“Want to know how to make a small
fortune? Start with a large one and buy a ranch.”
--Old joke among ranchers
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
to be 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 terribly rational.”
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 sources
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 range.
“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 participants:
- 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 cross
- Stay away from seedstock production
- Minimize investment in horses if you expect the cows to pay
- Reproduction (weaning weight based on exposed females) is the
number one production factor producers must focus on
- 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
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 results.
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 ranch.
“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 on beef.”
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 says.
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,” he says.
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 drought.
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
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 can.”
“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
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
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
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.”