Snuggled 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.