Finding Answers

breakfast at the giacomini ranch
A few years ago I saw a classified ad for local grass fed beef available at the Giacomini Ranch.   It stated the animals were sold “on the hoof” and arrangements could be made for processing but the entire animal had to be purchased up front.  There was a cutoff date to order and without freezer space or partners to go in on the deal I stashed it away in my memory.

 

Not too long ago I saw the Local Food Resources Guide compiled by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners that listed the same ranch, with an e-mail address.  I sent a note expressing my interests and after a few communications back and forth a plan was made for a visit the following Saturday morning to feed the cows and learn a bit about the operations. 
Nobody was at the ranch when I arrived; all I found were a couple dogs and one cat.  I changed out of my riding gear and wandered around taking photos.  Shortly a car pulled in and Maria and her two sons, Will and Ben, greeted me.  Maria explained that she had grown up in the house and her parents still lived there.  Her sons were the 6th generation working the land in this location.  Maria had married Matt Kemp, a fellow Owens Valley kid whose family owned ranches in Lone Pine and Independence.
ben with the newborns
The first thing we did was check on the new baby lambs, just born that morning.  The little critters were already up and walking.  From there we went over to see a few more sheep, several of their horses and some of the out buildings around the complex.  Maria filled me in on the details of the operation; they have around 1,200 head of cattle, 15 working horses, a couple dozen sheep and 4 dogs.  By and by Matt and a ranch hand named Dennis returned from a feeding run. 
Both Maria and Matt were tremendously friendly, Will was crawling with of excitement and Ben seemed to be taking it all in like me.  I learned that Maria had gone off to study animal science in Oklahoma followed by graduate studies in ruminant nutrition in New Mexico.  
I ride Dirtbag!

Matt asked if I rode horses, which I don’t but have considered recently.  I looked at Will and asked if he rode horses yet.  He enthusiastically informed me “I ride Dirtbag!”  Dirtbag was his Uncle Scott’s 25 year-old horse that Matt said was a very gentle, calm creature.  The story continued and I heard about alternate names for the horse, but I figure once a Dirtbag, always a Dirtbag. Will seemed to agree.

The way the grass feed program works at the ranch is fairly simple.  This ranch is another cow-calf operation and the one-year old heifers that don’t get pregnant are allowed to grow for another full year rather than being shipped out to a finishing lot.  Last year there were 13 heifers that were not impregnated.  In December they sell off the two-year olds and arrange for them to be processed. 
It was another beautiful January morning and warming quickly.  When it was announced that we were about to head off to feed the cows, Will was the first one in the truck and raring to go.   
“What a life to grow up on a ranch” I thought.
maria pointing out the various bulls

Matt agreed that kids on ranches are eager to work.  A hard life outdoors and an incredible setting makes for some strong work ethics.  As was the case at other some of the other ranches I have visited, this is a family affair.  Matt brother had recently returned to the valley and was taking on more of the operational duties at the family business to the south and Matt was able to dedicate more time to the land his wife’s family worked here in Bishop and north to Mono County.

Off we went in a big Dodge crew cab truck pulling a trailer with three giant bales of hay.  Just down the road, by the old windmill and corrals we turned off on a dirt road and a locked gate.  Offering to close he gate behind us Matt said not to worry about it.  Not too far down the dirt I got out and opened another gate leading into a pasture full of bulls, something like sixty of them.  Again Matt said not to worry about closing the gate for the bulls would be completely focused on the food we carried with us.  And sure enough, a following of massive bulls jockeyed for position to be first in line.
matt closing up

Stopping in the middle of the pasture Matt and I got out while Maria took the wheel.  Will and Ben watched from the truck as Matt started cutting the lines on the first bale of hay.  The bulls were nipping at the hay and seemed ready for a minor feeding frenzy.  Maria pointed out the two varieties of bulls, Black Angus, well they were obvious, and tan colored Charolais as Blue, their cattle dog snapped and snarled at the beasts.  Once the first bale was loose Matt and I jumped up on the trailer while Maria drove slowly. 

Flaking off big slabs of hay we let it fall to the ground as a parade of bulls followed, slowly thinning down as they each found a spot to dine. Two bales were dropped before Will was allowed out of the truck; at first he rode on the bed with the dogs.  We passed back out the gate and locked up, then opened up another gate to take care of some horses.  Once again Matt left the gate open.  This time as we drove in and readied the oat hay several horses reared and bucked, snorted and stomped before making a dash for the open gate and bolted down the dirt road.
time for the horses

Maria hit the horn trying to call them back, and when they did return they flew by the open gate and down the road in the opposite direction. A mini stampede it was.  I must admit I was rather impressed. A fresh dusting of snow shone in the mountains as the primal display of horsepower roared past in full stride.  It was a pure western scene.  Only a few minutes elapsed before the horses came back for breakfast.  With Will’s help we pushed the last of the hay off the trailer, then piled back into the truck and headed home.

It was a fascinating morning and I felt a bit envious of a life I have never really known.  As I ready myself to go Maria handed me a pack of frozen grass fed ground beef, wrapped in butcher paper and dated December 11, 2011.  She told me to make something good and blog about it.  Stay tuned for that story coming next.
I can’t thank the Kemps enough for their hospitality.
maria, will, ben & matt