Old-school cattle ranching on the O RO is a trip back in time
YAVAPAI COUNTY - The O RO Ranch of 2011 doesn't look or operate a whole lot differently than it did in the 1930s, and that's a rarity in today's cattle business.
The ranch (pronounced "Oh Are Oh") is a massive concern. At 257,000 acres, divided into two parcels, it is one of the largest ranches in the country composed entirely of private land. That's unusual, too, since most cattle operations lease government land and graze their livestock there. The O RO encompasses about 400 square miles of very remote, rough, rocky - and beautiful - land about 45 miles northwest of Prescott.
A Bit of History
Back in 1821, a Spanish citizen named Luis Maria de Baca asked for, and was granted, a half-million acres of land near Los Alamos, N.M., for his service to the Spanish government. It was only a short time later that Indians drove the family off the land.
When Mexico declared itself independent from Spain, some Mexicans moved onto the abandoned de Baca property. In 1854, the U.S. government annexed the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, and agreed that those settlers were the de facto owners of the land.
But in 1856, the de Baca family asserted their right to the land, and the U.S. government was in a pickle, because it had allowed American citizens to settle there as well.
So, in an effort to protect everyone's interests, the government let the de Baca family choose five new parcels of about 100,000 acres each if they would leave the New Mexico property to the new settlers.
The one they chose in Arizona became the O RO Ranch. Several transactions later, in 1936, the property was owned by the Greene Cattle Company, founded by Colonel William Cornell Greene. This was a massive cattle empire with land in both the U.S. and Mexico.
Believing the Mexican government might try to take back the land, the company bought the neighboring 157,000-acre Mahon Ranch. That never happened, but the ranch still encompasses the full 257,000 acres.
Since 1973, the O RO has been a property of the JJJ Corporation. JJJ, by the way, is not some multinational corporation - it's a family business, and stands for Jack, Jane and John, the Irwins who currently run the operation.
The horses on the O RO come from a long line of top ranching stock; they trace their lineage back to Greene's Cananea Cattle Company. Greene, according to reports of the time, ran 3,000 horses on his ranch. When, in 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association was started, AQHA registered 250 of his best.
The O RO is unusual because, although it is a full-time cattle-raising operation, nearly all the work is done as it was decades ago - on horseback. That's not because the owners are Luddites; the rocky terrain and heavy cover make ATVs and helicopters impractical.
Besides, as Jane Irwin Droppa said, "Being in the Southwest, if you run over this grass with a four-wheeler, you'll kill it pretty quick."
Jane is one of the Js in the company's name. She's a corporate director, but ranch manager Wayne Word calls her "the boss."
Droppa said the horses in the O RO remuda are tough, and born and bred to work in this rough country.
O RO cowboys live in tents, on the range with the cattle and their horses. That, too, has a practical reason. "If you have a lot of country to cover, you can't waste time (going back and forth between headquarters)," Droppa said. "You want to start early because you want to get to the cattle before they water in the morning."
They eat meals from a chuckwagon, which in this case, is an old military truck.
As for the number of cattle on the O RO, well, it's considered bad etiquette to ask. But Droppa will say that they are "down in numbers because of the drought," which has been a 14-year trend with less rain, she said.
Business has been "okay" in the cattle industry, she said, with prices reasonably good. The O RO sends yearling steers to feedlots, and the prices are based on how much those lots want to pay for grass-fed beef.
A Cowboy's Life
Joel Maloney, 26, is in his third year as a cowboy on the O RO.
"Best job in the world - that's why we do it," he says. "Definitely not for the money."
Maloney enjoys the way the O RO runs its operation. Working cattle on horseback creates "a connection between you and your horse and your cows." It's a game of strategy for him.
"Knowing what your cow is thinking before she actually thinks it," is Maloney's goal.
He says he plans to work cattle for the rest of his life, and seems very happy with that future.
Today, he's taking part in a clinic taught by cattle expert Brian Newberg. The ranch's cowboys are all here, in an arena, watching, listening, and then trying out what they've been taught on a small herd of calves. It's a sort of a continuing education program for experienced cowboys.
Make no mistake, Maloney's no starry-eyed romantic when it comes to working cattle this way. There are days "where you get really frustrated, and nothing really works out right, and you wonder what the hell you're out here for," he says, with a smile.
"Out here, because the country's so rough, it really determines how easy or hard your job's going to be," he says. It takes "tough horses that were raised in the rocks" to handle the daily routine. Typically, the job is tiring enough that, when the cowboys come into camp for lunch, they swap out their mounts for new, fresh ones.
"It's not easy," he says. "If it was easy, everybody would do it."