Growing up on a small family ranch in Eastern Oregon, I did all of the usual ranch kid things—4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA)—and started learning about the beef cattle business both at home and through my dad’s off-ranch job as manager of a livestock auction yard. Being concerned about the welfare of animals has always been part of who I am. I think a ranch kid just grows up learning that the responsibilities of caring for animals and providing them high welfare are essential for the health of the animals and the health and sustainability of our families. You can ask just about any ranch kid and they’ll tell you stories about taking care of the animals before you ever opened a present on Christmas morning. The animals come first.
Right after high school, I left for California and put myself through college by renting several ranches around the Salinas-Monterey area and custom-grazing other people’s cattle. When I first started ranching on my own, I had a sense that to be profitable and sustainable, I needed to question traditional methods of beef production, which led me to Country Natural Beef, the coop I joined in 1998.
My family has been living at Probert Ranch in Eastern Oregon since 1999. We wanted to find a ranch that would support our family with limited outside inputs, like fuel, fertilizer, and labor, and settled on an extensive, desert, 140,000-acre ranch in Vale where, most years, the animals can graze the full 12 months. Essentially, we found a ranch we could afford by buying one where many people don’t want to live! We don’t have pine trees or miles of river, but we do have an environment where our 1,300 cows can thrive and raise a healthy calf—an environment where the animals fit in naturally without our needing to try to supplement or manipulate the environment to fit the animals.
We’ve found that the most humane thing we can do for our cows is, simply put, let them be cows. What does this mean to us? Reducing or eliminating hay feeding, letting them select their own diets from the grasses, forbs, and browse that are on our ranch, minimizing stress, and leaving them to raise and care for their calves with a minimum of human intervention in the process.
After starting my relationship with Country Natural Beef as a member rancher, I soon became the volunteer recording secretary. My first paid position was as Live Inventory Manager. As the company grew, the need for a centralized structure to facilitate communication and follow through became apparent. The Executive Director position was formed, and I took that role.
I’m fortunate that the CNB office is right here on the ranch, so I can walk out the door and literally be on the ranch. Though my days are typically spent in the office, the limited time I’m out on the ranch is spent on horseback or in the pickup, checking on the cattle, grass, and water.
Country Natural Beef is unique in that every individual ranch, whether a small, 80-animal operation or a large ranch with large numbers of cows, has an equal place in the circle. Our major decisions are consensus-based, affirmed by every member ranch. Each one of our ranchers has the somewhat unconventional opportunity to plot his or her own course and destiny. As you can imagine, being the Executive Director of an organization with 100 independent-thinking ranchers is much akin to being a cat-herder—but I can’t imagine a better group of people to work for or be a part of.
Another unique aspect of Country Natural Beef is the requirement of every rancher member to adopt a retail store where our product is sold. Talking one-on-one with a customer is one of the most powerful tools in truly understanding their concerns and wants. Through these in-stores, it quickly became clear that the main questions our customers had were about the animals and the quality of life they were afforded from birth right to slaughter. Are they happy? Were they treated humanely? It’s impossible to meet a customer in a supermarket, looking at all of their options, and not be moved by the fact that they’re giving you their trust in taking care of the animals they will ultimately consume.
When I was first made aware of Global Animal Partnership and the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards program, I honestly dreaded it. How could an organization whose Board of Directors consisted primarily of retailers, academics, and animal welfare advocates, including some who have been vocal in criticizing beef production, have my and my coop’s best interest in mind?
It would be so much easier to isolate myself on my ranch and not deal with yet another audit and outsiders looking into my business. Why would I want to participate in Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step program?
What I have discovered is that for me to stay “independent” on my ranch, I need to work with others and let people know how and why we care for our animals. One of the greatest challenges any rancher or farmer faces is bridging the rural/urban divide. Agricultural producers make up only 2% of the U.S. population, and we need to engage our urban neighbors as allies. If folks don’t understand how much we care about our animals and our land, and how great our interest is in providing them with healthy, humanely raised beef products, they won’t miss me much if I’m gone.
So, I realized that locking myself away on my ranch and avoiding Global Animal Partnership and the 5-Step program would be a mistake. My initial dread turned into pride—pride in participating in the multi-tiered animal welfare standards program and achieving a Step 4 rating, and pride in later joining that same Board of Directors that had once worried me.
The 5-Step program has given Country Natural Beef a unique opportunity to tell our story of how our animals are raised in a quantified, objective way. We may be doing a great job taking care of our animals, but if no one knows who we are, what our welfare practices are, or that a third-party is auditing us, the marketability of that humane care is limited and we—and our customers—are worse off. In a nutshell, Global Animal Partnership creates a market for good stewardship.
I’m honored that I have the opportunity and the responsibility on Global Animal Partnership’s Board of Directors to speak on behalf of all ranchers and not just from my own experiences or those of Country Natural Beef members. There are many, many great ranchers out there who aren’t part of Country Natural Beef, and I see my role on the Board as representing everyone who ranches. I was apprehensive, as I’m sure you can imagine, joining the leadership, but any misgivings were quickly pushed aside. It’s incredibly heartening that I can have a voice at the table with people who may not necessarily share my views but have a common interest in benefiting the welfare of animals.
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What a great story! I am trying to do my part as an urban/very small farmer to encourage consumers to look for this (G.A.P.) certification on every animal product they consume or apply to their body; through Instagram & Twitter.
Here’s to solving the rural/urban divide
Thank you so much for all your hard work. Good responsible stewardship is critical for all species. The payback is immeasurable.
Thank you Denise!