By Sophia Nolan
“Most of the time I’m looking for abnormalities,” Jake says, driving his 1989 white Toyota truck down uneven dirt roads, surveying short grass pastures dotted with herds of brown-eyed cattle. His gloved hands float from wheel to gear shift, a single finger switching us from second to third, and from third to a sputtering halt. He points toward the horizon, his canvas coat grating against itself as he shifts, “If they’re all alone, then something’s not right.” His eyes stay locked on the herd, with a caring intensity that seems a part of him.
He pulls off the tire-tracked road, easing out of his seat, glancing up only to say, “bust ice here on this tank,” and grabs an axe and rake from the bed. Marching toward a 12 foot metal tub, he climbs over a barbed wire fence that divides the tub between two pastures and begins swinging the axe into the inch-thick layer of ice. The cows can usually nuzzle their way through thin sheets, he explains, but when it gets cold like this, he has to come out and break it up. He loads himself back into the driver’s side, the three of us fitting in a space meant for one lone ranger, our shoulders and arms layered together on a zero-degree day.
We have been driving across Chico Basin, an 87,000 acre cattle ranch, with the manager, Jake Meldon, for about an hour now. “Are you guys lost?” he laughs, turning onto a new road, bright eyes trained on the sweeping tan landscape. Except for the occasional cow, and the pale yellow of the cholla fruit, this place is a monochrome of dead grass, dirt, and grey sky. For a newcomer, the grid of pastures and roads form a disorienting monotonous space.
“I’m sure you get lost,” I press. He laughs again, nodding. “People do in the beginning,” but after seven years, he knows this place like the back of his hand. “We’re south of the headquarters now, we’ve basically done a big loop.” We pull over again to break into another tub of ice. He climbs over a similar fence, this time surrounded by horned cows, who buck and stagger backwards in greeting. He moves with purpose, though never rushing, a man living in the comfort of his own routine.
I ask him about industrialized agriculture and feedlots and sustainability. He navigates easily, answering questions simply and unemotionally, like a man living on a ranch in the center of the country, holding no need to engage in flashy politics, yet maintaining a deep understanding of how he fits in. “The disconnection is the problem,” he states, asking us if we think of the cows and the fields and the farmer when we order hamburgers. “People have a lot of influence on how the land is used,” he tells us, gesturing to the expanse of dead grass. Whether it be a value in rotational grazing and grass fed, ethically raised beef, or the continued preeminence of feedlots, customers ultimately decide what’s worth buying. The wiry hairs of Jake’s mustache move in an oval as he nods, suggesting a complexity he can’t quite get across to non-ranchers.
“We as ranchers are stewards of the land,” he explains. “When we’re managing cattle, we’re really managing the grass, and by managing the grass, we’re really managing the soil.” Sustainability in ranching is about understanding the whole picture; from the health of the animals and the land, to the security of their business and the longevity of their workers. “You can’t blame people for what they don’t know,” he says solemnly, fingers moving from wheel to gear shift to mustache. He slinks out again to conquer yet another ice basin.
“Is that all you got for me?” he teases, as we sit silently, now comfortable in our crampedness. “Is that oil on your pants?” I ask, pointing to the black streaks pressed up against my leg. “No,” he says, sheepishly, and “blood, from the dehorning.” I ask him if it hurts them, he says yes, a bit. He seems a little cold now, as if he’s revealed something he doesn’t like. He explains that by clipping the top of their horns, it keeps them from hurting each other and damaging the meat, which makes it less valuable when it goes to slaughter.
In ranching there is a constant need to balance the comfort of the animals, the wants of humans, and the health of the land. Jake works within this complexity every day, driving across 87,000 acres of bumpy road, checking hundreds of cattle for “abnormalities.” “My job is my life,” he says. “And I love it.”