Alibi V.15 No.19 • May 11-17, 2006 

Have Fork, Will Travel

From Gate to Plate

Life on a New Mexico cattleman’s ranch

This prized  steer is cared for by students of the Carrizozo High School Meat Science Lab, the only high school facility of its kind in the state.
This prized steer is cared for by students of the Carrizozo High School Meat Science Lab, the only high school facility of its kind in the state.
Laura Marrich

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.

Rustling up steers and cows at the Roswell Livestock Auction yard
Rustling up steers and cows at the Roswell Livestock Auction yard
Laura Marrich

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.

Three-Mustard Beef Round Tip with Roasted Baby Carrots and Brussels Sprouts

This recipe was taken from The Healthy Beef Cookbook (John Wiley & Sons, 2006), a collaboration between the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Dietetic Association. The dish is an excellent source of protein, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iron, selenium and zinc and a good source of fiber.
Makes 12 servings


3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 boneless beef round sirloin tip roast (3 pounds)
2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs

For the vegetables:
1 pound small Brussels sprouts, trimmed
2 pounds packaged baby carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

For the mustard sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup minced shallots
1/2 cup Dijon-style mustard
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup reduced- or full-fat dairy sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1. Heat oven to 325°F. Combine 3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard, 1 tablespoon thyme and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in small bowl. Spread mustard mixture evenly over all surfaces of beef roast. Press bread crumbs evenly onto roast over mustard.

2. Place roast on rack in shallow roasting pan. Insert ovenproof meat thermometer so tip is centered in thickest part of beef, not resting in fat. Do not add water or cover. Roast in 325°F oven 1-3/4 to 2 hours for medium rare; 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 hours for medium doneness.

3. Meanwhile, prepare vegetables. Cut shallow “X” into bottom of each Brussels sprout. Toss Brussels sprouts, carrots, oil, thyme, salt and pepper in large bowl. Transfer to metal baking sheet. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast in 325°F oven

4. Roast vegetables 1 to 1-1/4 hours or until crisp-tender. Uncover baking sheet; continue roasting 5 minutes or until lightly browned.

5. Remove roast when meat thermometer registers 140°F for medium rare; 155°F for medium. Transfer roast to carving board; tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let stand, covered, 20 minutes. (Temperature will continue to rise about 5°F to reach 145°F for medium rare; 160°F for medium.)

6. Meanwhile, prepare the mustard sauce. Heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add shallots; cook and stir 3 to 5 minutes or until tender. Add Dijon-style mustard, mustard seeds and dry mustard; cook and stir 30 seconds. Remove from heat; stir in lemon juice until well blended. Add sour cream, parsley and pepper; stir until smooth. Keep warm.

7. Carve roast into thin slices. Serve with vegetables and mustard sauce.