Cattle ranchers work with nature's rhythms
May/June 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Riding the range benefits are far reaching.
Working cattle in the high Sierra is a family affair for the Brennans, including, from left, Kendra, Sherri, Bob and Nolan. They graze their livestock during the summer in high-altitude meadows located within the nearly 900,000-acre Stanislaus National Forest, which stretches from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite.
When heading to work, a lawyer carries a briefcase, a doctor puts on a stethoscope—and Tuolumne County cattle rancher Bob Brennan always brings his horse. He knows checking livestock can mean hours in the saddle moving cattle, inspecting fences, gauging forage and monitoring the landscape for problems.
Brennan is quick to point out that while the work is demanding, it's not without perks. He says his "corner office" has some of the state's most fantastic views—soaring granite crests, sparkling mountain lakes, wildflower-dotted meadows, towering pines and canyons carved by snow-fed streams.
Nolan Brennan attaches an old-fashioned cowbell to one of the herd to make finding the family’s cattle easier in the far-flung forest.
Like other family ranchers who work to feed their animals on native grasses and help maintain healthy mountain ecosystems, Brennan says he wouldn't trade his chaps and spurs for a three-piece suit and wingtips. Instead of working in an office, he chooses to continue his family's tradition of ranching and caring for the land.
As established by Congress, livestock grazing is an integral part of the operation of the nation's forests and grasslands. U.S. Forest Service officials say there are about 8,800 grazing allotments—government-managed parcels that ranchers lease or obtain permits to use—spread across about 90 million acres of National Forest System lands in 34 states. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the state of California also allow grazing in certain areas. In the Brennans' case, their permit allows about 480 cows to graze on three allotments that cover some 75,000 acres, or about 120 square miles, of the Stanislaus National Forest. The rest of the year, the animals graze on the family's home ranch or leased private pastureland.
"My dad's family came from Ireland and started farming in the Oakdale area in the mid-1880s," Brennan said. "After World War II, the ranch was split up between the generations and my father began growing his cow herd with registered Angus stock, which we still raise today."
Bob Brennan says sometimes low-tech solutions work best.
He said splitting the ranch up into smaller sections was a turning point because his father believed the best thing for grazing land was to rotate the animals from parcel to parcel, giving the land an opportunity to naturally regenerate.
"With a smaller ranch, it was hard to follow nature's cycles," Brennan explained. "That's when we started getting interested in using public lands."
Over time, the Brennans became acquainted with Stanislaus National Forest rangers. They shared information and conservation philosophies, kept an eye out for trouble on the far-flung forest that stretches from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada.
"We got our first grazing permit in the early 1980s," said Bob's wife Sherri, who chairs the California Farm Bureau Federation Public Lands Advisory Committee and also works with various public agencies on forest and rangeland issues. Access to public grazing land allowed the couple to broaden the family's operation and manage their private grazing land more effectively.
Kendra Brennan works with the family’s cattle dogs—Ruby and Chassey—to keep an eye on the herd before moving the cattle into the mountains.
"Actually, the forest service came to Bob and his dad to talk about applying for an allotment that had become vacant because they liked what they saw them doing on the adjacent private ranch," she said.
"The rangers recognized we were managing it correctly—using the forage seasonally, moving the animals to reduce grazing impact. But in some areas we grazed more intensively to control damaging weeds like invasive starthistle."
The Brennans point out that roping cattle on the open range is a fast way to gather animals that may need care. The skill, shown by Teddy Athan, takes years to perfect.
The couple's children—Nolan, a high school sophomore who competes in rodeo events, and Kendra, who attends West Hills Community College, participates on the college's rodeo team and is the current Mother Lode Round-Up rodeo queen—grew up riding in the rugged mountains, helping their parents manage the herd.
Today, the Brennans are part of a close-knit community of family ranchers who spend summers in the mountains with their cattle, bringing them down to lower elevations as the days get shorter and the nights colder.
They follow a practice of livestock production common throughout the world—herding animals from the lowlands in winter to the uplands in summer and back down to market in fall. Rangeland experts say changes in elevation cause changes in grasses and cover, each type suitable for livestock grazing at different times of the year.
Sue Forbes, Stanislaus National Forest range management specialist, said ranchers who graze animals on forestland also are added eyes and ears for the whole forest.
Well-managed grazing activities on public lands help ranchers like the Brennans continue food production while protecting the environment for wildlife and habitat. The wire structure, foreground, protects native plants from the browsing of cattle and deer. Protective measures are monitored by range scientists, as well as the ranchers who graze livestock in the area.
"On a forest this size, it's hard to regularly get to every corner," she said. "The ranchers ride a lot of the range and often come back with information regarding illegal activities like poaching—sometimes of their own livestock—marijuana plantings and dumping.
"They know if a car has been abandoned on a remote logging road. They also turn in reports of forest fires and help with spotting lost hikers," she added. "They serve an important public function on the range."
Ranchers also count on good water quality to maintain healthy livestock and a productive environment, so they monitor animals' presence near rivers and streams.
Tuolumne County timberland manager and apple farmer Sasha Farkas said there's a great deal of interdependence between private and public lands. Timber production, raising livestock and recreation are how the local environment and local economies work.
"Grazing livestock on public lands helps reduce fuel loads in our forests, as well as helping to control invasive plant species," said Farkas, who is Tuolumne County Farm Bureau president. "Our forests are the economic and cultural foundation of our communities. We depend on good management practices in partnership with public lands managers."
That means active use of public lands combined with periods of rest to maintain healthy ecosystems that can support a variety of wildlife, he said, describing the region's system of forest and land management as one that also allows for food production.
In California, ranchers depend on public lands grazing to sustain their operations, said Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation natural resources and public lands director. She said research indicates that well-managed grazing brings a variety of benefits to the landscape and the public.
"Science has proven that hands-off preservation is not necessarily the best approach," Noble said. "In fact, human interaction can actually improve the environment in a forest. At the same time, grazing helps ensure we're able to continue producing a safe, affordable, healthy, domestic food supply."
For the Brennans, riding the range in the high Sierra is a way of life, a way to follow the natural rhythms of the land as they raise healthy livestock for market. It's also a way to protect habitat for wildlife that shares the landscape—mountain lions, bears, foxes, deer and birds such as hawks and golden and bald eagles.
Sherri Brennan said, "My greatest joy is riding behind my kids in the mountains, watching them grow in the saddle, but more importantly, I love watching their respect for land and family mature. When we ask our kids what they want to do on a weekend, they say, 'Let's go up to the cow camp!'"
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.