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Veteran cattlemen work on 72,000-acre Arizona ranch
Ohio Correspondent

SONOITA, Ariz. — Mac Donaldson has a herd of about 1,500 cattle in a cow/calf operation on 72,000 acres. Southeast of Tucson, the land is a mix of vast desert grasslands and oak-studded hills connecting several mountain ranges.

About half the land is leased from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is within the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The rest is leased from the state of Arizona and the U.S. Forest Service under USDA.

Three generations of the family derive their living from the land. Mac’s dad, John Donaldson, who at 85 is not too active anymore, started ranching after World War II. Mac’s son, Sam, ranches full-time; and his son, Colton, helps out. Mac, Sam and a hired man do most of the work.

“We breed Angus and Hereford bulls, and we save the replacements out of the Hereford-sired cattle, which we breed predominately to Angus bulls,” Donaldson said. “We have a 1,500-head herd, although now we’re running a little over 1,000 because we’re in a drought.”

The land produces feed for two or three months.

Otherwise it’s dormant - a standing hay crop, Donaldson said.

“The ranch has about 25 distinct soil and vegetation sites,” Donaldson said. “It has one of the most intact sacaton (a type of grass) deltas, a system that exists from Argentina to Canada.”

Sacaton grass will carry four head an acre a year whereas the upland will run about 40 acres to the head, Donaldson said.

“The ranch has 40-50 pastures,” said Donaldson, who has won awards for stewardship of the resources.

“We rest/rotate. We move the cattle all over the ranch as one herd. We might only be using 2,000 acres. That means we’re resting 70,000 acres.”

The ranch is divided into winter, summer and intermediate country, which can be used winter or summer, he said.

Horses move the cattle
It takes some energy to move that many cattle around that much territory and the ranch utilizes horsepower. They have a broodmare band of Quarter Horses and Thoroughbred/Quarter-cross horses.

“We do everything on horseback,” Donaldson said. “We use the truck and trailer to move around, but sometimes we might trot for an hour to get to where we’re going to work.”

At the start of the calving season in April they’ll move the cattle into the sacaton deltas and capitalize on the extra nutrition. They’ll move again when the summer rains come. Calves are weaned in October or November at 450 pounds.

“We could calve earlier, but the spring is tough,” Donaldson said. “The calf is so small it’s not pulling that cow down, and by the time the rains come in late June or July, the grass greens up and their nutrition gets better. Green grass is 15 percent protein. Dry grass is 3 or 4 percent protein.”

It is dry - average rainfall is 13-15 inches - a good year might yield 20 inches, but some years they’ve only had four inches, Donaldson said. A mining company formerly owned some of the land; they drilled and tapped wells.

The ranch put in submersible pumps - with generators, if no power was available. They use dirt tanks. The ranch has windmills but “you can’t depend on windmills with 800-900 head of cattle,” Donaldson said.

The BLM and wildlife
A ranch analyst recently evaluated the operation and suggested getting more use from the feed, but the BLM does not want the land to be overgrazed.

“The government only allows us 30 percent of the yield,” Donaldson said. “The other 70 percent is for the wildlife and the species or the grass to maintain itself.”

That wildlife includes seven threatened or endangered species - birds, bats, fish and frogs, to name a few. Donaldson has to manage around them.

“It gets complicated,” he said.

Every six months Donaldson meets with the agencies responsible for the land and wildlife. If there’s any conflict, they talk about it. “We have a good rapport,” Donaldson said. “If we have a problem like drought, and we have to reduce our numbers, or if forage is good and we want to increase our numbers to create a cash flow, then we can enter in our needs, too.”

The ranch is in the third year of a five-year restructuring plan. Profits are marginal because they’ve bought a lot of replacement heifers that aren’t calving yet and have culled deeply.

“If the prices stay high like they are now, we’re thinking that by 2007, for sure 2008, we’ll be making the kind of money that you can make here,” Donaldson said.

“It takes time to get the whole thing changed around. You have to slowly build it up. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

This farm news was published in the March 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.