Shayla Hyde

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017

Arizona rancher on Mexico border uses science to breed sustainable cattle

NOGALES, AZ —The road turns from a dusty brown to a deep, red clay along the road to Buena Vista Ranch, where cattle rancher Dean Fish raises commercial cattle.

Green vegetation dots the desert for miles from Fish’s ranch headquarters to the ranch’s edge on the Arizona-Mexico border. Black Angus cattle dip their heads to grab another bite of mesquite.

Fish works to bring sustainable cattle raising from the fringes to the mainstream, conserving water and maintaining pasture health to make the land more productive. He marries those practices with feed efficiency and breeding practices that he says set his system apart from traditional ranching techniques.

“Ultimately, our goal is to produce a safe, wholesome, tasty, nutritious product that’s going to go on America’s dinner plate,” Fish said of cattle ranchers. “So everything that we can do to move toward that goal is going to increase our economic ability to survive and thrive.”

Most days start before sunrise with Fish styling his handlebar mustache and slipping on his cowboy hat. He spends his days driving, riding, mending, breeding, vaccinating and herding cattle. One day he could be on the back of his big, brown horse sorting cattle with his fellow cowboys. The next day he could be out fixing a broken pipe, trading in his pressed Western button-up for a ragged T-shirt.

Fish looks like an iconic cowboy, straight from faded, 19th century photographs. But he represents a cattle ranching system focused on the future.

[2up_image source1=”https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Cattle-grazing_800.jpg” caption1=”By implementing responsible grazing techniques and breeding an efficient herd, ranchers are producing globally the same amount of cattle as in 1975 with one-third fewer cattle, said Sarah Place of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. (Photo by Michelle Minahen/Cronkite News)” source2=”https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Herding-on-horseback_800.jpg” caption2=”Fish works to bring sustainable cattle raising from the fringes to the mainstream, conserving water and maintaining pasture health to make the land more productive. (Photo by Michelle Minahen/Cronkite News)”]

Three-legged sustainability

For decades, ranchers would herd cattle to wherever they could find grass, damaging the vegetation. That led to a 75 percent decline in cattle in the early 1900s.

Responsible cattle grazing and handling practices were among innovations that spurred industry growth. Now, about 30 million beef cattle are in the U.S.

According to Sarah Place, senior director of sustainable beef production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, using science and data is key to running more sustainable ranches.

By implementing responsible grazing techniques and breeding an efficient herd, ranchers are producing globally the same amount of cattle as in 1975 with one-third fewer cattle, Place said.

Think of sustainability as a three-legged stool, Fish said, with an economic leg, an environmental leg and a social leg. To start, the practices ranchers use to breed cattle need to be able to support them financially. They need to be able to spend enough money on feed and other expenses such as water and medicine while still turning a profit.

“In the livestock business you’re not going to become wealthy,” said Fish, who has been heading the ranch for five years. “But if you can make a fair living, I think that’s my goal from the economic sustainability standpoint.”

Between the cattle sold, fences and pipes fixed and other expenses, Fish’s annual net income is about $40,000.