South County Cattlemen and Women: Respect for Land, Livestock and People
By: Greg Bozzo, published by gmhTODAY Summer 2023
After years of drought, we’ve had an inundation of rain! And South Santa Clara Cattlemen & Women are elated! The historic drought has been difficult for all, especially those in agriculture.
Ranchers were particularly challenged because they cant rely on wells to irrigate hillsides ideal for grazing, but unsuitable for farming. Drought means ranchers pay for costly feed. This year, however, Angus, Hereford, Charolais, and others are grazing on an abundance of carbon dioxide-rich grasses, which are converted into protein for consumption.
In spring, before calves are weaned, we have about 20,000 beef cattle in our county, according to the USDA. There may be herds of 7, 70, or 700. San Benito County and the King City areas have herds in the 1000s. “The average sized herd in the U.S. is about 50”, says Jim Warren, owner of the 101 Livestock Market in Aromas. While cattle can often be seen chomping on grass, unusable for human consumption, we rarely see the folks who raise them.
Ranchers of south county work tirelessly to care for their herds, many on horseback with the help of intuitive cattle dogs. Jenna Fields, a Sobrato High graduate and recent Cal Poly alumna said, “I’d much rather be on the back of a horse when working with cattle. It’s the safest place to be.” Jenna is the 6th generation of her family to work in Ag. Her family has managed cattle above the Coyote Valley for over 100 years and it’s her goal to continue that tradition.
Ranchers are not afraid of technology. Long before the tech world invented Artificial Intelligence, ranchers were using their own type of AI: artificial insemination has been common for decades. Ranchers also apply modern techniques like electronic identification ear tags that help manage their herds efficiently and safely. They form partnerships with local businesses to supplement a herd’s diet. Bell pepper culls from Christopher Ranch, old bread from Beckmann’s Bakery of Santa Cruz, and spent grain from micro-breweries in downtown Gilroy are some. When Joey Santos, who, with his parents, co-owns Frazier Lake Livestock Processing and J&J Cattle of Gilroy, arrives with bread, his certified Angus cattle notice. “They come running,” he says.
Many ranchers have jobs in addition to their cattle operations. Linda Honech, who is partners in life and in a cattle herd, with Santos, is director of transportation for Gilroy Unified School District. Both are GHS alumni. Fields works as a freelance journalist and photographer. Honech and Santos are highly involved in the livestock processing company with Santos’ parents in addition to managing cattle. They often deal directly with customers with unique cultural and religious requirements. Zach Estrada, just 24, started his herd at age 7 with his grandfather’s help. He manages more than 100 head near Mt. Madonna Park while working full time as a firefighter. Zach participates in sustainable logging as well. These additional sources of revenue are not optional. California ranchers work on very thin margins – often are none.
Most ranches in south county are cow/calf operations. At birth, calves weigh about 65 lbs and feed mainly on grass and their mother’s milk through the following spring. At 8 months they are weaned and will have gained more than 500 lbs. Most are sold at auction in May and June. Some will be taken to the high country to continue feeding on green grass or tucked to feedlots around the west. Some female calves are kept to replace aging cows and few male calves will become breeding bulls.
Ranchers take seriously the health of the lands they manage. Brent Kirk, President of Santa Clara County Cattlemen’s Association and owner of Kirk Cattle says, “These lands help sustain society so it is our duty, as ranchers, to sustain the land”
Cattle are constantly moved to prevent overgrazing. Dr Stuart Weiss, PhD, Stanford University and Chief Scientist of Creekside Center for Earth Observation, led a study that determined cattle grazing does play an important role in grass-land management. “Ranchers are incredibly perceptive and they provide a real service to conservation,” he said. Kirk, who is also a full time fire captain, credits grazing for reducing wildfire risks. “Shorter grass burns slower and less intensely,” he said.
Respect for land, animals, and people, hard work and honesty are the values south county ranchers live by, especially the younger generation. They are confident, but humble, human beings. They are strong, fearless, and energetic with the wisdom of someone twice their age. Given the opportunity, they’ll educate anyone about the challenges of raising beef. They can, and will, politely defend their way of life.
Juli Fagone is a graduate of GHS ‘17 and Fresno State ‘21. She is the marketing partner of BR Beef, the farm to table entity of Bianchi Ranches of Gilroy. Juli works numerous farmers markets and is the social media manager for BR Beef and other cattle operations and associations in California and Nevada. She, and most ranchers, are frustrated by misinformation found on the internet “There are so many misperceptions about cattle operations,” she says.
Ranchers like Juli are using social media to push back against inaccurate information. She points out that people she interacts with at weekly markets are “inquisitive and open to learning more.” Ranchers are so devoted to their animals and land they manage, they are rarely seen. Independence is one of their most enduring traits, but it may have allowed others to take hold of the narrative related to ranching. Juli adds, “I will always advocate for beef integrity.”
Interest in western culture is higher than ever. Last fall, 16 million viewers tuned into “Yellowstone”, a fictional drama of a powerful, unpredictable family of ranchers. People are drawn to these forms of entertainment because they portray values that are respected in frontier culture. We in south county are privileged to live among actual ranchers who remind us that a career in Ag is as rewarding as any. South Santa Clara Valley residents can be proud knowing that the tradition of raising cattle, started nearly 200 years ago by Mexican Vaqueros, continues today by our own cowboys and cowgirls.