The Range Keepers

A perennial partnership of ecologists, hydrologists and ranchers is renewing Oregon’s grasslands
range photo

The Hatfield and McCormack ranch families of Brothers, Oregon, have partnered with OSU for generations to improve rangeland ecology. (Photo: Mark Reed)

Winds gust lightly over the meadow, riffling the grasses and sage, carrying the sonorous tones of Angus, Hereford and Tarentaise mothers lowing at their calves. The tableau looks ripped from a TV commercial or a Hollywood set, all daubed with wildflowers and rimmed by junipered hills under cirrus skies.

But this isn’t the invention of a Madison Avenue ad agency, some “pastoral fantasy” spun by Big Agribusiness to fool consumers.

This is the real McCoy — or McCormack, actually.

The McCormack and Hatfield families of Central Oregon are known far and wide for their leadership in eco-friendly ranching. Patriarchs Doc Hatfield and Bill McCormack, whose ranches sprawl side-by-side across 100,000 acres near the one-pub town of Brothers, are charter members of a wildly successful company called Country Natural Beef. In just two decades, the co-op has grown from 14 Oregon families to 120 ranchers across the West and Hawaii. Their beef, pastured on grass and fattened in a feedlot on a pure vegetarian diet before slaughter, provides an alternative to factory-farm meat — the kind that’s been pumped with antibiotics and plumped on growth hormones, as highlighted in Food, Inc., the highly praised but controversial 2009 documentary on industrial food production.

“That’s what sustainability is all about — it’s land, people, dollars, and putting it all together.”

— Doc Hatfield

The co-op, which posted sales of $50 million for 2008, isn’t making the ranchers rich. Rather, it pays the bills and keeps the ranches solvent. And that’s OK, because money isn’t the true bottom line out on these semi-arid plains. It’s respect for the life-sustaining land. For 30 and 50 years, respectively, Oregon State University has helped the Hatfields and McCormacks hone that ethic of respect through cooperative research. In return, scientists have been granted nearly unfettered access to vast watersheds and rangelands for study.


Catch and Release

One blistering morning in July, Doc Hatfield’s black motorcycle kicks up a froth of dust along Bear Creek Road. He’s on his way to meet a group of ecologists, activists, government agents and grad students touring a long-term research site on his acreage. While waiting for stragglers to arrive, Hatfield sets his silver helmet on the seat of the BMW and snaps a few photos of a cow-studded pasture. He’s excited about its mid-summer lushness. Clearly, science-based management strategies are making a difference.

“If you’ve got good native perennial grass cover on the upper slopes, the rain soaks into the ground where it drops instead of flowing off in a gully washer,” he explains to the group gathered on the gravel road. “That stored water then flows subsurface, forming groundwater reservoirs and making the meadows wetter. That means it’s still green on the 10th of July instead of just dry cheat grass.”

This optimal water cycle is what OSU rangeland hydrologist John Buckhouse calls “capture, store and safe release.” Buckhouse, one of the stalwarts in the multigenerational bond between the university and the Central Oregon ranching community, has spent much of his 35-year career investigating the impacts, both positive and negative, of cattle on high-desert ecosystems. One winter, with the mercury hitting 20 below, he sat on the ground at Bear Creek every day for a month, insulated in long johns and “lots of woolens,” recording observations of streamside grazing behavior. Another early study asked the question, How many seasons should sown grass seed grow before you graze the pasture? Common wisdom said two years. The answer turned out to be much more complicated.

“We discovered that nothing is the same everywhere,” says Buckhouse. “That has been our mantra ever since. You have to manage on a site-specific basis — what we call a prescription basis. If you come up with a prescription that works in Brothers, Oregon, and try to apply it in Missoula, Montana, you’re probably going to be wrong.”

From Tales to Data

Buckhouse’s magnum opus is a longitudinal study devised to help Oregon ranchers catch, retain and put to use more of the region’s scant precipitation. Key to the study is the western juniper, a native tree that, in the absence of natural fire, has encroached on millions of high-desert acres. Through its dense web of roots, the juniper takes up great gallons of water. The surrounding grasses die back. Rains rush over the bare earth, sweeping away tons of soil. Fifteen years ago, there was lots of local folklore about the rangeland’s power to heal and regenerate after juniper was removed (stories like, “Gosh, I cut down a bunch of trees over at Salt Creek and a spring popped up the next year”). But there were no hard data on a watershed scale. So Buckhouse and his colleagues designed a “paired watershed” study to test the effects of a fire-mimicking treatment for halting juniper encroachment.

The experiment compares two 400-acre drainages at Camp Creek straddling the Hatfield High Desert Ranch and public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. One parcel, Jensen Canyon, serves as the “control” site — that is, it has remained untouched by the researchers. The other parcel, Mays Canyon, is the “treatment” site for juniper removal. High-tech instruments, including ultrasonic sensors and devices for remote monitoring via satellite, were installed by then-graduate student Michael Fisher and Crook County Extension scientist Tim Deboodt. Data on groundwater levels, stream velocity, snow depth, rainfall and other indicators are collected around the clock.

After 12 years of baseline data collection, young juniper trees (those that took root after Europeans arrived in the mid-1800s) were cut from Mays’ upper elevations. Downed branches were left on the slopes at diagonals to impede runoff of precipitation — a paltry 13 inches a year on average.

The results have stunned everyone. Four years after the cutting, streams that were ephemeral (flowing only after a storm) are now intermittent (flowing in tandem with recharged groundwater). Springs are gushing where once they were just gurgling. Erosion, as indicated by the depth of gullies and sediments, has slowed. And, judging by increased numbers of seed heads per clump of grass and reinvigorated species of native perennials, the improved water dynamic is translating to healthier forage. That, in turn, means more robust habitat for birds, deer, elk and other wildlife.

This ecosystem perspective is what Hatfield values most from his long-time association with OSU.

“Understanding the holistic watershed — how it all works together — has helped us improve our grazing strategy,” says the 70-year-old rancher. “That’s what sustainability is all about — it’s land, people, dollars, and putting it all together.”

Time Travel

Before you venture off Highway 20 onto the rangeland, you can grab a burger, a Bud Light and a fill-up at the weather-beaten Brothers Café. If you’re hauling a horse, you can water it at Brothers Oasis, the equine-friendly rest stop right next door.

After you leave the crush of cars and commerce in Bend 40 minutes behind, the desert can at first be disorienting in its stillness — unnerving, even, in its seeming limitlessness. For an urbanite traveling this trackless landscape for the first time, the McCormack ranch house is a welcome sight when it rises up at road’s end 20 miles from the highway.

The house, whose solid-juniper timbers once grew in the nearby hills and draws, was built a few years ago (30 friends and family framed it in one weekend) to replace the homestead where Bill moved with his parents and lived for seven decades. (Once when he was buying a pickup truck in Portland, the salesman got confused at McCormack’s answer on the loan application to the question, How many years at your current address? “What does this mean?” the salesman demanded, pointing at Bill’s penciled response, 68. “I guess he thought it was a joke,” the rancher recalls with a chuckle. “He’d never heard of anyone living in one place for 68 years.”)

Time has a different quality on the range. It stretches out long and slow, like the landscape, and curves beyond the visible horizon. Bill’s dad, who bought the family’s first 3,000 acres in 1943, counted time, not in months and years, but in seasons and generations. Among his descendants is 19-year-old Tyler. This fourth-generation McCormack, sitting beneath soaring pinewood beams with his cowboy hat poised on his knee, carries within him the genes of an Oregon pioneer — his great grandfather, a homesteader who herded sheep across the state’s south-central reaches.

The McCormacks’ intergenerational ties extend even to the family alma mater. Tyler is a Beaver, like father Jeff, grandparents Bill and Donna, and both great grandparents (class of 1923). It was Tyler’s grandfather who first welcomed OSU scientists onto his creek beds and pasturelands for study. Since then, the ranch has been a living lab for investigations on everything from watershed contamination to sage grouse habitat. The McCormacks’ ranch, like the Hatfields’, is also an open-air classroom during field trips for rangeland ecology majors.

Tyler, an agribusiness major, got his initiation into Country Natural Beef last summer when he conducted an “in-store” at a Whole Foods Market, the co-op’s biggest customer. Next to the meat counter, he fired up a hibachi and passed out samples to shoppers. “I sold a hotdog to a vegetarian,” he boasts with a grin.

These product demos let customers not only taste natural beef, but also meet ranchers face-to-face. Each ranch in the co-op has “adopted” one or two stores. Some stores run videos of their adoptive ranch so that consumers can make a visual and, they hope, emotional connection to the source of their pot roast or T-bone.

“Whatever we have to do, whatever we have to learn to keep the land sustainable for the next generation — that’s top priority,” says Tyler’s mom, Runinda “Nin” McCormack. Her voice catches with emotion. “We realize that if we don’t do it right, our kids won’t have the opportunity to come home to the family ranch and participate in something so great.

“That’s why we’re here.”

To support the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, contact the OSU Foundation

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