You can still see the horses’ breath in the morning air. There are still some mornings that the windshields of the trucks are frosted over. Morning coffee is still a necessity to warm up after wrangling the horses. However there are signs of spring all over the Chico. Migratory birds are stopping in, singing their spring and summer-time songs. There is new growth in the grasses that have started to tint the golden winter prairie green. Throughout the day, layers are shed to soak up the rays of the sun. Adding to the sights and sounds around the ranch, newborn baby calves and their mothers are united for the first time. You can hear their excited moos in most pastures. It seems spring on the Chico has practically sprung.
Nick Baefsky started an apprenticeship on Chico Basin Ranch six years ago, in the fall of 2012. Today he and his wife Amy, another Ranchlands apprenticeship graduate, manage a ranch in New Mexico with the help of three young interns and apprentices. They fix old generators, prop up fences, uncover and splice lines of ancient poly pipe. They gather big brushy pastures by waiting until late in the day when the cows come into water. They keep lists of the vehicles, generators and equipment that needs to be repaired, the pastures that need to be prepared for cattle, the pipeline leaks that need to be fixed. They keep precipitation records and grazing charts that they use to estimate how they’ll move the cattle herds across the ranch through the year.
Duke Phillips could have been a “normal” rancher. Raised in northern Mexico in a second-generation ranching family, he came of age in a world where cowboys shot coyotes to protect their calves, ranches were grazed in their entirety year-round, and cattlemen were just that–men who raised cattle. The rancher-conservationist had yet to emerge. While the tide has been changing in recent years, with more and more farmers and ranchers embracing their role as land stewards, perhaps Phillips’ most radical act has been not just to join this growing group of agricultural conservationists, but, since the very beginning, to throw the doors open and invite others to observe and participate in the project for sustainable ranching.