Working with the Land: Samantha Meldon

Cowgirl sitting with dog

She’s up before the sun every day. She rides an old dirt bike out to the pasture to wrangle horses and guide them into the red wood corrals at headquarters. By moonlight, she catches her horse—using nothing but patience and the bond she’s developed from hundreds of hours in the saddle.

Cowgirl

Her hands are soft, yet tough like leather, a telltale sign of her untiring work ethic. She’s not a cowgirl or rancher like you’d see on TV. She’s calm, quiet, calculated, strong, and steadfast. She’s seasoned from years on horseback and countless hours studying the rhythms of the natural world in which she lives and works. Her name’s Sam, and she’s cut from the same cloth as the Phillips family for whom she runs Ranchlands’ Outreach and Education Programs after graduating as an apprentice. Sam has learned how to steward thousands of acres for wildlife, balanced ecosystems, and forage that sustains cattle and the Ranchlands family. She’s also a teacher, who brings schoolchildren and people of all walks of life into life at the Ranchlands HQ, Chico Basin Ranch. She wears one hat, but it takes many shapes: mechanic, teacher, apprentice, range manager, welder, and tinkerer. She is learning about life on a working cattle ranch on the open range of the American West.

Her days vary like spring weather: some are spent pasture planning, moving cows, fixing machinery, writing posts for the Ranchlands blog, branding, or helping with calving. Regardless of the day, each relies on deeply caring about the ecosystem, which in turn must be grazed by cattle to, but never exceeding, the land’s carrying capacity—that point at which cattle, wildlife, and land live in harmony. Soil, grass, and water availability are the drivers of this plan. It’s a team effort, one that depends on the experience and knowledge of a diverse group that makes up range management. When there are questions, she relies on her team, finding solutions from the collective as opposed to a single voice.

While there may not be an authoritarian voice, there is a single vision, or North Star, of Ranchlands bound to a land ethic and these three simple words: Ranch. Conserve. Live. How they weave these pillars into their daily work is guided by the wisdom of the Dukes and Tess, a father, daughter, and son team who shape the operation around their goals: to work and live in harmony with nature, to perpetuate ranching, and to continue to create and maintain a balance between them and the ecosystem they rely on.

Ranch. Conserve. Live.
Cowgirl feeding baby cow with bottle

Accomplishing these goals needs space—thousands of acres of it, which are grazed because they evolved in a symbiotic relationship with large herds of grazing ungulates; that is, American bison. Cattle have filled the void they left behind. And in the case of Ranchlands, Sam has the reins to influence the way their cattle graze just as the bison once did: with rapid rotation, so that no single pasture is overgrazed but instead nourished by short and intensive doses that ensure that every plant is rested, the soil is disturbed, and organic nutrients are recycled back into the system. To accomplish this, hundreds of mouths must be moved in a planned rotation across the ranch. And they must be moved on horseback. Moving a big herd should be done like pulling a string from the front. If the lead cow is moving in the right direction, the rear will follow. Add a dose of pressure on the sides, and a progression should unfold, though the dynamics of the season and cattle involved require Sam to be nimble, to observe and notice subtleties that may be influencing the herd. At times, bulls may be in the herd intent on engaging a particular cow. Or a calf may lag behind its mother. Or the lead cow may get tired and fall back. Each scenario requires Sam to adapt. She’s got to be fluid, flexible, and okay with reshuffling the plan at play.

Ranchlands Logo

While there may not be an authoritarian voice, there is a single vision, or North Star, of Ranchlands bound to a land ethic and these three simple words: Ranch. Conserve. Live. How they weave these pillars into their daily work is guided by the wisdom of the Dukes and Tess, a father, daughter, and son team who shape the operation around their goals: to work and live in harmony with nature, to perpetuate ranching, and to continue to create and maintain a balance between them and the ecosystem they rely on.

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