Jolley: Five Minutes With The Rickert Family, Prather Ranch
The Cattle Network 8/30/08
The Prather Ranch stands in the shadows of Mount Shasta in Northern California up close to the Oregon border. If successful ranching, like most everything else, is a matter of ‘location, location, location,’ it can’t get any better than this. It starts with a near perfect climate for raising forage as well as cattle and it ends the day with close-by access to great markets for their organically raised beef.
Although I’ve long been aware of the ranch, it was an article in “Food and Wine” magazine that piqued my interest in learning more about the business. (Click on the magazine title to read the story) I mean how often do you see a ranch featured in that kind of publication? The story raved about the quality of Prather ranches’ meat, an expected angle for a ‘foodie’ publication. The writer was equally enthusiastic, though, about the people and the location.
I suppose enjoying a perfectly grilled steak with fascinating people in a spectacular location will do that to you.
So I got in touch with Mary Rickert who was kind enough to answer some nosey questions.
Q. It’s a tough job running one of the finest operations of its kind in a gorgeous part of the country. How did you get to that position of running the Prather Ranch?
A. We come from farming/ranching families in California and majored in agriculture in college. Neither of us was given the opportunity to return to the family operation so we developed our own farm and ranch management business. After an undergraduate degree in Agricultural Business from California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo and a graduate degree from Purdue University in Agricultural Economics, Jim started working in the farm management field.
After our three children were born, we started our own farm management and appraisal firm. One of our long time friends, Ellington Peek, of Shasta Livestock and Western Video Market, introduced us to Mr. Walter Ralphs. Mr. Ralphs engaged our services as ranch managers for the vertically integrated Prather Ranch and ultimately we have become shareholders in the Prather Ranch operation. We started working for Mr. Ralphs in 1979 and the operation has become a family endeavor with help from our youngest son and daughter.
Q. What does the Rickert family do when they are not on the ranch?
A. Spare leisure time is a rare commodity for us, and our idea of recreation is to take shovels and chop thistles. We live in such a beautiful part of California we seldom feel the need to go somewhere else to get away.
Jim is just completing a three-year term as the Western United States Vice-President of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA). It has included some travel throughout the U.S, including attendance at a Leadership Institute Seminar in Washington D.C. Mary likes to do volunteer work and serves on county boards and committees.
Q. Tell me about the ranch and its history.
A. The Prather Ranch was one of the original ranches developed in Northern California. In the 1880’s it was an agri-business, including a lumber mill, dairy, lodge for passing travelers and a small-scale town complete with a post office. The ranch is headquartered in Butte Valley, 30 miles south of the Oregon border. It is comprised of 34,000 deeded and leased acres in five north state counties.
The ranch takes advantage of the fact that California has an Alpine climate in the northern mountains that produces abundant forage from May to November. The southern portion of the ranch is located in a Mediterranean climate with the green feed starting in November and drying up in May. We transport the cattle with our own truck between the summer and winter ranges, a distance of 100-200 miles. Approximately 50% of the land the cattle graze on is encumbered by conservation easements. These easements enable to do some long range planning and restoration with the resources.
The ranch has a “closed herd” of approximately 1,500 mother cows. We bought our last female in 1975 and the last bull was purchased in 1990. Since that time, we have kept replacement heifers and use artificial insemination and ranch raised clean-up bulls. In addition to the cattle operation, the ranch has a farm with 24 center pivots and produces organic and conventional alfalfa hay, timothy hay, barley, and strawberry nursery plants.
This year the ranch will produce all of our own hay and the majority of the grain used to fatten our cattle. The ranch has its own feed yard with an adjoining USDA federally inspected slaughter plant. We dry-age our beef for two weeks and process our own branded beef product. The meat is individually packaged and labeled in vacuum-sealed bags for retail sale in northern California and the Bay Area. On average we typically market about 1,100 fat cattle per year. The majority of our beef is marketed directly to consumers at Farmers Markets and our retail outlet in the San Francisco Ferry Building.
Q. Your animals are allowed to mature to 16 months or more, why?
A. Certified organic grains are very expensive with prices last winter that were in the $500-$600/ton range. We allow the animals to graze on grass until they weigh 800-1,000 pounds. The animals are moved to the feed yard for 120-180 days and fed a grain ration, which includes a significant amount of chopped forage. We harvest for the cattle at about 1,250-1,300 pounds, live weight, producing a 700-750 pound carcass, with a final cutout of 400-450 pounds of boneless meat.
Another reason for the unique program we have developed is that the Prather Ranch “closed herd” is maintained as a supplier for bovine pharmaceutical raw materials. We sell hides, bones, pituitary glands, tendons, pericardium, etc., for use as raw materials for various medical devices. We are closely monitored and audited by the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA, the EU, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). We operate the ranch under written Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) to comply with ISO standards.
Q. Why is the certified humane label important to the Prather Ranch?
A. The organization, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certifies our herd. We were the third producer to receive their label in the United States. We must meet all the standards and criteria set forth by HFAC, and successfully pass an annual audit. The cattle should be of a certain body condition score, they should be allowed to graze in open pastures, and when in the feed yard, given ample space to exhibit “natural behaviors.” The harvest process must be done in a humane manner so the animals are not under stress.
There are many reasons why we became certified humane. First of all, it is the right way to raise and handle cattle. Gentle handling and humane harvesting will produce a superior product. It will also insure a healthier herd. We have discovered that the consumer considers the certified humane label to be the most important issue when they are shopping for their beef products.
Q. Is certified organic a viable financial option for cattle producers? Can it add to the profitability of the American cattle industry?
A. There is demand for certified organic beef and with our “closed herd” and high standards required for the pharmaceutical companies, it was an easy step to become certified organic for the Prather Ranch. The December 23, 2003 incident of the discovery of BSE in the United States was a defining moment in our business. Prather Ranch beef has been “sold out” for months in advance since that date because of the quality controls that we are required to follow to prevent the possibility of mad cow disease.
As a stand-alone business, raising certified organic beef is financially challenging and can be a bit daunting from a production standpoint. We do treat animals if they are sick and they are removed from our organic program. Organic allows us to use vaccines and we have a rigorous vaccination program. We believe that the best way to prevent disease is to be proactive and have a well-immunized herd. A high level of good nutrition is necessary to ensure good herd health. We do use some holistic methods, such as eye patches for cattle with pink eye.
A number of operations have tried to create large-scale organic programs. It has been difficult to turn a profit with organic beef. Only time will tell if the demand will increase and the production systems will be able to manage costs at a profitable level.