Meet Your Ranchers: Joe and Sarah King

Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

The King’s Anvil Ranch located in the Altar Valley outside of Tucson, Arizona is a piece of history. Unlike some relics, this ranch and the King family continue to implement the latest scientific research and technology to ensure this ranch doesn’t become a thing of the past and continues to move forward with the rest of our society. A day-long visit to this beautiful desert gem with husband and wife team Joe and Sarah King gave us the opportunity to learn all about what they do and bring you this blog post.

Sarah and Joe King with son George and daughter Evelyn. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

Tell us about yourself, your family and your ranch:
Joe: Our family ranch is the King’s Anvil Ranch, west of Tucson in Three Points, Arizona. I am 37 years old, a fourth-generation rancher and have lived on this ranch nearly my entire life. We have a long history here on this ranch and in this area. My great-grandad founded our ranch, and my grandad followed in his footsteps, including roping in the first Tucson rodeo. My great-grandad had an extremely large ranch and what we currently operate is a small parcel compared to what they used to manage and raise cattle on. He was the one who bought barbed wire for the fence on this ranch way back in 1895. We have not bought barbed wire since then. I’m still fixing his barbed wire and I’ve never met him.

Sarah: I grew up moving around. I was born in Wisconsin, moved to Mexico City for two years and then on to New Jersey. When we lived in Mexico City, we would go on weekend trips and there would be horses by the side of the road you could pay to ride and that’s where I started getting into horses. I rode in New Jersey at a small English stable where we did the little horse shows.

My family frequently visited the Elkhorn Ranch, which is just south of the King’s Anvil Ranch, for vacations as I was growing up. This led to my employment at the Elkhorn Ranch in Montana, originally to be the babysitter, and then I ended up being the Peanut Butter Mother which is the kiddy wrangler who organizes the kids’ activities during the summers of my college years. I came down here my first fall out of college nine years ago to work at the Arizona Elkhorn. The barn boss, who was a childhood buddy of Joe’s, got to scheming that Joe and I should get together. He had just gotten married, so love was in the air. And he was right! It panned out! Here we are nine years later with two children hopping around. I went back to Montana for one more summer and then Joe and I got married in 2011, so we’ve been married for six years now.

An example of useful technology on the ranch is this feed trailer which allows the King’s to efficiently feed weaned calves being held in pens close to the headquarters of the ranch. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

How has technology changed on the ranch?
Joe: In many ways. I just got an iPhone! I can now use it to do all my cattle records on. The apps are fun and help to keep track of the age of cows better. We also use a sonogram to check if cows are pregnant. We also now use cars, horses, barbed wire and a mixer to feed calves, just to name a few.

We almost take smartphones for granted these days, but they’re definitely something that generations before me didn’t have on the ranch. We have two new cowboys, who haven’t made it to every corner of the ranch yet. The other day, I needed to run to town for parts, and they were going to ride to a gate in the mountains. We went over verbal directions in the morning, but I wasn’t sure it had clicked. Midway through the day, they called, and they were in the wrong spot. I was able to pull up the Maps app on my phone, drop a “pin” where the gate is, and then send it to one of the guys, and he brought it up on his phone, and they rode to the point. It saved them several hours of lost time riding through the mountains searching for the gate.

The yellow tags shown in the photo above help with identification of cattle throughout their lifetime which makes record keeping a much easier process. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

What apps do you use?
Joe: Dropbox so I can save stuff between computers. If I ever smashed my phone everything would be backed up. I have Beef Market Central. I have a tally counter so I can count everyone’s ages as they walk by without having to do it 9 times. Now we have an accurate count of their actual ages.

How does the sonogram help?
Joe: It makes it easier and eliminates some human error when checking for pregnancy in our cows. It also speeds up the process! We can tell if a cow is bred much earlier (for example, in the first trimester) which means we can turn these cows out to a large pasture. If we check by manual palpation (feeling the uterus with a hand to check for pregnancy) and a cow comes up open, we hold them in a pasture or pen nearby and recheck later, because she could either be only in the first trimester or could truly be open. We can identify these bred cows earlier so they can go on to better pastures.

Another piece of modern equipment used on the King’s Anvil Ranch is a calf table. This table is designed to put less stress on calves as they are branded, given calf-hood vaccinations, and have an ear tag put in their ear. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

In your lifetime, how have you seen technology change the way you are doing things on the ranch?
Joe: We used to employee many more cowboys than we do now. Technology has helped us do this job more efficiently and make up for the loss of skilled workers. We used to have to keep forty or more horses to make sure we had enough horsepower to do the required work. While we don’t use ATVs to move cattle like some folks do (still just horses), we will use a helicopter at times to close out our fall round-up and have them gather the last remnants in a pasture, as we ride our horses along with and bring out what the helicopter pilot finds. The helicopter has shortened the time to finish out gathering a pasture from three weeks to three hours, along with a much better success rate of finding all the cattle in that area. The terrain in our pastures can be rocky and tough to get into and the flat area is large, so it takes time to cover all that land.

Joe King and son George pictured in the pen getting ready to brand, vaccinate, and ear tag calves. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

What are some common misconceptions the average person has about raising cattle?
Joe: As previously explained, Sarah has a strong connection to the guest ranch, the Elkhorn Ranch, next door so we often visit and talk with the folks who are staying there from all across the U.S. (and even internationally!). They ask lots of questions, which is great. There’s a lot of basic questions but one that I enjoy the most is when they realize our ranch is more than just a hobby – it’s a full-time job. Like when we start to talk about trade issues and about how the price of cattle is trailing the price of oil, and they are surprised that I know what the cost of oil is. As it is a large factor in the price of live cattle, it’s an important one for me to watch. They are surprised by that. I tell them my job depends on it. They don’t take the second level of thinking unless you push them to and then it makes sense to them.

Sarah: It’s really the same as anyone thinking about someone else’s job. You might know about the first layer of what a job requires, but I think this job happens to be one people romanticize and might think the same thing is going on from times past. It’s also a visual job, allowing people to be more set into their perceptions of what they think goes on at a ranch versus seeing the business layer. As a rancher, you are in charge of making all the business decisions to ensure your family business stays afloat and that’s not something people often see.

In terms of misconceptions, they can go both ways. There tends to be a view of people in ranching or agriculture that those folks are simple or uneducated, which I don’t think is the case at all. I also think there are some missed opportunities to communicate when we go on the defensive instead of listening. Sometimes when you’re deeply involved in something, you can’t understand how others wouldn’t understand it. But sometimes if we take a step back and think, “why would someone know that?” we might understand why they’re asking the question.

Gentle cattle are an important part of this ranch. These calves and cows demonstrate just how gentle they really are. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

What is the most important thing you do on your ranch every day to make sure you are raising safe beef for the consumer?
Joe: Keeping gentle cattle is the biggest thing you can do to ensure that yourself, your family, your employees and your animals all stay safe and healthy. When your animals stay safe, you don’t have to worry about doctoring them and it helps to ensure our end product is high quality. By working on gentling our cattle while they are here, they avoid stress when being trailered somewhere else, they settle into new environments, such as a feed yard, faster and with less weight loss, they know how to eat out of a feed bunk and how to drink water out of a trough. These things ensure they are relaxed so they can grow healthier, just like anyone else would.

We also ensure our cowboys adhere to the philosophy of calm, gentle cattle handling and Beef Quality Assurance designations. It’s the philosophy you want your group or team to follow to produce the best product.

Sarah: Additionally, we also must stay on top of research and continually educate ourselves even after we are done with our college degrees. We must stay on top of vaccinations, medical treatments, range management, etc. This can mean we have to make a change to how we are doing something. All this thought and research goes into our cattle and our ranch. This is a product which not only has the end game of putting a delicious meal on the shelf, but also has benefits for the landscape, for wildlife, and for people broadly, such as hunters coming to the ranch. This product helps us keep our little portion of the universe in good, healthy, functioning condition.

An example of the range on the King’s Anvil Ranch. Photo by Sarah King.

What do you do on your ranch in terms of range management and conservation?
Sarah: The King’s Anvil Ranch is a founding member of the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, which is the local collaborative conservation group. This group is made up of ranchers and agriculturists who live and work in the Altar Valley. It was founded in 1995, in the spirit of the Malapi Borderlands Group and the Diablo Trust. The goal is to conserve the Altar Valley for future generations. We work to promote, sustain, and maintain the habitat. A lot of what we’ve done has been to get partners to work together at the table and find common ground in discussing challenges and resolving issues. Even if we can’t have some of those big conversations at the national level, we can bring them down and have them at the small, local level.

There are a lot of different players in this valley. Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan was enacted in 2001, and their Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan was finalized recently. This led Pima County to purchase a couple of the ranches in the valley. The valley is the largest open, unfragmented space in Pima County. This area is a cornerstone of their conservation plan. Some of the other stakeholders in the Altar Valley are the Arizona State Land Department, national designations such as the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, which used to be a cattle ranch, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Forest Service toward the south end. The Alliance is focused on getting those partners to come together to talk and collaborate. The best way we’ve found to do that is by working on tangible stuff on the ground. There have been a whole variety of projects. We here at the Anvil are working on a prescribed burn plan, along with low maintenance road care.

A calf patiently waiting in the pen. Photo by Heidi Crnkovic.

Pick out a piece of info that you want everyone to know about you and the work you do on the ranch every day:
Joe: I’m really in the people business. It’s the most fun part of my job. When I can get people to see eye-to-eye on the ranch and work together to get tasks done, it’s a great accomplishment. Managing people and working with people is the best part and the most difficult part. But when it goes right it’s just a home run.

What is your favorite cut of beef?
Joe: I’m always up for a good rib-eye, but smoked brisket on my new smoker is a new favorite. But it’s always a floating favorite. Beef ribs are another good one.

Sarah: Flank steak

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