In 2010, Dr. Therese Griffin Hicks’ long-time chiropractic office flooded. She calls it “one of those divine things.” The flood was just one of the challenges that she met head-on to become co-creator and owner of the innovative Universal Cattle Guards.
“It was time for a shift,” she explains. She had been in healthcare for decades and the flood provided her time to pause and re-group. Griffin Hicks never had any plans to become an entrepreneur, “but I had to do something,” she says.
There are five generations of the Griffin family who have been ranching in Gila County since 1905. The Griffins have maintained their current ranch on Highway 60 since the 1920s. Griffin Hicks knows cattle.
The concept for the Universal Cattle Guard originated in Fall of 2009, during hunting season. Numerous gates were left open on the ranch, allowing cattle to roam into five or six pastures, rather than the one they were intended to occupy.
“It’s a huge challenge for ranchers to be good stewards on public lands,” says Griffin Hicks. She explains that one of their most important tools for good stewardship is rotational grazing. That is, controlling the location and duration of where cattle are allowed to graze. The majority of folks using public lands do so responsibly, but as Griffin Hicks says, “there’s a handful of people who will abuse anything.” Something as small as leaving open a gate on a ranch road can disrupt the system of rotation and has the potential to create a negative environment impact.
Although traditional cattle guards can be a solution for maintaining rotational grazing, as Griffin Hicks explains, they come with their own set of drawbacks. The big disadvantage is that they’re not portable. A rancher typically only wants a cattle guard in any given location for a month or two per year. Once they’re in the ground, they’re not only permanent, but property of the federal government. They’re also expensive. On top of that, Griffin Hicks points to the high levels of environmental, biological, and ecological clearance required for building anything on public land. All these factors make traditional cattle guards both costly and time consuming, according to Griffin Hicks.
Griffin Hicks and her Oklahoma partner saw a need for a portable option that was a better investment for ranchers because it could be re-used. The Universal Cattle Guard meets that need. The design is portable, doesn’t require a pit to be dug, as the traditional guards do, and is more cost effective for ranchers because the guard can be rotated along with the cattle. In addition, it is load rated 32,000 pounds per axle so can accommodate semi-trucks.
Griffin Hicks spent a couple years testing and modifying the guards, which can be pulled into place and installed using a pick-up truck. She tried baiting the cattle across the guards using hay and incorporated feedback from area ranchers who were already using the product. Then, she got it in front of all the right people. Griffin Hicks admits to loving the marketing side of her business– talking to people, getting them to pay attention to her product. After gaining the approval of local and regional Forest Service officials, she took the Universal Cattle Guard all the way to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service at the national level in Washington DC as well as the Forest Service National Engineer, and got their blessing. “It works as well as any other cattle guard out there,” says Griffin Hicks.
Earlier this year, Griffin Hicks and the Universal Cattle Guard won the Texas Rural Challenge Governor’s Small Business Award, presented by the first lady of Texas, Cecilia Abbott. “I never thought about winning the thing,” says Griffin Hicks “I just thought it would be good exposure to the Texas market. My daughter and son-in-law (Jill and Joe Wilson) were instrumental in creating displays, accompanying me to Texas for the event, and really are the ones who made it happen. I have awesome support!”
Griffin Hicks partly credits her success to building on a network that she already had. She is a past president of the Gila County Cattle Growers and is currently the vice chair for federal lands for the Arizona Cattle Growers Association and the Arizona Cattle Growers Public Lands Council Representative. She also says that the online business networking site LinkedIn was “vastly valuable” in connecting with potential customers.
“I continue to just give it a go and try the next thing,” says Griffin Hicks, who is looking to expand fabrication and distribution as well as broaden her market reach by connecting with those involved in oil, gas, and tower construction.
“I love seeing people’s surprise at how well it works,” says Griffin Hicks.
Visit http://www.cattleguard.info/ to learn more about the Universal Cattle Guard.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.