“Want to know how to make a
small fortune? Start with a large one and buy a ranch.”
--Old joke among
Why did Jim and Carol Thorpe,
a middle-aged couple from Santa Fe with no background in agriculture,
decide to take the plunge and become cattle ranchers?
Not for the money. It’s a commonplace in the ranching
community that 30 years ago it took eight steers to buy a
new pickup truck; today it takes 25. Or more. That’s
because the traditional profit margin in ranching hovers between
one and three percent per year. Or less.
Not for the headaches that come with modern ranching. Public
lands in particular have their own set of challenges –
not the least of which is intense public scrutiny. But private
land ranching is getting tougher too, especially in these
dry times. The pressure to grab the brass ring of real estate
development and get off the merry-go-round is constant.
But the Thorpes took the plunge anyway. So perhaps the more
pertinent questions might be: what did they do to confront
these challenges? How were they able to turn obstacles into
stepping stones, as the saying goes? And what might other
“new ranchers” learn from their experience?
The normally loquacious Jim Thorpe begins his answer with
a short definition: “Ranchers have become applied ecologists.
Most don’t look at themselves that way, and most don’t
like the word ‘ecology’ very much, but nowadays
it’s all about stewardship, not just food and fiber.”
“But it’s also about having a passion about what
you are doing,” he continues. “Like many, I’m
grateful for the privilege of being allowed to take care of
a little piece of the planet for whatever short amount of
time we have.”
Starting from scratch
The Thorpes’ adventure began in 1998 when Jim's family
sold the historic Bishop’s Lodge, a Santa Fe landmark.
After two decades in the hotel business, Jim and Carol suddenly
found themselves out of work. Casting about for what to do,
somewhat distraught and with children preparing to leave the
nest, they decided to explore a romantic notion: Buy a ranch.
had friends in ranching which meant I had just enough knowledge
a little dangerous."
“I had friends in ranching,” explains Jim Thorpe,
“which meant I had just enough knowledge to be a little
dangerous. I knew, for instance, from a classical economics
perspective, ranching wasn’t the most rational way to
invest an unexpected windfall. But then humans aren’t
The Thorpes made their decision to get into ranching without
much hesitation. What took longer was finding the right ranch.
They wanted a place “in the middle of nowhere, and a
couple of hours from everywhere,” as Jim puts it. Eventually
they found the ideal location for their adventure in east-central
New Mexico, north of the tiny town of Newkirk.
Before taking the plunge, however, Jim Thorpe did his homework.
Over a two-year period, he visited the ranches of friends
and acquaintances, read a ton of books and articles, went
to meetings and workshops, scoured the Internet, and leveraged
the business analysis skills he acquired years ago in an “MBA
light” course at the University of New Mexico –
which helped him think about ranching as a business.
In his pursuit of knowledge, Thorpe joined the Society for
Range Management and became a member of the New Mexico Cattle
Growers’ Association. He read The Cow-Calf Management
Guide, which he describes as a “big, heavy yellow book
well worth its price,” among numerous other publications.
Much of this new knowledge was ecological – a term
that struck a chord with Jim in ninth grade and resonated
all the way through college, including participation in the
original Earth Day celebration in 1970. “I soaked up
the ideals of the environmental movement,” recalls Thorpe,
“but I never thought that I might end up utilizing it
to earn a living!”
A recent visit to the Thorpes’ JT Ranch offered ample
evidence of their continuing quest for provocation. On the
living room table sat a book of Shakespearean plays, a collection
of essays on wilderness (heavily underlined), and a large,
colorful tome on the sins of cattle ranching in the West.
“I sometimes like to ask myself, ‘What would
Socrates do on the ranch?’” Jim says, smiling.
Accessing both old and new information
Despite all their preparation, there was nothing quite like
the crash course of moving to the ranch itself.
cows looked alike and all grass looked alike when I started,”
“All cows looked alike and all grass looked alike when
I started,” says Thorpe, “which may be why a group
of vultures eyed us suspiciously our first night on the ranch.
Maybe they thought we looked like easy pickings.”
To avoid the vultures, the Thorpes sought out “old
knowledge,” especially from traditional producers and
agricultural specialists. For example, they enrolled the ranch
in a Texas A & M Cooperative Extension program called
Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA), which provides data
on cow-calf operations.
SPA gives participating ranchers an opportunity to compare
their operation with others of similar size and geographic
“It gives new and business-savvy old ranchers meaningful
benchmarks to assess their operation’s performance,”
Thorpe explains. “What has been especially useful to
us is to see improvements over time.”
Thorpe pointed to a list of lessons learned from fellow SPA
- Attitude – producers must measure and monitor progress
toward specific written goals
- Avoid production of hay; minimize feeding losses. Optimize
the grazing system
- Small producers should buy replacements and use terminal
- Stay away from seedstock production
- Minimize investment in horses if you expect the cows
to pay their expense
- Reproduction (weaning weight based on exposed females)
is the number one production factor producers must focus
- Develop a written preventive health program
- Don’t spend money to reduce IRS taxes if they result
in an increase in after-tax equity
- Non-cattle uses of land are more important than grazing
cattle for land appreciation
- Most ranches have inadequate inventory and management
accounting systems to accurately measure and monitor performance
At the same time, the Thorpes extended their quest for knowledge
to the “new school” of ranching. They read Allan
Savory’s treatise on Holistic
Management, for example, and hired Kirk Gadzia, a certified
HM instructor, as a ranch consultant.
They subscribed to the monthly alternative ranching newspaper
Stockman Grass Farmer and read books by its publisher, Allan
Nation, including Knowledge
Rich Ranching and Farm
Fresh: Direct Marketing Meats and Milk—all of which
challenge traditional paradigms about profitability and management.
They attended a low-stress livestock handling clinic sometimes
referred to as the 'Bud Williams School' – after the
Canadian rancher who pioneered a method of gently moving animals.
They put this knowledge to work on the ranch with positive
They participated in numerous workshops focused on riparian
restoration, monitoring, assessing land health indicators,
and learning how to “read” landscapes. They even
hosted a workshop on “How to Fix Ranch Roads.”
They volunteered their ranch to become part of an “Ecological
Site Description” for their area – a program of
the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service that
catalogues land according to various attributes. They are
even trying to apply the latest ecological thinking, called
the ‘State-and-Transition’ model, to their ranch.
And they have maps – lots and lots of GIS maps of their
“In the Old Ranch, the focus is on the cattle, including
how to increase income from beef,” says Thorpe. “In
the New Ranch, the focus is on the grass and soil, and on
how to diversify the business. Right now I’m trying
to coordinate the two. I’m interested in ecological
services, for example, but right now I’ve got to focus
thinks the distinction between old and new knowledge is
divisive. "We shouldn’t worry about what is old
and what is new. We should focus on what works," he
He implemented a grazing system based on Savory’s ideas,
for instance, but didn’t go to an intense rotational
system, preferring to remain flexible. There’s no sense
in tossing out the baby with the bath water, he believes.
For example, he currently declines to consider custom grazing,
as Allan Nation advocates.
In fact, Thorpe thinks the distinction between old and new
knowledge is divisive. “We shouldn’t worry about
what is old and what is new. We should focus on what works,”
The blend of old and new knowledge is paying off, literally.
Although the ranch has the potential to support 350 AUs (animal
units), the Thorpes chose to start with 200, raising it slowly
over time through careful management to its current total
of 250 – all in the middle of an extended period of
The income from the cattle is covering their expenses and
paying the interest on their land debt. Although they aren’t
seeing the sort of profit they saw in the hotel business,
they have been struck by other parallels.
“Carol’s passion is for the animals,” quips
Thorpe, “so she’s in charge of personnel. I’m
the facility manager.”
And like all good businesspeople, the Thorpes are sensitive
to the needs of their customers, which include their neighbors
and colleagues in the ranching industry.
“People are too quick to criticize each other without
finding out what’s really happening on the ground,”
says Thorpe. “I think the o-word – overgrazing
– especially is tossed around too casually. It demeans
ranchers who really are trying hard to do the best job they
“There’s been poor grazing management in the
past, but ranchers have always watched the land, and now we’re
learning new things to see, that’s all.”
Not ones to sit still (and clearly enjoying themselves),
the Thorpes keep moving ahead. They participate in a New Mexico
State Land Office program that reduces grazing fees 25 percent
in return for good management and monitoring. They are enrolled
in New Mexico State University’s ‘Ranch to Rail’
program, which provides carcass information, genetic data,
and other feedback.
They are even exploring the idea of creating “custom
habitat” – which is like custom grazing, but for
wildlife. They feel confident they can use cattle as a tool
to improve and maintain high quality habitat – and they
have the monitoring data to prove it, they believe.
“I feel like sometimes we’re bridging two worlds,”
observes Thorpe. “I’m trying to provide values
that society wants while placing a traditional cattle operation
over it at the same time. It’s tricky, but I think it’s
going to work.”
Facing the future
Although admitting to a mid-life crisis of sorts, Thorpe
observes that he and his wife also represent a new wave of
ranchers in the American West. While many new land owners
are principally “ranching the view,” some, such
as the Thorpes, are determined to make their operations simultaneously
economically viable and ecologically sustainable. And in doing
so, they help slow the trend toward increased land fragmentation,
a major problem as ranches become ranchettes.
feel like sometimes we’re bridging two worlds,”
observes Thorpe. “I’m trying to provide values
that society wants while placing a traditional cattle operation
over it at the same time. It’s tricky, but I think
it’s going to work.”
Still, the challenges are daunting. A globalizing economy
(in the form of increased beef imports from Brazil, for instance),
political disenfranchisement, antagonistic attitudes, even
the test of rural isolation can wear down the spirit of many
new ranchers fast.
Jim Thorpe’s response is to remain philosophical.
“Everyone wants a sense of purpose, whether they know
it outright or not,” he muses. “We must deal with
a tragic sense of existence, which compels us to leave the
world in as good or better condition than when we got it.”
“It’s all about our moment in the sun, literally,”
he goes on. “Ranching is a great combination of mental
and physical. Throw in a few philosophical paradoxes and it
really gets interesting.”
Socrates, in chaps.
“It’s all about our relationship to nature,”
he concludes, smiling again. “Management is an illusion.
It’s like working with people, we don’t manage
them, we nudge, and hope for the best.”