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Ranching in Gila County changing with the environment

Jill Wilson, a fifth generation rancher in Gila County, is a nationally recognized expert in USDA Natural Disasters and Crop Insurance that helps cattle ranchers get through hard times. Photo by LCGross

Ranching in the desert is not easy, particularly as the environment gets drier and weather events more extreme. One year the ground can be seared by desert heat and the next washed away by monsoon floods.

Or as has happened in the wake of the Telegraph fire in 2021, both can happen to deadly effect.

Since drought has become a part of Arizona’s environment, though, modern ranchers must figure it into their business plans alongside the cost of feed and other spending associated with raising cattle.

In order to offset possible losses and hedge their bets, Arizona ranchers are now able to purchase the same insurance that has been available to midwestern farmers for generations.

Natural Disasters and Crop Insurance is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is funded each year through the Farm Bill. Beginning in 2016, pasture, rangelands and forage (PRF) insurance became available to cattle ranchers, whereas it was only available to producers of other types of agricultural commodities before.

“The biggest asset we have isn’t the cattle, it’s the forage on the ground, because if we have no feed, there’s no point to having cattle,” says Farm Bureau Insurance agent and fifth generation Gila County rancher Jill Wilson. “We moderate our cattle numbers based on the amount of forage we have, so we really pay attention to our forage production. The number one contributing factor to that is rain, so this program is basically a rain insurance program.”

The program is overseen by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency and provides a safety net to help keep agricultural producers in business should they experience loss due to a major disaster.

The way it works is that a cattle producer estimates the amount of rain expected for any given time throughout the year. If the amount of rainfall misses the mark and there is not sufficient feed for their animals, insured ranchers have resources to fall back on.

Wilson, who is one of the nation’s leading PRF agents, sells policies ranging in cost from $5,000 to as much as $250,000 a year.

Wilson’s office in downtown Globe reflects her ranching background and southwestern roots. Photo by LCGross

“There is a very hefty premium that goes along with crop insurance, but when needed, it’s very helpful,” she says. “In the years that we have plenty of rain, we have fat happy cows, we have plenty of babies and we sell them when we like. When we don’t use it, we just pay the premium, so it’s got to balance out.”

Wilson says a lot of her work is educating ranchers on the program and helping them efficiently target how much insurance they should get.

Most Gila County ranchers are what’s known as “cow-calf” breeders, who breed cattle and sell the calves off at 10 months to a year old. If all goes well, they are at an optimal weight of about 850-900 pounds and are then sold off to feedlots where they are “finished” and sold to processors for distribution.

Since most of the land in Gila County is federal or state owned—only about 3% is private, according to Wilson—ranchers have to work with government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Department or Bureau of Land Management, to stay in business.

“We deal with the Forest Service and it’s a never-ending challenge,” says local rancher and fourth-generation Globe native Frank DalMolin. “We are trying to be more involved in the process so that we can be part of it, to understand it and interject our experiences and then try to get more favorable outcomes.”

Frank DalMolin’s family has been ranching in the area since 1986 when his father purchased his first ranch after establishing the family in the mining and construction industries. Photo by LCGross

DalMolin’s family has been ranching in the area since 1986 when his father purchased his first ranch after establishing the family in the mining and construction industries. Frank DalMolin’s sons manage Bixby Ranch in the Wheatfields area and they also own a ranch in New Mexico.

Both DalMolin and Wilson agree that the industry is changing and that cattle producers must adapt to a new environmental and business paradigm.

“Just because we’ve always done it the same way doesn’t mean that’s always the right way,” says Wilson. “There’s so much in the way of technology and in understanding our soils, and our microbiology within the soils and how to really make the best use of our ground. Not only for our cattle and livestock, but for the wildlife.”

On the other hand, she believes that ranchers who have worked the land for generations have a more in-depth understanding of the land and can add practical knowledge to efforts to ensure environmental sustainability.

“We’re under attack a lot, but I think if people came and really saw what we do, we would end up with more advocates,” Wilson says. “They’d understand what we do and how we love our animals and how we try to take care of them. There’s some merit to [environmental concerns], but a lot of it’s blown out of proportion.”

DalMolin agrees and for the better part of the past 20 years has worked with the University of Arizona to monitor land use and modify longtime ranching practices for technologies that exist in the 21st century.

Local ranchers are also working to create positive relationships with the Forestry Department and to get involved in the political process to help guide state and federal policy with their input.

“Too many people making decisions live in great big cities and get their beef from the grocery store,” DalMolin says. “The cattle raised in the West feed America and our product today is sought after around the world because we have the best quality beef that’s raised hormone and antibiotic free.”

In order to maximize production, and reduce the impact cattle have on sensitive areas of the forests, DalMolin has adapted his ranching practices and adopted new technologies to manage his herds.

Temporary fencing moves cattle away from overused or fragile lands and changes in the way water is delivered to his animals benefits streambeds and maintains water supplies for wildlife.

Whereas before water was stored in traditional stock water tanks that would draw cattle to a central location, now it is delivered by movable plastic pipes to get even distribution throughout the ranch.

Additionally, he is raising cattle that are eminently suited to arid climates. The hardy breeds are not only drought tolerant, but also bred because of their efficiency in turning forage into weight.

“As an industry, we raise more beef with less numbers and less feed consumption every year, because we’re using genetics to breed cattle that will grow and put on weight better,” DalMolin says. “Feed efficiency is one of the traits you can breed into your herd.”

Chipping cattle also makes it easier to track their growth and to manage herds with the use of the most up-to-date technologies available.

A lot of what modern ranchers do though, is to ensure the survival of an industry that has very low profit margins and is vulnerable to the whims of weather and politics on any given day.

“My goal as a crop insurance agent is to do whatever I can do for my ranchers, to continue the legacy of ranching,” Wilson says. “But also working together with other entities to see what we could do to maybe have more sustainability, long-term in ranching.”

She also wants to see a more equitable distribution of profits as she watches cattle she sells for a few dollars a pound turned into products that sell for 20 times that amount in grocery stores. Wilson believes that can be done by localizing more of the process from beef on the hoof to what is seen on the shelf.

Ultimately, Wilson wants to live in a world where her children and grandchildren pick up the gauntlet and continue to do what her family has done in Gila County for more than 100 years.

“I think ranchers need a stronger voice and the way we do that is by finding more advocates,” she says. “It’s really just about sitting down and having conversations and seeing the actual truth of what’s happening. I tell my kids they’re 2% of the population that feed the entire nation, and we are under attack. At some point, people are going to give up ranching and then how will the country eat?”

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