Trailing cattle on the rugged Spider Ranch in Arizona requires patience, respect for the land and weather, and sure-footed horses. It also helps to like cattle.
A heavy, wet spring snow delayed Spider Ranch foreman Gail Steiger and his partner Amy Auker’s cow work by two days. When they finally got their gear and horses to the Cottonwood Canyon area on the ranch, they discovered that an old oak tree had given in to the weight of the snow and fallen on the corrals, creating another delay. It took gail several hours to cut the tree up and drag it out. Then, he and Amy had to repair the damage to the corrals.
Spider Ranch is in Yavapai County, outside Prescott, Arizona. The lowest point on the ranch lies at 3,200 feet in the Sonoran Desert. The country climbs to more than 6,500 feet through the rugged chaparral, where granite boulders and cliffs tower over dense manzanita, and into piñon and juniper forests on mesas of volcanic rock. Three deep canyons that come together in the lower country score the ranch.
That evening, Gail and Amy trailed up a few head of the remnant left behind by the drives they had made the week before. In this region, it is more like hunting cows than gathering them because of the rough terrain and brush-clogged canyons. The cows aren’t hiding, but they are hard to find if you aren’t used to tracking them.
Gail and Amy had planned to gather the remaining cattle from the forest, let them eat and drink in the trap for the night, and then trail them to the branding pen below Smith Mesa, about four miles away. The delays were just part of the game.
If Gail has learned anything for certain about ranching in Arizona’s high desert, it is that he must compromise and let nature take its course. As Amy points out, this country will guarantee that cowboys learn to be flexible. Having worked on the Spider Ranch all but three years since 1981, and as foreman since 1995, mostly solo or with only a couple of other hands, Gail has learned to trail cattle in the rough country. Years spent studying the ranch’s habitat and how the cattle respond to it has led Gail to take a more relaxed approach to ranch management.
“I think the country dictates how you should run an outfit,” Gail says. “I let the land and animals tell me how to manage them, and I am always looking for better ways to handle cattle that don’t stress them.”
On Nature’s Terms
A close friend put the Spider Ranch together in the 1960s, and Gene Polk began to share in the management of the ranch in the mid-1960s and purchased it in 1980.
“Gene loves this ranch as much as we do and is great to work for and with,” Gail says. “He is always willing to listen to a new idea, but he brings more than 50 years of experience out here to the table, too.”
The Spider Ranch is almost 90 sections of both deeded and Forest Service land. The 300-head herd has been built back from a drought in 2002 with Barzona heifers crossed with Brangus bulls. The cows are now all native, raised on the ranch. Native cattle do better in this area because they know what to eat, how to get around on the trails and where to find water.
The ranch is divided into six main pastures and a few smaller ones. The cattle graze a variety of annuals, thistles, cheat grass and native grasses, such as black grama, blue grama and side oats grama. In the winter, they feed on the oak brush, mountain mahogany, ceanothus, and other browse that stays green and tender with winter moisture. Gail and Amy pack in and scatter salt, mineral supplement and protein blocks, but other than that the cattle are pretty much on their own.
“I try to not be in the same pasture during the same growing season for two years in a row,” Gail says. “I think it’s a lot better for the country to let the perennial grasses have a chance to seed at least every other year.”
In the spring, Gail and Amy gather the cows and calves, as well as the pregnant heifers, and bring them into the trap near Cottonwood Canyon. Then they trail them to Smith Mesa and brand all the long-eared calves. The cattle remain on the mesa until mid-July, and are then moved to another pasture according to a rotation agreed upon with the Forest Service.
Gail likes to handle cattle as quietly as possible, gathering and moving them horseback even if that means trotting several hours to get to them. This country is too rough to work on with an ATV, and the roads are hard on pickups and trailers. Other than branding and vaccinating, the cattle experience no processing and never see a chute, rarely the inside of a trailer.
“I try to let them live naturally and torture them as little as possible,” Gail says. “I don’t preg check, [de]worm or de-horn the cattle. I think they need their horns to fight off predators.”
Gail and Amy have developed a slow, steady system that allows just two people to brand the calves, rather than relying on a large crew. Gail ropes each calf by one hind foot, and Amy goes in and ropes the head. She tosses her slack in front of the calf, and Gail drives the calf forward until it steps over the slack. They both dally and gently tip the calf on its side. Gail gets off his horse, puts a tie string around both hind legs, and then puts Amy’s rope on the calf’s front feet. He works the calf while Amy stays dallied, keeping the ropes tight.
“I think heading the calves first is harder on them,” Gail explains. “They are choking and ‘windmilling’ [spinning] around, making the heel shot harder. When we rope a hind leg first, they can still see their mamas without choking, and it is much easier to head them as we drag them toward the fire.”
You can read the whole story of the Spider Ranch in the March 2012 Western Horseman.