Ultimate ranching challenge: Bar Cross Ranch manager seeks to learn from land, livestock and long-time ranchers
Cora – When Katie Scarbrough first saw the Bar Cross Ranch north of Cora, she thought of the climate and terrain as the ultimate ranching challenge. As the manager of the Bar Cross Ranch, Katie has focused on improving the social, financial and ecological sustainability of the ranch.
Katie was raised on a ranch in Oklahoma and attended Texas A&M University, studying animal science. At Texas A&M, she focused on ranch economics, and was very involved in the rural economics program.
This interest in ranch economics led Katie to continue her education at Texas Christian University’s (TCU) Ranch Management School in Fort Worth, which she credits for building her credibility as a woman in the industry and opening a lot of doors for her future.
“From there, I consulted a bit and worked in a partnership with a gentleman in Texas to take a cow/calf operation into a vertically integrated beef operation in under a year,” Katie explains. “There were a lot of moving pieces and parts, so I decided to slow down before I took any more years off my life and made the move back to consulting.”
After considering staying in consulting, Katie made a contact who knew Jason Spaeth, the current owner of the Bar Cross Ranch, was looking for someone to manage the ranch at Cora.
“I saw Cora, and thought, ‘This is the ultimate challenge – if someone can ranch in Cora, they can ranch anywhere.’”
“This year, we brought in the biggest herd of animals we have ever brought in,” Katie shares. “Our goals in doing so are three-fold: social, financial and ecological sustainability make up the three-legged stool.”
“On a place this size, the overhead is really high, and unfortunately in the commodity business, this means we have to see more units of output and increased turnover,” Katie explains on the decision to run a larger herd.
“Additionally, being new to this system and this area has taken a lot of studying and talking to people older and wiser than myself to understand the key to this place is impact and rest,” she says, noting she bounces many ideas off of Foreman Mac McCormick[KS1] , who was raised on the Bar Cross. “The only way I saw to have the biggest impact and allow the greatest amount of rest possible was one herd, and it needed to be a big herd.”
The Bar Cross Ranch only experiences roughly 35 to 50 frost-free days throughout the entire year. Katie notes, “This adds to how finite and infinitesimal the impact of grazing and rest are to this area, and directly relates to how much time we give it to recover.”
The current grazing trajectory of the Bar Cross Ranch is to maximize rest in the uplands and maximize impact on the meadows.
“Cora defies all the rules – topography, altitude, temperature, Cora has it all,” Katie says. “It is really unique in that we manage two to three different ecosystems, and manage more riparian areas and wetlands in each of those systems, and we are looking for completely different things from animal behavior and performance to forage residual on each of these ecosystems.”
“Most ranchers in this area traditionally hays meadows and comes back to graze hay stubble, and spend spring or fall in the brush,” she says. “We are trying to turn that around a bit.”
Bar Cross Ranch meadows are hit with around 50,000 pounds of animals per acre in the spring, and cattle are moved every eight to 12 hours up and down the meadow.
“We’re flying through these moves,” Katie shares, “but the difference of a couple hours is huge.”
She adds, “We might be sacrificing some individual animal performance, but we have increased total pounds of animal produced and increased the total carrying capacity.”
“We are out in the brush in the summer, and the grass has already gone to seed then,” Katie continues. “I know we are losing some performance and we are trying to figure out the social aspect in trying to get cattle to settle in the pasture and get them to where they are not walking to look for feed.”
Katie notes she thinks the least impactful time to graze pastures comprised of perennial bunch grasses is the summer.
Cost of resting pastures
“There are some pasture we put on the list to graze in the spring, but if I graze something in the spring, it gets a good 18 months of rest before it is grazed again,” she explains. “A lot of these pastures don’t recover if they are hit hard in the spring, and in turn, will need rested a couple of years.”
“At the Bar Cross Ranch, we are looking at costs of resting pastures, and taking into consideration how many animal days are lost by resting, how this relates to how many pounds of animal we have on sale day,” Katie says. “What is the cost of resting, but also, what is the cost of not resting?”
To put the cost of resting into perspective, Katie has tried to approach this practice by looking at what the cost of not resting might be to the ranch in 10, and even 20 years.
The Bar Cross Ranch is home to roughly 2,500 to 3,000 head of yearlings from May until the middle to end of October. The yearlings run on open range at a ranch the Bar Cross Ranch leases in California from November until they ship to Wyoming for the summer grazing season in May.
“We are fortunate in that we can make money in getting yearlings bought and bringing them to Wyoming,” Katie says on the interesting integration. “Essentially, basis is so far back I can make enough money when I buy them to pay for freight. One thing Cora is amazing for is excellent basis.”
“When the yearlings come to Wyoming, they come green and are ready to put on weight with Wyoming’s cool season grasses,” she adds.
Lessons from management
Katie says, “The Bar Cross Ranch is a vast resource made of so many other resources. By looking at each management practice critically, and trying to understand how it impacts the land, the animals and the people of the ranch, it is amazing what I have learned.”
She notes the changes of animal behavior from each grazing move inform another decision, and appreciates learning from employees on the ranch.
“It is really fascinating how much one can learn by just observing without manipulation,” Katie adds.
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.