Two Swiss brothers find ranching cheap and easy the best way to go in the USA
by Allan Nation
PALESTINE, Texas: One of North America's premier management-intensive ranches is hidden deep in the swampy bottomland of the Trinity River in East Texas.
While still in the early stages of subdivision and stocking, the ranch already provides a fascinating example of sustainable ranch development.
"Our goal is to develop a ranch with time and livestock rather than money and machines," ranch co-owner Alain Galley said.
Named Puzzlewood, the East Texas ranch is 6000 acres in size and grazes 2000 beef cattle and 4000 hair sheep on its 3000 developed acres.
Following a New Zealand design, these 3000 acres are divided into 40 permanent paddocks which are further sub-divided by temporary fences as needed. The livestock are never allowed to remain in a paddock longer than three days except during calving and lambing.
All main water lines are large enough to carry irrigation water as well as stockwater. At the current stocking rate, irrigation has not been necessary in the 50-inch rainfall area.
The ranch has been designed for easy operation and only requires 2.5 labor units. The half man is the result of each worker being given two months a year off to return to his family in Mexico. The workers take this family leave in rotation.
(American sheep ranchers are allowed to import foreign workers.)
The only machinery used on the ranch are two ATVs and one pickup truck. No horses are used at all.
Two contract laborers are hired twice a year for two days to help work the cattle and sheep. The ranch is designed so that the animals pass through the central working facilities in the course of their paddock rotation, so penning them is easy.
CHEAP AND EASY
"Cheap and easy is the way to ranch. Just concentrate on the basics," Alain said.
The base forage is Bermudagrass overseeded with annual ryegrass. The combination provides a 10 month grazing season. The only supplemental feed fed is purchased hay.
When fully developed, Alain said Puzzlewood should comfortably handle 2000 beef mother cows and 7000 ewes and their lambs. However, he said they are in no hurry to get the ranch finished.
"We are willing to give ourselves 30 years to become a success."
Alain and his brother Jean are Swiss nationals from French-speaking Lausanne but spend most of their time on their three North American ranches - two in Mexico and one in Texas. The Galley brothers effortlessly alternate between French, Spanish and English in their conversations with one another.
Originally in the avocado exporting business in Mexico, Alain said his first North American farm development was a 200-acre irrigated flower farm near Mexico City. After attending an SGF Grazing Conference he became interested in MiG and switched the farm from flowers to grazed alfalfa and beef stockers.
A Mexican financial crisis dried up the local demand for feeder cattle and the Galleys had to ship the cattle to the USA to find a market for them. While primarily interested in Mexico, this crisis convinced them of the need for a USA property for financial stability.
"We said the heart of our North American ranches will always be in Mexico but the head must be in the USA,"Alain said.
Alain said his primary requirement was a Southern USA property that was near a major airport. He looked at 50 to 60 ranches across the Gulf Coast region before finding the almost perfectly flat, remote Puzzlewood Ranch a reasonable drive north of the Houston airport.
The ranch had at one time been owned by a large packer who had used it to background slaughter cows for his abattoir. The ranch had subsequently been purchased by an "asset stripper" who cut every tree on the ranch and wanted to resell it as quickly as possible.
"Everything of value had been removed from the ranch. We had to start totally from scratch,"Alain said.
SIX-WIRE PERIMETER FENCE BEST INVESTMENT
They started by hiring a New Zealand grazing consultant to draw up a design for the development of the property. Even though they planned to only run beef cattle, the consultant convinced them to build a six-wire electric perimeter fence that could handle any species of livestock. This decision was to prove particularly prescient in the near future.
In 1995, Jean Galley went to New Zealand on an SGF tour. On the tour he met Stephanie Mitchum from Iowa who told him about the Dorper hair sheep she was planning to import from New Zealand. She explained the Dorper sheep originated in South Africa and had just been allowed to be exported.
As luck would have it, Alain Galley happened to be in South Africa on business and Jean called him and asked him to look into the Dorper breed while he was there.
Alain said he was the first foreigner to ever attend the South African Dorper show - the largest sheep show in the world - and he liked what he saw.
"Meaty, high yielding carcasses. No shearing. No tail docking. Naturally parasite resistant. And we had that six-wire perimeter fence! It looked like a natural for us," Alain said.
Jean said he had been paying attention to the price of lamb on his overseas travels.
"In every country we have been in all around the world, lamb is always the most expensive meat.
"The business of sheep in North America is meat, not wool! Hair sheep are definitely the way to go."
Because import restrictions were less onerous in Mexico, Jean was able to quickly convert the Mexico City ranch exclusively to hair sheep production in 1996. Today, the 200-acre irrigated, alfalfa property supports some 5000 sheep.
The lamb is sold to the upscale Mexico City market at $1.00 a pound liveweight and cull ewes bring $50 a head.
Building sheep numbers has been slower in Texas due to the difficulty in finding hair sheep ewes. Dorper rams are used on a mostly Barbados flock. All rams are purchased from Stephanie Mitchum in Iowa.
SHEEP AND CATTLE BALANCED BY WEIGHT
The idea on the Texas ranch is to balance sheep and beef numbers by weight. This means there will be roughly ten ewes for every cow. Such a balanced operation prevents parasitism in both the sheep and cattle.
"The only preventative medicine that ever really works is genetics," Alain said. "Consequently, we never worm our sheep. We get rid of the animals that have parasite problems. That's the way you make real genetic progress."
The cattle also offer predator protection for the ewes. When sheep numbers were much higher than the cattle numbers, predator losses were severe during lambing. Today, with numbers in balance they are minuscule. "We have no problems with coyotes now, " Jean said. "We also have no guard dogs. No llamas. No night penning."
The Galleys practice what is called drift lambing. The ewes that lamb are allowed to remain in the paddock where they lambed and the remainder of the herd is continued on the paddock rotation. The cows are calved in a similar manner at the same time.
ENGLISH-AFRICAN CROSS COWS
The base cow herd is Red Angus. These cows are being bred to Tuli from Zimbabwe and Nelore from Brazil to produce a heat-tolerant, non-Brahman red cow.
"The crossbred cows really know how to hustle in the heat. They have a Latin temperament tempered by the docility of the Red Angus," Alain said.
These crossbred cows are then bred to South Devon bulls as a terminal sire. The South Devon is the largest phenotype English breed and is not a close kin to the much smaller Ruby Red Devon. However, like the Ruby Red, the South Devon has excelled in meat tenderness tests. All of the South Devon-sired yearlings, both male and female, are sent to slaughter.
Both the sheep and beef are managed for fall and spring calving and lambing to provide a year-round supply of sale animals. Currently, all animals are owned through slaughter to obtain carcass data. The ranch plans to convert to grass fed production once the market becomes large enough to support a volume-oriented operation.
"We are not interested in direct marketing. We are interested in volume sales," Alain said.
He said a conversion to grass finishing would probably require the purchase of another ranch farther north in a slightly drier climate. Perhaps, in Oklahoma.
"This is a good location for brood stock but our soil is probably too wet natured for the tilled annuals needed for successful grass finishing," Alain said.
The Galleys have purchased another ranch on the Mexican Gulf Coast near Campeche which will be run similar to Puzzlewood. Alain and Jean alternate overseeing the Mexican ranches and the Texas ranch.
"Jean and I have been lucky to have had the chance to travel the world and see what works and what doesn't," Alain said.
"This ranch is a combination of Swiss capital, Mexican labor, American grass and markets, African and Brazilian livestock genetics and New Zealand fencing technology.
"We are very thankful to the USA for allowing us the opportunity to put all of this together."
© by The Stockman Grass Farmer
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