Ranch Diaries: A New Mexico cattle company is born

How we decided to start our own business on the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

 

Note from the editors: This essay marks the first installment of a new hcn.org series to highlight the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider and Sam Ryerson, members of a younger generation of cattle ranchers. Making a living in an industry that faces an ever-evolving host of obstacles like drought, climate changes, political forces, and a volatile cattle market, is challenging. In Ranch Diaries, Schneider will give us a peek into what it’s like to take on those challenges during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. This first installment brings us up to speed with how the author arrived at where she is now.

Laura Jean Schneider and Sam Ryerson, ranchers in southcentral New Mexico.
Since October my husband and I have been living in a solar-powered camper on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation southeast of Ruidoso, New Mexico. We’re managing 1,000 head of cattle on 90,000 acres of leased range. It’s beautiful, wild country, reaching high into the Sacramento Mountains to the west and sloping down to the east in big rolling ridges dotted with juniper. After 30 inches of rain during the last growing season, there’s a strong and diverse forage base.

Our journey here was unconventional, but we’re proud of it. We weren’t ranch kids, or even from the West. Sam’s from Cambridge, Massachusetts and I’m from outside Hinckley, Minnesota. Some people wonder if two people who studied architecture and English have what it takes to run a ranch, but that doesn’t bother us. Like Sam says, everyone’s family came from somewhere else originally.

I had horses growing up. Sam rode a bit back east and occasionally on his uncle’s ranch in New Mexico. By the time we met near Roscoe, Montana, in 2005, he’d found himself a good gelding and was working as a ranch hand; I had spent two years as a dude wrangler. Neither of us intended to be cowboys or ranchers, but once we got started, we couldn’t quit. We had a whole lot of try and some good, patient teachers. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

In 2009, Sam began a ranch management apprenticeship at the San Juan Ranch in Colorado, sponsored by the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit that works to build ecological resilience in Western working landscapes. As he finished the yearlong apprenticeship, he found a management job at Spur Lake Cattle Company, a big new outfit along the Arizona / New Mexico state line. I joined him the following May and we got married on the back porch of our house. A few weeks later, the largest wildfire in Arizona history started burning straight for us. We survived, and in spite of another record-breaking forest fire the following year, prolonged droughts and contagious bovine diseases, we were able to improve the Spur Lake herds’ conception rate and weight gain every year.

By the fall of 2013, we decided it was time for us to try to put our own deal together. In April our friend and current partner, a long-time rancher from Springer, New Mexico, discovered an available pasture lease on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. He introduced us to a few potential partners who have many years of experience in the cattle business, and after drafting a solid business plan, we decided to form an LLC together: Triangle P Cattle Company.  

After five months of negotiating terms, we signed a one-year lease. We put our entire savings on the line and signed two big bank notes to purchase cattle and pay for operating expenses. The company purchased a 320 square-foot camper and we drove it out to the reservation. It’s our home as long as we’re here. Sam and I own a 20 percent stake in the company. We’re the only co-owners on-site; he’s paid a salary as the full-time manager and I help on a part-time basis.

Our camper is over an hour from Ruidoso on dirt roads, and about the same distance from our nearest neighbors at the Tribe’s ranch headquarters, where they run a resident herd of cows. We can look out our west window at Pajarita Mountain and see our geldings and our Jersey milk cow and calf grazing the open pasture to the east. It’s satisfying to ride through cattle branded “Triangle P” on the left rib and know they’re ours.

It’s exciting to build a permanent herd of cows, and given the volatile cattle market, it seems smart to diversify by running commercial yearling cattle as well. One of the biggest benefits to this lease is that the Tribe maintains the complex livestock water system, with dozens of troughs and miles of pipeline. Yet we’re experiencing the challenges many other big, remote ranches face, too: accessibility, maintaining fences and covering a large land area. We work horseback as much as possible—in many cases, the terrain is too rough to navigate any other way—and we usually ride daily to keep our cattle located on the best feed while preventing overgrazing.

These days, we’re getting ready to calve out 500 heifers, supplementing their diet of native grasses with protein blocks and a custom, free-choice loose mineral blend. Any day now, calves should be hitting the ground, but until then, it’s the two of us, working toward our vision of productive, healthy rangelands, good cattle and good horses, trying to make a go of it. 

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Photographs of cattle taken by Laura Jean Schneider at her ranch.