Got a truck? California offers a year around smorgasbord of grass

by Allan Nation

LIKELY, California: Transhumance is a big word for following the grass. Nowhere in the United States is this ancient cultural practice followed more than in California.

Because of the many mountain ranges near to the sub-tropical coast, California offers excellent winter pasture only a relatively short distance from cool alpine summer pasture. Of course, much of that distance is straight up.

Add in millions of acres of cheap, leaseable desert winter range across the line in Nevada and you have a seasonal smorgasbord for beef cattle and sheep.

All you need are animals and a truck. Make that trucks. It is said that every cow in California is born with wheels underneath her.

One couple who have built a large grazing operation around taking advantage of these climatic differences is John and Lani Estill of Likely, California. The Estills graze 2000 beef cows, a similar number of ewes, plus purchase several thousand beef stocker calves each year.

They typically buy crossbred calves at around 450 lbs, graze them for a year on irrigated pasture, and sell them at 850 to 900 lbs.

Their grazing operation utilizes some 650,000 acres of both deeded and leased land from the lowlands and foothills near Sacramento to the mountains of Northeastern California and Northwestern Nevada. They have 10 employees.


The Estills first got into sheep in 1991 when the price of beef stocker calves got too high to pencil. John said this has been a wise move for them. "The sheep will make money about twice as many years as the beef cows," he said. "But you have to like sheep." The ewes are grazed near Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rambouillet ewes are used for their easy herding and superior wool.

The lowlands of California have a Mediterranean climate with a cool wet winter and a hot virtually rainless summer. Consequently, most forages are cool-season annuals. These annuals are dependent upon winter rains to germinate and come up. The winter rains can start as early as November, but in some years do not come until January.

"The secret (of success) with sheep is to lamb with the grass," John said.

The ewes are bred to lamb at the first of February, which matches the onset of the fast growth of the cool-season annual grasses in the foothills.

John said the ewes are set-stocked for lambing in bands of 400 to 500 for 30 days with guardian dogs. He said final lambing percentage after predation and all losses was around 110 percent.

In early May, the lambs are weaned and go to high mountain meadows for finishing. These lambs are sold in August at an average weight of 125 lbs. In most years, 60 to 75 percent will go to slaughter as grassfats and the remainder are sold as feeders.

John said it was difficult to find open sheep allotments in his area and so he had grown more in beef cattle recently - primarily through purchased stocker cattle, which are run on private lands.

The beef cows are bred to calve in November on BLM range on the Nevada desert. With a stocking rate of one cow to 500 acres, no feeding of hay is necessary with the cowherd.

The cows are of mostly Angus/Brahman breeding. John believes the Brahman breeding is absolutely necessary for the desert. "You have to run what fits your country," he said.

In May, the cows and calves are driven to cool high mountain country. The calves are weaned in late summer and go to irrigated pasture near Sacramento where they are grown until they weigh 900 lbs. They are then sold as heavy feeders.

A further planned diversification are meat goats, which will be used to clear willows from irrigated meadows.

ABOUT AS FAR FROM ANYWHERE AS YOU CAN GET A recent purchase by the Estills was the historic Soldier Meadows Ranch about three hours north of Reno, Nevada. This ranch has a large comfortable bunkhouse with 10 private rooms and two suites with private baths and kitchenettes and is run as a Guest Ranch and B&B.;

Originally a fort built to protect wagon trains from the Paiute Indians during the Civil War, the original Officers Quarters and stone stables built in 1863 are still in use today. Near the headquarters are two natural hot-springs just right for a swim.

However, guests are warned there are no phones, faxes or computers at the ranch. As the Estills point out, the ranch is 60 miles from the nearest small town (50 miles of dirt road) or "about as far from anywhere as you can get."

Lani said the majority of their guests are horse enthusiasts. In May each year, guests are invited to join in the annual cattle drives from the desert to the high mountain range.

Horsemanship clinics are taught at the ranch in July and in August a guided 4-wheel drive tour of Historic Pioneer Trails is offered. Guests may also camp out at two old sheep camps high on the aspen and mahogany covered mountain slopes. The ranch ranges from 4700 to 7000 feet in elevation.

Guests eat breakfast in the cookhouse early each morning with the cowboy crew, lunch at noon and have a hearty ranch supper at the end of the day. Lani Estill said care is taken to make the experience "authentic."

"We are a working cattle ranch, not a dude ranch with a few cows around for decoration," she said.

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