In the hills near King City, Calif., much of the ranching business is built around a short winter rainy season that — usually — provides enough forage growth for year-round grazing. To make the most of that short window of flush pastures, ranchers adjust the timing of events to work with, rather than against, nature’s cycles.
Bill Whitney manages the Peach Tree Ranch and the nearby Topo Ranch, with each ranch spanning about 45,000 acres and holding about 500 cows. The Peach Tree Ranch began as a Spanish land grant and at one time was part of the sprawling Miller and Lux cattle empire. Today, the Singleton family of Los Angeles owns both ranches.
The location, in the hills just west of California’s Central Valley, is dry much of the year, and the production system is forage-based, with no hay production or supplemental feeding other than minerals. The rainy season typically begins in late November or early December, and, Whitney says, the first rain ideally falls around Thanksgiving Day.
Cows summer on dormant grass supplemented with mineral blocks, and like many California ranchers, Whitney calves the herd in the fall, with heifers scheduled to begin calving on Aug. 15 and cows on Sept. 1. A month before calving, Whitney provides a liquid supplement, which he continues feeding until the grass greens up later in the fall.
Whitney turns bulls in with the cows around Dec. 1. Typically, he says, the cows have lost some body condition through the dry summer, but with green grass becoming available at the time of breeding, they flesh up quickly during the first few months of gestation. The ranch typically achieves a 92 to 93 percent pregnancy rate with natural service.
Timely rains and access to green grass also promote calf growth through the winter. Whitney typically brands calves and administers a round of pre-weaning vaccines around Jan. 1 and markets the calves directly off the cows in June, weighing around 780 pounds. This year, unusually dry conditions in the spring forced him to ship calves early, but they still averaged just over 700 pounds at weaning in March.
Over time, Whitney has developed 12 wells on the Peach Tree Ranch, with miles of pipeline serving 300 water troughs. Every year, he says, he works to install new pipeline and improve the water system on the ranch.
Whitney primarily uses Angus bulls on the Angus-based cow herd, although he has begun using some Hereford bulls to introduce some hybrid vigor in replacement heifers. He purchases bulls from area breeders who raise them on rough country similar to ranch conditions, selecting for good feet and overall durability along with calving ease and other maternal traits. The herd originally was built with Brangus and Beefmaster genetics. Use of Angus bulls has gradually shifted the cow herd toward Angus, but they retain some of their original lineage. Longevity in the cow herd is exceptional, with many 12- to 14-year-old cows still in production.
Each winter, Whitney also grazes 12,000 to 13,000 steers on a gain-based contract for Dave Wood, CEO of the nearby Harris Ranch. He begins receiving the stocker cattle in September and continues shipping in groups through the winter, based on moisture conditions. Most of the stocker steers arrive weighing around 560 pounds, with some groups of Mexican calves coming in at 350 to 450 pounds. Typically, the Peach Tree Ranch will graze about 400 stockers while the Topo Ranch holds about 8,000. The ranches are about the same in acreage, but Whitney says differences in topography, elevation and forage production allow higher stocking rates on the Topo. The steers ship out in May, moving to the Harris Ranch Feedyard, near Coalinga and just about a one-hour haul. Facilities at the Peach Tree Ranch include an old feedlot, which now serves as a shipping and receiving area for calves and stocker cattle.
Rate of gain on the stocker cattle, as with the ranch’s calves, varies from year to year, depending on moisture. Asked to name the one ranching concern that keeps him awake at night, Whitney thinks for a moment, and replies: “When is it going to rain?”