Greetings from the French ranch! My name is Taylor French; I live and work with my husband, Wayne, on the ranch that his grandparents built in south Phillips County. I was raised in Calgary, Canada, with no background in agriculture, and my post-secondary education consisted of anthropology and chemistry, so let me begin with a caveat: I am far from an expert in ranching. Working in the industry for several years now, I can, however, hope to convey to a vast audience with a similar shortage of agricultural know-how the incredible diversity, care, and dedication of the ranching community in our area to animal husbandry and preservation of the prairie ecosystem. As I am the “blogger” for the month of September, I have the opportunity to touch on many topics in our busy autumn season, but aside from giving an introduction to our operation and environment, I will focus on low-stress livestock handling and preconditioning or “backgrounding” calves in our operation, so stay tuned for future entries.
With the birth of our daughter, Cote, last October, my husband and I live on a six-generation ranch. Bill and Corky French, Wayne’s grandparents, built this commercial Black Angus herd that operates in two locations from 16 cows and leasing Corky’s parents’ place. Their herd transitioned over time from Hereford to Angus cattle, remaining focused on three primary principles: First, moderation in cattle size, which translates into lower feed consumption. Second, to closed-herd genetics, which means that all of the breeding cows have been raised on the landscape and trained to calve and efficiently convert feed. Finally, we range-calve with an April start date. As Leo Barthelmess introduced, calving later in the spring aligns the cows closer to nature, and avoids most winter storms. We only watch the first-calf heifers during calving; all others are left to let nature take its course. Even the heifers are predominantly calved on the range and only worked through a barn if help is required. By calving this way, the natural hormonal balance of the animal is preserved, and interruptions that stress the animal and disrupt the calving process are minimized.
To put our landscape in context, the prairie environment of south Phillips County is a semi-arid, “brittle” environment. Brittle environments are characterized by inconsistent precipitation and humidity throughout the year (Savory, 1999). I would expand that to include inconsistent precipitation on a year-over-year basis, as well. Phillips County receives an average of 11-12 inches of precipitation annually; however, in 2016, we had an uncharacteristically wet year, receiving 24.15 inches of rain according to U.S. Climate Data, (although my personal records indicate closer to 30 inches). In drastic contrast, we have thus far received a mere 0.7 inches of rain in 2017 and we are in an extreme drought. For reference, the Gobi Desert receives 7.6 inches of annual rainfall, while Indiana receives 40.6 inches annually. Bill French, Wayne’s grandfather, calls this area “a land of ‘too’s:’ too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry.” Unreliable precipitation necessitates managed grazing for a balanced benefit to both the cattle and the rangeland. It has also motivated the development of an extensive system of flood irrigation and water spreading.
There are no live or perennial streams in our area. There is virtually no topsoil. The soil in this area is “gumbo” clay, which will hold water in potholes or stock pits but will also run water without allowing much absorption (Healy, 2008 offers a great explanation of gumbo’s properties). Fortunately, Bill has an unparalleled eye for water movement, developing three separate systems of contour dikes to maximize water utilization.
These dikes are watered exclusively by runoff (no external power is utilized), and the resultant hay meadows and improved pasture are native western wheatgrass or other grasses/weeds whose seeds have been lying dormant and waiting for water (only some localized alfalfa in the meadows has been seeded). The increase in forage also attracts wildlife, particularly in drought conditions. Stock water pits and reservoirs that collect runoff are distributed throughout the pastures to help manage grazing. Furthermore, because all of the hay for the cattle is raised on the place, during drought we also have a stockpile of hay in contingency for extended or supplemental feeding if grass is short.
As Bill and Corky have expanded their ranch, farming has been seeded back to forage grasses. Some of these acres were seeded into native grasses, some to cool season crested wheatgrass, and some temporarily to forage wheat. The diversity in grass type allows pastures to be managed based on the growing season and forage availability. As a business, this ranch recognizes that the land and animals, particularly grazers (whether that be cows, elk, deer, antelope, etc.), have always been symbiotic; consequently, what is best for the environment is also good for business. Bill has abided by the philosophy of doing what is best for the land: “don’t beat up your place trying to guess the market.”
As we enter our autumn season preparing to wean and ship our calves, I will document some of the processes that we go through and the animal husbandry involved. I hope that you will join me for the ride!