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. 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, sweet, 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, works and leans on. She’s fit, pulls more than her weight and is a staple.
Her name’s Sam, and she’s cut from the same cloth as the Phillips family for whom she works as a Ranch Management Apprentice. This is a one-of-a-kind apprenticeship given to people who are committed to the lifestyle. She’s learning how to steward thousands of acres for wildlife, balanced ecosystems, and forage that sustains cattle and the Ranchlands family. She’s also a teacher, someone 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 fluent in the many spokes that make up range management. When there are questions she relies on her team, finding solutions that stem from the collective as opposed to a singular voice.
While there may not be an authoritarian voice, there is a singular 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 strike and create a balance between them and the ecosystem they rely on.
To accomplish these goals, you need space– thousands of acres of it, which are meant to be grazed because they evolved in a symbiotic relationship with large herds of grazing ungulates- 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, create disturbances in the soil, and recycle organic nutrients 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 OK with reshuffling the plan at play. This takes time, mentorship, practice, and questions – tons of questions.
Sam’s a sponge – keen, driven, and inspired. She’s dedicated and committed to this way of life and to the land that sustains her. She’s been passionate about land management and stewardship since her early days in Mississippi. If you were to see her ride in on the tail of a summer squall, you’d see what I’m talking about. Her smiling eyes and energy are unmistakably a byproduct of the lifestyle that defines her, and the land and people she’s a part of.