness guides Ranchlands’ management philosophy on the landscapes we care for. The Beefmaster cow is the product of an understanding that Nature is smarter than we are, so we ought to just help her work on the cattle, to adapt them more effectively to their natural environment, rather than impose our own criteria. The best breeding program, then, the best artificial selection, is one that mimics natural selection.
So many of the pleasant subtleties of life I have taken for granted here at the Chico Basin are a direct result of this management philosophy, so perfectly materialized in the ecological grace of the Beefmaster. That I can count on one hand the number of days I have gone without seeing a herd of pronghorn antelope in effortless flight as they replay the forgotten dance of predator and prey; that the place I call home is a home, too, for coyotes, raptors, songbirds, prairie dogs, foxes, and mule deer in abundance; that our cattle are not adversely affected by insects or pests; that they are trained to a call; that we use only bulls that were born and raised here on the Chico to service our cow herds in a short breeding season; that we have commercial cows as old as I am that still bring a healthy calf to the corrals at weaning time year after year. It’s all thanks to that rich philosophy, which lives on in our Beefmasters, generation after generation, and guides how we manage the land. In the end, it may be the Beefmaster cow that is the most essential conservation tool we have as ranchers and land managers.
I’ve been working at the Chico Basin Ranch for almost a year now. Still, I have no doubt that most of our Beefmaster cattle know the expansive pastures, remote corners, and ecological wisdom of this place better than I do. They’ve seen more of this country than I probably ever will, and have learned its secrets: they know where to find water and where to find shade, where to hide their newborn calves from predators, where to find the best grass at any time of year, where the strenuous hike up a steep, rocky arroyo will yield a nutritious reward.
Over generations of selection, our Beefmasters’ body size has naturally reached the optimal size for the ecosystem they inhabit, just as the deer and pronghorn. They are perfectly adapted to this environment. I still follow the trails they make to find watering points and gates from the furthest reaches of our biggest pastures. I still find myself surprised on some days by their unpredictable wildness; other times, the reliability of their habits amuses me.
With a belief in Tom Lasater’s prescient words that “Nature is smarter than all of us,” we are raising a Beefmaster here at the Chico, which, after 20 years of local adaptation, fits that much more neatly into the keystone role of dominant herbivore on the ranches we manage.
We are still subject to the whims of variable precipitation and temperature, that primal pattern that still–for those of us who choose to accept our place amongst it all–is the arbiter of ‘how much’ in the rangeland ecosystem: how much grass, how much cow, how much coyote; how much life and how much death, and in the end, how much human. Without the right tools, even the most ethical intentions of the most conservation-minded ranchers may only go so far. With the help of a unique animal called the Beefmaster, the rancher has the opportunity to properly fill the niche of steward, and to harness the wild rhythms of the land to create a more livable future for humans, wildlife, and all those who call these working landscapes home.