Have Fork, Will Travel
From Gate to Plate
Life on a New Mexico cattleman’s ranch
Nine generations of cattle ranchers have patrolled this same 30-parcel ranch near Corona, in the northern tip of Lincoln County. Mack Bell, the ranch's acting patriarch, has nearly 30 years under his belt alone.
Mack recognizes there's a cyclical nature to every important aspect of his life--his family, the markets, the weather. He's also wise enough to acknowledge how powerless he is over all but one of those things.
Last year was the best rainfall he’s lived to see yet. This year, unfortunately, has been the worst. It hasn’t rained since October. No rain means no grass, which makes for skinny cows.
“We’ve given up on the spring rains,” he says, looking out over the endless, yellowing landscape with clouded blue eyes and a toothy smile. He's in good spirits, anyhow.
The ranchers’ next hope is for a wet July. In the meantime, the Bells will keep their cows well-fed with nutritional cake, or sell off some of them if they have to. Mack is a big man, strong, and looks about 63. He wakes up very early, even on the weekends, to work. He goes to bed every night thinking about the work he'll do the next day. Right now his problem is broomweed.
You’ve seen broomweed before. It's like a short, globe-like bouquet of wire. It grows any place with a little open space, and the cows can’t eat it. Still, Mack would like to think the drought may kill off the broomweed, loosen its grip on the land enough for new grasses to spring up once the rains return. “There’s somethin’ good in everything that’s bad,” he says. You've got to be optimistic in this business.
“We’re just a family ranch with no outside income. We have to do things when we can afford to do them,” Mack says. In fact, most--about 98 percent--of New Mexico cattle ranches are family-operated, just as they were 150 years ago. Advances in technology have made life easier than the punishing regimens of early New Mexico homesteaders. Operating costs, however, as well as complex and confusing land regulations and inflation, continue to advance. Today, the average ranching family can expect to see a 1.2 to 2.5 percent return on their investment, which can break down to a gross yearly income of about $10,000. Not much leftover to live off.
Ranch families have to live frugally, and many can't afford luxuries like health insurance. The solution for Mack and his son Dan was to marry school teachers. The additional income and benefits have helped give the families some peace of mind in a volatile business with very little margin for error.
This is the New Mexico cattle industry--wide open spaces and grazing cattle, mule deer and antelope, stewarded by families and tradition. It’s back-breaking work with little financial stability, but, for these families--and for the tens of thousands of New Mexico families who eat the ranchers' beef--incredibly rewarding. They wouldn’t have it any other way.