The cattle grazing in the field glance up at him.
Two horses, one a deep brown, the other a weathered white, move in closer, nudging Schwennesen gently.
He gives the animals a quick once-over, but on this morning, he is more interested in what they are eating.
He bends down as he walks, peering at the vegetation, occasionally yanking a handful of grass or shrub from the ground to get a closer look.
If he can’t identify it, he finds it on the Internet and puts it in his grass book, an important reference on a ranch that markets its beef as grass-fed.
What grows here has grown more important to Schwennesen, whose family has ranched the high grasslands of east-central Arizona for two generations.
The Double Check has fed its livestock a diet of range forage and grass for almost 20 years, walking away from commercial feed and modern additives.
But Schwennesen decided about five years ago to turn the clock back further and return the ranch to nature.
This year, the cattle graze on whatever native grasses grow in the pastures.
Schwennesen added a little alfalfa to the mix for nutrition, but he didn’t blade the ground, leaving the seeds to compete with what was there already.
Schwennesen is a modern rancher and a throwback at the same time.
He looks the part of a cowboy, a movie casting department’s dream, and he still rides horses, oversees the branding and worries about straggler calves on the family’s grazing allotment near the New Mexico border.
But he won’t give animals hormones or artificial supplements, he limits their medication, he uses no chemicals or pesticides on the grass, and he sells the beef he grows directly to consumers, ready to discuss every aspect of his operation.
None of that is new, he will argue, only forgotten in an age of corporate ranches and feedlots.
“We get accused of being new-age ranchers because we don’t use hormones and we advertise as grass-fed,” Schwennesen says.
“But what we do is actually close to the way beef was produced 100 years ago. We let nature do its thing. We’re along for the ride.”
Legend of ranching
Few jobs evoke the rugged glamor, the lasting images or the very Westernness of the West as much as that of the rancher.
Immortalized in Zane Grey paperbacks, in John Wayne movies, in Frederic Remington sculptures, the rancher is the face of the West for much of the world.
Yet, like many frontier icons, the individual rancher is struggling to maintain his spot on the landscape, buffeted by falling beef prices and, in more recent years, relentless drought.
The Arizona Cattle Growers Association estimates that the number of cow- and calf-ranching operations in Arizona dropped from about 5,000 in 1987 to about 3,800 in 2007, operations that could have herds as small as a few dozen cattle or as large as thousands.
Survival for many has meant a willingness to walk away from the myth and adapt to changes in the marketplace and to what consumers want.
And what some have found is that giving consumers what they want hews closer to the old ways.
Eric and Jean Schwennesen, Paul’s parents, started ranching along the San Pedro River outside Winkelman with about 10,000 acres on the edges of grasslands, Sonoran Desert and oak woodlands.
When the Schwennesens began feeling the pressure from urban growth on the Tucson side of the ranch, they sold some of it and moved the operation outside Safford on another 10,000 acres.
On a traditional Arizona ranch, cattle would graze on the grasslands or in the forests for much of the year, then return to the paddocks and eat hay, corn and, in more recent years, commercially made feed pellets.
Cattle feedlots enabled larger ranching operations to produce significantly more beef, on a scale that began to edge out smaller ranches.
About 17 years ago, the Schwennesen family decided to try selling grass-fed beef.
The cattle would graze on the open range for the first years of their lives, then move to the 215-acreWinkelman property to finish the process of fattening the cattle before slaughter.
The change could raise their costs, they knew, but it would also allow them to attract a new kind of customer, willing to pay for a specialized product.
“A lot of it was an economic exercise,” says Paul Schwennesen, who, with a master’s degree in government from Harvard, is as comfortable discussing economic theory as picking apart a dry cow pie to make sure the cattle are eating well.
“Commodity prices have gone through the floor, and we realized we just didn’t want to be a price taker, just accept whatever price they offer. We decided to become a price maker and see what the market had to say.”
In this case, the market wasn’t impressed at first. The ranch sold one or two head the first year.
But the idea caught on as consumers started learning about where their food originated, how it was produced and, increasingly, who was behind the spinach or the carrots or the beef.
The rancher isn’t one to go into detail on his finances. But today, the ranch sells 15 to 20 head of cattle a month, in consumer packages at farmers markets and in bulk to restaurants and high-end resorts.
“More people want a relationship with what they consume,” Schwennesen says. “We had lost any sense of soul in the food.”
The Double Check — the ranch’s brand resembles side-by-side check marks, one inverted — sells a lot of its beef at urban farmers markets.
Schwennesen is a regular at the market in central Phoenix, where customers line up to buy beef and chat with the rancher himself. The markets, he says, are the linchpin of his business.
Other ranches have found similar success with grass-fed or organic operations in Arizona and the West.
The niche has helped families stay in business and opened new paths for others.
The Double Check is rarely alone at the farmers markets.
On the Double Check logo is the ranch’s pledge: Free range, hormone- and antibiotic-free.
“We don’t medicate these animals, ever,” Schwennesen says. “We don’t need to.”
There was a time, he mused, when no one had to make those promises to sell beef. The Double Check has simply returned to that time.
On a grass-fed cattle ranch, the grass rules.
The challenge, Schwennesen says, is getting it to grow. When ranchers and farmers started growing hay and other non-native plants to feed cattle, they plowed the land with tractor blades and eradicated most of the native grasses.
Schwennesen has been trying to coax the native grass back to his pastures year by year, and he is happy with the result this summer. There is a diversity that has been missing, a mix that the cattle appreciate.
“A lot of people think cows are dumb, that they just stand on the side of the road eating whatever’s there,” he says. “They choose the type of plant they eat, and they make sure it’s the right mix. They know what’s good, and they know what they like.”
On his stroll through the finishing pastures, he pointed to weedy clumps of leafy plants, not really a grass, not quite a shrub.
“Amaranth. Cows love it. Eat it up. They’ll eat the mesquite, too,” he says, nodding at small specimens of the desert tree sprouting from the ground.
He noticed another plant, eyed it closely and held on to it. That one would require some time on the Internet to identify and would probably earn a page in his grass book, a collection of the vegetation growing on the ranch.
The one concession to nature’s fickleness is water. Long, silvery sprinkler pipes deliver irrigation when needed and give more species a chance to take root.
Schwennesen hopes that will become less necessary as perennial native grasses grow more stable, sinking deeper roots that can survive with less assistance.
“Some of these grasses have probably not been here for 80 or 100 years,” he says. “It’s taken a few years to bring them back, but we’re doing it. It’s a bottom-up approach. We have to watch the soil, watch what grows.”
The cattle graze in one pasture for three or four days, and then Schwennesen or his ranch foreman moves the animals on to the next one.
The quick rotation means the cattle leave a pasture behind before they have stripped it to bare earth, allowing the vegetation to recover faster.
Rotational grazing is also nothing new, either on a grass-fed ranch or out on the range, where a growing number of ranchers move herds from one allotment to another before the animals damage the land.
At the Double Check, the cattle seem to look forward to moving day. Schwennesen rolls open another wire fence and then hollers, calling the cattle with a brief whoop.
The cattle respond with enthusiasm, running through the opening in the fence and settling contentedly into fresh grass and mesquite.
“They’re really just skimming each pasture,” Schwennesen says. “Ultimately, we’re trying to have something green for them to eat.”
Life at the Double Check
Arriving at the Double Check’s headquarters in Winkelman, the most noticeable sound is the silence.
Tucked away across the San Pedro River, at the foot of saguaro- studded Malpais Hill, the ranch doesn’t quite fit the image drawn by movies.
Cattle graze quietly amid cottonwoods and mesquites. A rooster crows, seemingly more to scold a couple of hens than to announce morning’s arrival. Two dogs seek shade near the small yellow ranch house.
The air, heavy with humidity from a monsoon storm the day before, carries changing aromas: damp desert scrub, a compost heap made of animal remains, burning mesquite behind the butcher building. Flies and bees buzz.
At 7 a.m., the day has not yet begun to heat up, but it will, and so the small work crew is trying to finish chores before midday.
Most of the bustle of a daily ranch operation is at the Cold Creek Ranch near Safford, where Eric and Jean Schwennesen live and work and manage the livestock until the animals are ready for fattening in Winkelman.
The overall herd varies but is usually more than 200 head. Paul commutes between the two properties; his wife, Sarah, and their three young children live across the river in town, closer to schools.
Paul Schwennesen likes the serenity of the Double Check, although he willingly shares it with anyone who wants to visit. He hosts open-ranch day most Saturdays and, later in the fall and winter, the ranch stages occasional dinners in the pasture.
There is another reason Schwennesen has created the atmosphere he has, another element that borrows from the ranches of old Arizona and adds a slightly modern twist.
All the beef the Double Check raises and sells is slaughtered and butchered on site, not unlike it might have been a century ago.
But the butcher, Katy Quinn, lives in the little yellow ranch house. She is trained to cut grass-fed beef, showing off its best characteristics.
“I know it sounds macabre, but we think it’s good to graze them near the slaughterhouse,” Schwennesen says. “This is not disturbing to them here.
They know the sights, the sounds, the smells. We’re not hauling them in a crowded truck. It’s not frightening.”
As he talks about his operation, Schwennesen adds several times his assurances that, for all his evangelizing about grass-fed beef, about avoiding hormones and antibiotics, about selling to a niche market, he is not suggesting all the other ranchers are doing it wrong when they use commercial feed or fatten cattle in a less pastoral setting.
“I don’t want to take potshots at conventional methods,” he says. “We’re not saying this is a better system per se. We would love to see both systems side by side. We’re not just reinventing things for tradition’s sake. I’m not trying to re-create the 19th century.”
Ranchers have always struggled to survive, nowhere more than in the arid Southwest, where drought and unforgiving summers continue to push people from the business, as much as they want to stay.
“Ranching is more of a lifestyle decision, but it’s becoming harder to pencil out,” Schwennesen says. “I want my kids to have a keen understanding of what a land-based enterprise is. I want them to be exposed to it, to understand creation in every sense of that term. Then, it’s up to them.”
What Schwennesen takes from this most Western of jobs is what he thinks most people want.
“A sense of determining my own destiny. Not having to check in with a boss or fill out arbitrary reports. There’s definitely an agrarian mystique.
The farmer who owns his own land.” He thought a moment more. “It’s an exercise in nature. I’m sitting on this incredibly complex system, and I get to alter it.”
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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