Meet Your Ranchers: The McGibbon Family

IMG_2887Snuggled up against the Santa Rita mountain range in southern Arizona is the Santa Rita Ranch which has been in operation for over a hundred years and in the hands of the McGibbon family for coming up on 50 years. To get to the ranch, you must drive through the retirement town of Green Valley, followed by a trek up a long, dusty dirt road, slowly climbing in elevation. At the base of the mountain sits the headquarters of the ranch.  As you step out of your car, you’ll be greeted by the ranch dogs first and then by Andrew and Micaela McGibbon and their kids, who are the ranch owners and managers. A family with true ranching heritage coursing through their blood, they welcome scheduled visitors with open arms as it provides a way to share what they do in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

Drew and Micaela McGibbon

Arizona Beef Council: What kind of cattle do you raise?

Drew McGibbon: Red Angus cattle, primarily. The red color is a recessive gene within the Angus breed. In 1954, the red Angus cattle broke away from the black Angus cattle and began their own registry. We raise these cattle because we feel they are more docile than their black counterparts. We chose our cattle carefully and only keep those we can walk through without any trouble. As we began planning a family, we felt that it was important to have cattle the kids could be around and help work. They are just gentle, friendly cattle.

The McGibbon’s youngest showing off one of the water tanks where cattle and wildlife can drink.

ABC: Water is a big deal out here. How do you keep your cattle watered properly?

DM: One of our biggest obstacles is water. To give you an idea, between Sonoita and Green Valley there is not one year-round water supply for wildlife that is natural – meaning no flowing water, which is typical of Arizona. We have built infrastructure to allow water to be spread across our ranch. This is a positive for many reasons. It allows us and our cattle to use the land more efficiently. Cattle tend to stay close to a water source leaving a chance for some areas to be under grazed and the areas around the water source overgrazed. By using fences to create pastures and investing in watering systems, it encourages the cattle to graze in more places. This is also a benefit to wildlife, as we provide about eighty sources of water to wildlife year-round. Even when we don’t have cattle in a pasture, the water tanks are full and provide water. We’re proud of that. It is our responsibility to provide water at every single one of these sources even though cattle may not be in that area as wildlife come to relay and need these water sources. Our furthest line is about 70 miles long which means we are pumping water out to that remote area that didn’t have a previous year-round source of water. There is probably about 3 to 3.5 times that in total water lines we’ve installed. Water is our goal.

Taking care of the land is a priority for the McGibbon family.

ABC: How do you care for the land you use?

DM: Cattle are present in one area, called a pasture, for a certain amount of time. Typically, they are in one pasture for a longer period of time in the winter months. In the summer, we have a plan in place that allows the grass to regrow as we move the cattle out of each pasture. We try to mimic the natural grazing patterns of bison. Bison typically only stay in one area for a short period of time before moving on to graze in another area. During the winter months, the grass is more dormant so there isn’t much growth, meaning cattle can stay a little longer. In the summer, when we hopefully have rain, the grasses will grow very quickly. It will turn green almost overnight. Grasses will go to seed and start the reproductive cycle, in some varieties, as fast as five to six days. We move the cattle in and out of each pasture quickly, so the grasses have a chance to go through the reproductive cycle without damage.

Moving cattle from pasture to pasture helps ensure the health of the land and the grasses which grow there.

ABC: Arizona is made up of a little bit of private land and lots of federal and state land. How does this affect your ranch?

DM: Federal permits are considered public land. State trust land is private land which belongs to the state trust. Parcels of federal and state land can be leased out for grazing. The grazing fees for state land can go to many things but some parcels go straight into K-8 education. Every ranch and lease are different because there are different state trusts. When we pay a grazing fee on a certain portion on our ranch, it goes straight to education but some of them might be a trust for the state mental hospital, some of it is for prisons, and the list goes on. You can look on a state land map of Arizona to see where grazing fees go. The vast majority of the grazing fees go to K-8 education. Funding for K-8 education comes from a rancher!

Even though our ranch is made up of federal, state, and private lands, it is all treated as one. It’s our responsibility to take care of all the land on our ranch as best as possible.

The McGibbons raise red Angus cattle. Pictured is one of their bulls.

ABC: How do you care for the health of your cattle?

DM: We have many practices in place to ensure our cattle are treated in the best manner possible which helps to keep our animals healthy. Our cattle receive a vaccination which helps protect them against Bovine Respiratory Disease. The only other routine injection they get that isn’t a vaccine is called Multimin, which is a trace mineral supplement, very similar to what you’d get if you took a multivitamin. We give it to our animals because they are going from different elevations and going from different quality of forages here on our ranch. They could be going from a pasture that is perfectly abundant in about every trace mineral an animal needs, such as selenium and phosphorus, and then they move into a pasture that is lacking a complete mineral package just due to different soil types. In the southern part of the range, we have about three to four pastures that are deficient in copper. When we give them the trace mineral, it will leave a little bump under the skin on their neck. Over about the course of ninety days, it will slowly release into the bloodstream leaving them with a consistent trace mineral. Our ranch goes from 2,900 feet in elevation to 8,200 feet so it’s just a whole different world from one end to the other.

One of the biggest questions we have is, “Are you pumping them full of antibiotics?” The short answer is, no.

We use a product called Draxxin. This is the only antibiotic we have on this entire ranch. This bottle is very expensive, almost $2,000. The point is that this bottle should last years. If we need to give a sick animal an antibiotic to keep an animal alive, we will absolutely give it. It is our responsibility to take care of that animal. Do we give haphazard injections of antibiotics just because? Absolutely not. That’s $2000. I can’t afford to do that. We do want to keep the animals healthy and we don’t want them to suffer.

Draxxin is considered the best there is and that’s the reason we buy it. It works really well. You give it to them once and once only. If the animal does not survive with that then it wasn’t meant to survive. This medication is only given out by a veterinarian and is under strict guidelines as to how it is given. The label is very specific about the dosage that you give. Draxxin is labeled for use in beef cattle including sucking calves, non-lactating dairy cattle, veal calves, and swine. It is very specific.

On the same label, there is a residue warning: “Cattle intended for human consumption must not be slaughtered within 18 days from the last treatment. Do not use this in female dairy cattle 20 months of age or older. Swine intended for human consumption must not be slaughtered within 5 days of the last treatment.”

Micaela McGibbon: All antibiotics have withdrawal times. I’m a 4-H leader and all the kids in 4-H who raise livestock are also taught and follow this. They learn that you have to read your label and you have to write down if your animal is treated, when it was treated and how it was treated with how much. The label goes as far as to call out animal weights and gives the specific dosage for the specific weights. The kids have to go through this because what they are doing is raising an animal for human consumption, just like we are doing as ranchers. When it comes to treating animals, we do what is necessary because it’s not fair for an animal to suffer but we don’t overdo it.

Micaela is always happy to share her passion for raising cattle and caring for the land.

ABC: Veterinarians are an important part of the health protocol decisions for your cattle. How do you work with your veterinarian?

DM: We might not have a veterinarian visit us for every sick animal because it’s hard to find a large animal veterinarian who is available and who works close to our ranch. The veterinarian we use is in Willcox, about two hours away. There are no other veterinarians close by! There isn’t a lot of money in large animal vetting but there is quite the demand and, in our state, there aren’t a whole lot of them. We keep a close eye on our animals and have our vet on speed dial. The close working relationship we have with our vet allows him to keep track of the Draxxin and the Multimin we use. This is important to ensure we have veterinarian oversight at all times.

It’s in our best interest and the consumers’ best interest if we have an animal which is well-tended to. We want a healthy animal. Arizona cattle tend to be very healthy because they are in open areas and the desert is a semi-sterile environment. It’s hot and dry which means not a whole lot is growing in terms of pathogens. Because of that, we could easily go a year without touching the Draxxin. We do everything we can so that when our cattle leave here, they will produce the highest quality beef possible.

The youngest McGibbon helping to give a little extra TLC to a calf.

ABC: How do you handle your cattle?

DM: Temple Grandin is an amazing animal science professor who also happens to be autistic. She was a good friend of mine and one of my major professors at Colorado State University. She helps to develop devices like the hydraulic chute system we use at our ranch.

Temple Grandin, because she is autistic, experiences things differently so she helped reinvent slaughterhouse facilities. All of the systems on this ranch that we use to handle cattle are based on what she’s taught us. She will go through a facility that handles cattle on her hands and knees. She’ll look around, she’ll sit down and stare down the alleyway. She’ll tell you to move your hat or move that thing or say I need light there and a door open there, and a door closed there. She knows exactly how the animal will respond to different stimulations. When we have animals coming through our chute system, it is very important that we have our large roll-up door open because it’s located at the end of the system and they see light which they will go to. Our lighting needs to be indirect, meaning no spotlights. Just like with humans, it’s not comfortable to have a spotlight in your eyes. When we do our lighting, it needs to be an evenly distributed. There is rhyme and reason to the solid sides on the alleyway. When the animal is standing in the alleyway, waiting to come into the chute, we reduce the risk of the animal being spooked by a person walking by or some other distraction. The animals stand calmly because they don’t see anything around them.

We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to reduce stress and fear. There is a reason for how all of this is put together. A lot of ranchers are following Temple’s principals or adapting them to suit their needs. That’s why we have these facilities here.

Meet Your Rancher: Ashlee Mortimer

I consider myself fortunate to have been raised in the farming and ranching community. Growing up, I’ve watched this group of people that grow and raise our country’s food do so with dedication and passion for the land they care for, the animals they are raising, and the people they are feeding.IMG_3052

My family runs an agritourism farm and cattle ranch called Mortimer Farms and Ranches in Dewey, Arizona. I get to call myself the Marketing Manager for our family’s farm which means I write blog posts, post lots of exciting news, events, and stories on our social media channels, design flyers, billboards, and signs, and handle all public relation topics. I also get to drive tractors, teach kiddos how to pick veggies, plant crops, take pictures, watch baby cows walk for the first time, and work cattle. I seriously have the best job ever! After I graduate from the University of Arizona in December, I hope to work for a non-profit agriculture organization in their marketing and public relations department as well as continuing to work on my family’s farm and ranch. Now let’s talk about the good stuff… cattle!

The past months have been the driest on record for many Northern areas of Arizona. Yavapai County, the area we call home, has received less than 30% of the normal rainfall this year. At one-point, homes in Prescott Valley were even asked to cut water usage, do laundry on scheduled days, and water their lawns and plants on others. The decrease in the rain doesn’t only affect homeowners. The drought has greatly impacted farmers, ranchers and can potentially affect our food supply.

A current map of Arizona showing the extreme drought situation we are currently in. More information on the drought can be found here:

Our farm and ranch are greatly affected by the drought. Our water pumping costs have gone up drastically and our cattle just about ran out of grass to eat.

I remember a Sunday afternoon not too long ago when we went out to check cows. Everything looked dead and the grass was just about all eaten down. It is at this point, in a normal year, we would move the cattle to the next pasture – a pasture filled with tall grasses, new growth, and a filled stock tank from which the cattle could drink. Unfortunately, mother nature foiled our plans and that next pasture, the one we had planned to move cattle to since the beginning of the year, had no water. The stock tank was dry. And the pasture which was next in the rotation for our cattle to graze didn’t look any better.

Due to the drought and lack of grass and water, we were forced to sell 95% of our calf crop from the last 2 years, move a 10,000-gallon portable water storage tank and trough system to the pasture with no water, buy an Army water truck, and found ourselves hauling water day in and day out to the cattle.

The Army water truck driving job was passed from one member of the family to the next. At one point my dad and I were driving down the road and we saw the big truck driving past us, but there was no driver to be seen. We soon realized Kolten, my little brother, was driving the truck and was just short enough that we couldn’t see him over the steering wheel.

It was a daily team effort hauling water and hay, pushing cows into new areas with more feed, and finding the baby calves that were left behind, usually in the dense brush.

I never had much time to plan if I am needed to help move these calves and I somehow always seem to be wearing shorts when I got the call. My job (with the help of my cattle dog – Stella) is to run through the thick bush and push the calves out and back with the herd. Now picture me running through, under, and jumping over dense, pokey, dead brush with shorts on. For weeks my legs looked like I was attacked by a feral cat.

Hauling water, hay, and moving cattle was only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. As each day passed, we watched the grass quality deteriorate and eventually get close to depletion in the pasture the cattle were grazing. Each pasture lasted less time and just when we moved the cattle into a new one it was time to move them somewhere else again. We either needed to figure out a way to provide food and water to our cattle in a more sustainable fashion or we needed to sell them.

My dad, Gary, is a big proponent of using the latest technology and practices in his job as a farmer and a rancher. The challenges the drought brought to our business were no different. He used technology and modern practices to combat the effects the drought had on our cattle and on the bottom line. We implemented a grazing technique, very uncommon in Arizona, called intensive grazing.

This photo shows how the pastures are separated and the drastic difference from the land which has been grazed and that which hasn’t.

This practice puts cattle on small sections of land. The cattle eat all the forages in a short amount of time and then are moved to the next section. We decided to utilize the farmland we were going to grow hay on to implement this type of grazing. We began by planting and growing 30 acres of sorghum-sudangrass. We then, through trial and error, sectioned off one-acre areas by taking a small tractor diagonally across the field with the bucket of the tractor scraping the ground. The tractor pushes down the 15 feet tall grass to make room for a 2-strand temporary electric fence to be put up.

Wire Fence
This simple two strand tempory fence allows for easy movement of our cattle from one area to the next.

After this is done, it is time for the cattle to eat all this grass! 300 cattle are put on this one-acre section of farm-grown sorghum-sudangrass. The cattle enter the section and in one day the entire acre of 15-foot-tall grass is gone. It is like a buffet for cows! At this point, 15 minutes is taken to move the 2-strand electric fence to make a new one-acre section, the gate is opened, 300 cattle move into the next section, and the process starts all over again.

The cattle know the system now and wait by the gate as we move the fencing around. The whole herd of cattle runs into the next section and for a few hours disappear in the very tall grass. It is really is a site to see!

The cattle enjoying the benefits of intensive grazing.

I asked my dad about the benefits of this type of grazing for the farm and the cattle. 

Why did you decide to do this type of grazing, besides the drought impact?
We are able to grow a crop and not have to use labor, resources, or money to harvest this crop. If we had grown hay in these same fields we would have spent lots of resources cutting, baling, hauling, storing, and then ultimately feeding it to the same cattle that are eating it straight from the field now. 

Is sorghum sudangrass good for the cattle?
Sorghum-sudangrass is a protein-rich grass for the cattle to eat. It also adds nutrients back into the soil.

Will you only use this grazing practice on sorghum sudangrass?
High-intensity grazing can be done in corn fields, sorghum-sudangrass fields, ditches, sorghum alfalfa blend fields, in native grass pastures, and pretty much everywhere else grasses and grains grow.

High-intensity grazing can be done in corn fields, sorghum-sudangrass fields, ditches. Pretty much anywhere grasses and grains grow.

How does this gazing affect the farmland?
Intensive grazing not only combats the lack of range grasses my family’s ranch has but it also helps the farmland. Each crop grown in a field takes specific nutrients out of the field and puts specific nutrients back into the soil. Due to this, farmers rotate where they grow certain things (i.e. corn, pumpkin, grasses, etc.). The grass grown for the intensive grazing practice not only added a crop to our rotation but also adds more nutrients back into the soil. It also helps with the fertilization of our farmland. The higher density of cattle paired with short grazing periods allows for even manure distribution and an increase of nitrogen back on the land. The cattle act as a living fertilizing system!

How does this grazing affect the ranch lands?
Higher intensity grazing for a shorter duration allows for a longer rest period for the plant to recover fully which promotes the regrowth and in turn, is beneficial for the environment and for the cattle.

Sometimes the cattle are hard to see but they are there!

Is there anything negative about this type of grazing method?
Anyone would see this type of grazing method as a different management system. This scares some people away from change because there is so much to learn and implement. Overall, the benefits of this program for the land and the animals outweigh the efforts that would need to be taken to implement the program.

Do you see yourself using this practice after the drought is over and the grasses have grown back on the ranch?
Many ranches in the cattle belt use this type of grazing to increase their herd size which in turn positively affects their bottom line. This type of grazing is definitely something we will continue to work with and add to our long-term plan for our native range grazing and our crop grazing.

Intensive grazing saved our cattle herd and our ranch’s bottom line! This way of grazing and feeding our cattle has allowed us to keep ranching through the drought and continue our efforts to care for and protect our animals and the land we raise them on. This is a job that my family and I love very much, and we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to raise cattle and care for the land.