A conversation with Dan Russell Ranch Manager, Hearst Ranch.
We were thrilled and surprised to find that the folks at Hearst Ranch speak so highly of Kuranda beds. We didn’t really know how much dogs are a part of a cowboy’s life.
A visit to Hearst Ranch is like a step back in time to the 1860’s where cowboys on horseback herd their cattle. For over 150 years the Hearst family has raised cattle on 83,000 acres of rich sustainable native grasslands on California’s Central Coast.
Kuranda: Is the summer a busy time of year?
Hearst Ranch: It's busy right now. We're just getting to the end of weaning all of our calves, gathering everything off to the headquarters and different facilities and pulling the calves off of the cow. We're a little bit late this year because of the heavy rains we had. Usually we get three weeks break between weaning and starting to calve again. We kind of overlapped this year just because of the heavy winter we had. We already started calving about two weeks ago. The calving is always the same time of year, but usually we have things weaned and cleaned up. With the rain we had, we had tough access to the facilities all over the ranch.
The roads were damaged so badly that we had trouble getting in. There's 300 miles of road on the ranch, so it took us a while to get things cleaned up. Normally we get 28 inches of rain as our average rainfall and we had just over 100 inches this year. We needed it of course, but it definitely did some damage.
Kuranda: Do you rely on the water from the Colorado River at your ranch?
Hearst Ranch: We're pretty much just coastal. Our runoff is collected in earthen dams and then we have most of our ranches run on natural Springs that come out of the hillside. We do have some wells in our lower grounds and they'll range anywhere from five gallons a minute to some that will produce up to a thousand gallons a minute. The majority of our ranches run off of natural springs. What we do with that is we'll get it to a holding tank. We'll use solar lift stations and I would say probably 50%, 60% of our cattle water is developed with a solar lift to another area where we don't have any water, which is very, very handy. It's amazing what solar can do these days. Usually on a good sunny day we can pump anywhere from 1,200 to 1,700 gallons a day just by the sun.
Kuranda: How many cattle do you have on your ranch?
Hearst Ranch: In a year like this 2,500 to 2,800 head. If it's a drought year the numbers go down a little bit, but we always try to run at least 1,500-1,800 bred animals a year. It's a large farm, 100 head of bulls and anywhere from 150 to 250 head of replacement heifers a year. It's just a very large cattle operation. The ranch is 83,000 acres, which is 168 square miles, so our job as cowboys and ranchers is a little tougher on this ranch just because it's really spread out and it's really rough terrain. Probably 45% of it is good cattle grazing ground. You have to go through that rockier nastier stuff to get to better country and most of that's on horseback with your dogs.
Kuranda: Is going on horseback and herding with dogs that common on cattle ranches these days?
Hearst Ranch: Well, in our terrain you don't have much choice because you can't take a four wheeler around the side of a hill. Ranches have gotten smaller. Big ranches have been cut up into smaller stuff, so it's easier ground. You'll see more people use four wheelers and dogs instead of getting on horseback and if it's small and you got a lot of fence, it's a lot quicker and more efficient.
"In our world and where our ranches are, you need to be on horseback to be able to help our dogs get around the cattle and get up and down through canyons and whatnot, so you’ve got to be there to help your dogs along the way or things are going get out of hand."
Kuranda: There's two things you said that that struck me. One is about dogs, the other is that ranches have gotten smaller. Is that true with cattle ranches in general or just in your region?
Hearst Ranch: No, I think it's cattle farming in general. I think that, like I said before, a lot of things have been cut up due to development. Big ranches [are] not able to sustain. Things are condensed and if it's in easier country, you don't need all the infrastructure of having a big operation like this because it's a lot smaller. You usually have more fence and smaller pastures, so it makes it easier to do things quickly.
"…Ours is a little bit more slow and thought out because of the terrain and the distances that we have to go. We’ve got to drive cattle a long ways from facility to facility so it takes days on end to get there."
The cool thing about our operation is we raise grass fed beef, born and grown right here on our ranches and then we sell to Whole Foods. We supply 36 different stores in Southern California and we're seasonal. We run about 35 to 40 truckloads to Whole Foods. There's no antibiotics, no steroids, no hormones. Our cattle are grass fed and we raise them to 1300 pounds.
Kuranda: Is the common way of herding cattle, still using dogs?
Hearst Ranch: Oh, of course. Dogs are just so much easier and cattle respect them. When we wean the heifers, we check their DNA to decide which heifers we want to keep to breed back to replace our cows as they age out.
Hearst Ranch: Even when those calves are young, we use our dogs on them and get them broke to where those young animals respect the dog. That way as they go on in life, they learn to respect, and learn what we're asking them to do because we don't want it to be a hard day. We want it to be an easy day. When we have to go out there and gather that cow, when she's four and five, six years old, we don't want her to get mad or anything and run off and run and hide behind a bush or try and take her calf somewhere. She knows when the cowboys and the dogs come, to put them on a trail or a road to a destination where we're headed and we just kind of shadow box them along the way. When those cows learn how to respect a dog, it makes everybody's life much easier.
Kuranda: I would think the cows actually may recognize an experienced dog versus an inexperienced dog.
Hearst Ranch: Oh, a hundred percent. They truly know if you don't have any dogs with you and you only have you and your horse.
I'm a little off subject, but if you go onto YouTube and look up California Rangeland Trust, you'll see some interviews that are done on the Hearst Ranch and it starts out with a big panoramic of the ocean. then the chairman of the California Rangeland Trust comes on and they interview ranchers up and down the coast that have gone into the Rangeland Trust. Mr. Hearst gives a great interview and it shows us working and our dogs and holding some cattle. It kind of shows what our ranch is and what we do. Actually, they're coming out with with a whole new documentary about us that we shot at last February that should be coming out anytime.
Kuranda: We love the story here about the dogs of Hearst Ranch.
Hearst Ranch: You know, we are so proud of our dogs and what they do. The joke around here is, is if we could train the dogs to feed themselves and open the gates, the cowboys wouldn't be needed as much. They truly do 60% of our daily work when we're herding cattle. You gotta give some respect to the horse and the cowboy, but honestly, we're very, very proud of our dogs.
“And you know, with these (Kuranda) beds, I tell you, it's made a big difference.”
Hearst Ranch: I'm the ranch manager and I have four full time cowboys. They all have their own set of dogs. I told the boys that I was having an interview with you and asked for comments or anything about the beds, and their biggest thing was that they've noticed that their dogs, on those long, hard days…we start gathering in May and we're usually done by the middle of July and (this year) we went three or four weeks later. That's a long run for those dogs and you're talking 45-50 dogs. For them to go get a good night's rest and recover and and rest up, it definitely makes a difference. We've noticed that especially in our dogs that are aging, their hips, that's the powerhouse of the dog, they get sore. They're going every day and and we trade them out and all that but still, months and months on end they get sore and for them to get a good night's sleep, we've really noticed the difference. The dogs are feeling better the next morning. So kudos to you on that. There's no comparison. We've talked about it extensively and normally we have either rubber mats or some sort of an elevated bed with a rubber mat or a barrel back to our cabins that we live in but still it doesn't compare to them laying on that (Kuranda bed) yeah there's a big difference. All I can say is they feel better.
Kuranda: Do you keep most of the dogs in the kennels or are some of them kept in the Cowboys homes?
Hearst Ranch: Well everybody has their own kennels at their homes; everybody has their own facility. We do that for multiple reasons. My dogs don't work for Ryan or Derek or Chris. I can't run his dogs and he can't run my dogs, so when we're out riding on this massive mountain my dogs stay with me, his dogs stay with him. Now they'll all work together if need be but when I whistle, my dogs come to me his dogs go to him and vice versa. So everybody takes care of their own dogs, their own doctoring. We don't have one big common facility.
The ones that start to get aged out, they just hang out at the house with us. Once they become retired, they usually just kind of hang around the house with us. They're not in kennels, but our working dogs all stay in kennels, because they want to work. They'll slip off on you and be working when they shouldn't be.
We have a lot of exotic and wild animals here so we don't like them chasing them. We keep them locked up so they're not out causing mischief at night. They're saving their energy for work the next day. Also, dogs are known to actually be calmer in an environment like that rather than let loose. They learn that this is their home, this is their spot, and we keep isolation panels in between them.
Kuranda: Tell me about how you train your dogs.
Hearst Ranch: They enjoy going to training and working and as they grow up through their puppy life and become teenagers and… “Hey, I get to go out and do my thing!”. Then as they graduate into working dogs, they want to come home and rest in their own little deal, have their own water, their own food, relax, take a nap. You know, they become pretty individual themselves. They want their own relaxation. They're very territorial on their own spot.
Kuranda: What breed of dogs are they?
Hearst Ranch: Mostly Border Collie. We do have some mixes with primarily Border Collie, but then we'll have McNabb, Black Mouth Cur, a little bit of hound. Catahoula has been introduced. We all have a dog that's a little bit more aggressive with a little bit bite and bark. Those are the ones we call our catch dogs. So if cattle are taking off and you need to get them stopped, we'll send those dogs and they'll get them stopped. Then we'll use different dogs when you're moving, you know, cows with baby calves, you don't want a lot of bark. You don't want a lot of aggressive dogs because those cows are protective of their calf and they’ll want to just turn around and fight. You want dogs that are very soft, very quiet. You can lay them down when you want. They're just there to kind of help shadow box. We have different dogs for different situations. You learn that as you're raising them as puppies where they're going to fit into the squad. Is it going to be a lead catch dog? Is it going to be a lead dog that's quiet, or is it going to be a dog that can kind of work by itself, or is it a dog that you're going to work in a pack of four or five?
Kuranda: How many dogs do you have?
Hearst Ranch: I have six.
Kuranda: How many do you work in a day on a typical day?
Hearst Ranch: If I'm going out, they all get worked.
Kuranda: Will your cowboys send out all their dogs each day?
Hearst Ranch: They have more (dogs) than I do. They probably average ten to twelve apiece, sometimes more. They'll rotate a little bit more. Because I'm the manager, I'm not out there five days a week.
I'm out there three days a week, but I always take my dogs at night and take them for a run and work 'em. You know, circle up some cows or something and let them get their yah-yahs out. Yeah, and it's more so once you've got older dogs, it's more about getting them out and letting them have their exercise and then work them on the working days. My dogs go out every single day. They're never locked in their kennel. Unless I'm out of town or something, they're always out. Yeah, but then my dogs are so tired, they'll come out and lay on the lawn and hang out with me.
Kuranda: How many cowboys do you have on the ranch?
Hearst Ranch: Four underneath me. So there's five full-time cowboys.
Kuranda: For all that property, to have four full-time cowboys then yourself, you’ve got your hands full. That's a lot of work.
Hearst Ranch: It's a monster for sure, yes. It's a very, very busy place.
Kuranda: How did you end up where you are now?
Hearst Ranch: Well, so backing up prior to my hire here, I was born and raised on a big cattle ranch in San Luis Obispo County. I was born and raised in San Luis County, but I lived on the Chimenez Ranch, which was 55,000 acres. My father ran that for 15 years. Then as I graduated from high school. I was involved in high school rodeo. I was a national champion steer wrestler which kind of paved my way through college. Then I went on to Cal Poly studying animal science and ag (agricultural) business and rodeoed. I turned professional while I was in college and got to travel all over the United States, Canada, Japan, doing the rodeo thing. We had our own bucking horses. My father sold a lot of horses to the Japanese, so I was flying horses to Japan when I was 19 years old and doing shows over there. After college and the whole professional rodeo scene, I went to work in the construction business. I had my civil license, all dirt work, underground, no vertical construction at all, did that for 25 years. While I was doing that, I always had pasture cattle and horses and team roped and showed.
Twelve, thirteen years ago, I was really getting tired of running crews out of town and the whole construction game and was looking for a different avenue in life. Lo and behold, I got invited to a couple of brandings at the Hearst Ranch. At that time, they were looking for a new manager to replace Cliff because he was getting ready to retire. There was already 162 people that had applied. They were getting ready to decide to pick a couple of people. Long story short, they invited me back to another branding and pulled me aside and said, "We would really like to interview you for this position, would you be interested?" So I thought about it, [and], went ahead and interviewed and lo and behold, I was picking up the lucky straw. I was picked out of 160 people for the position.
Kuranda: That's gotta be one of the choice jobs in the entire industry.
Hearst Ranch: It really is. I mean, I'm not bragging because I get to sit here, but it is a very prestigious place to work just because what this ranch is and where it is on the globe. It's one of the prettiest places you'll ever see on earth and also work for a very prestigious outfit. The Hearst family is second to none. They're amazing people; what they do, who they are, even being billionaires, what they give back, most people have no idea.
I can brag. In our local community, and even statewide, the guys that work underneath me are A plus dog men. They are the best of the best.
Kuranda: Do each of you train your own dogs?
Hearst Ranch: Yes, sir.
Kuranda: How do you train them?
80% of it is the instinct and the breeding genetics. We start them out young, start them out working on goats.
Hearst Ranch: We put them in real small pens to get their confidence up and then we'll have some different pens where we have cori ante cattle that are smaller and as they get older being a little over a year, year and a half, we'll start working them on the rope and steers on the Corriente cattle and then they’ll start going out on little excursion with those older dogs. They learn by running with a pack. When a cowboy goes out, he doesn't go with one dog. He goes with four or five. Those younger dogs will learn by staying with the pack and then as they mature and move on, like I was explaining before, they're going to be a lead dog if they want to be an aggressive dog and get out to the front and bark and bite, or they're just going to kind of get there and hold and be quiet. That's how they mature and move on to where they're going to be in the squad.
Kuranda: Working with the horses and the dogs the way you do, you must develop a real affection for both.
Hearst Ranch: Oh, well, they're our family. They're our life. I don't like to use the word tools because we all work together, but they are a massive part of what we do. The sad part about all of it is we all age out. It's always when you start working really good with your mature dogs and everything's just like a no brainer. They know where to be, you know where to be. There's no mistakes. Everything works smooth. It's sad days when things get older, you know?
Kuranda: Do you breed your own dogs?
Hearst Ranch: Yeah, we pretty much breed our own. Every once in a while, we'll step out and buy something a little different, or sometimes my guys will trade back and forth with other cowboys in the local area if we like a female or a male and want to mix.
Kuranda: Tell us about the California Rangeland Trust
Hearst Ranch: This documentary was done by my my cousin Chris Malloy. It shows a little bit about us and you'll get to see Steve Hearst explaining what conservation means to us and why this ranch is what it is. It's worth the seven-minute watch, put it that way.
I'm right at the beginning of it. I'm the guy that runs the horses in and then you'll see a close-up of me saddle up my horse in a barn alley, then you'll see me out gathering cattle with the guys. I'm riding that kind of a light red mare (with a) real fancy looking main and tail, and Ryan, my main cowboy is on a grey horse.
Visit the Hearst Ranch Website to learn more.