Sterling Cattle Company is about family, crew, taking care of the resources, and good cattle
By Robert Fears
Rangeland increases as you drive west of Abilene, Texas on I-20 and it becomes even more pronounced west of Sweetwater. A motorist views miles and miles of short-grass prairie grasses interspersed with mesquite trees, prickly pear and an occasional cotton farm. The land varies between relatively flat, gently rolling, mesas and high hills.
Proceeding west on I-20 from Sweetwater, you reach the little town of Colorado City. About four miles west of town, turn right onto FM 1229 and approximately 18 miles later turn left onto State Highway 350. Eventually, the Sterling Cattle Company ranch gate appears on the right side of the road. A short drive along the ranch road takes you to the headquarters.
The company is a family-operated business and is unique in several ways. Over 90 percent of the land under their management is leased from either individual landowners or University Lands. All leases are long-term allowing Sterling to invest in range improvement, good fences and efficient cattle handling facilities.
Sterling Cattle Company is widely recognized for its land stewardship. On April 1, 2017, they were awarded the 2016 Outstanding Rangeland Steward Award by Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) at the Cattle Raisers convention. The company was also selected by TSCRA and Texas Section Society for Range Management (TSSRM) as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Region IV nominee for the 2017 national Environmental Stewardship Award.
The Sterling family manages rangeland for grass production and wildlife habitat. Deer hunting provides a small percentage of the ranch income. There is a nice spacious hunting lodge on the owned headquarters property complete with deer processing facilities. The hunters are allowed to hunt white tailed deer, feral hogs and coyotes. Habitat is also managed for quail, which are hunted by a different group only in years when they are plentiful. A herd of antelope resides on the ranch, as well.
Grass production is promoted by spraying prickly pear and mesquite on both owned and leased land. Mesquite is also grubbed on certain sites where it is advantageous to dig one plant at a time. This practice allows removal of unwanted plants and leaving those needed for wildlife habitat. Rangeland acquired in poor condition is reseeded to native grasses.
To better manage grazing and to facilitate pasture rotation, Sterling built 20 miles of fence, drilled seven new wells and installed nine miles of pipeline to provide water sources. Range condition is continuously monitored to determine when it is time to move cattle. Moderate stocking rates are utilized to help prevent over-grazing. Working pens are seeded with Bermudagrass to reduce erosion and dust.
Sterling Cattle Company raises certified natural beef that are sold either to HeartBrand® Beef or to Premium Beef and Grain. Natural means that cattle going into these two markets have not been treated with antibiotics nor hormones. In the rare instance Sterling cattle get sick, they are treated with antibiotics, if necessary. Treated cattle are identified with a permanent earmark and are sold at a local livestock market.
For management and accounting purposes, Sterling Akaushi/Angus cattle are either designated as the A herd or B herd. The A herd cattle are selected for raising replacement heifers, bred to Angus bulls and calve in the fall. If these cows miss calving, they are moved to the B herd, provided they have a chance of calving the following year. If they miss a calf the second time, they are culled and sent to market.
The B herd calves in the fall and spring and cows are bred to Akaushi bulls. A 75-day breeding period is used for both herds. Calves are weaned at approximately nine months of age at an average weight of 620 pounds. Steers and culled heifers are sold 45 to 90 days after weaning at 700 to 800 pounds. Replacement heifers are bred at 15 months of age to calve at about 24 months.
Four generations of the Sterling family live on the headquarters ranch. The company was started in 1954 by the late J.M. Sterling. His wife, Lucille lives in a house at company headquarters and continues to participate in ranch decisions and activities. Jimmy Sterling, one of J.M. Sterling’s sons, became interested in the ranch at an early age and worked beside his father taking over the management in 1991. Jimmy’s wife is Theresa, who quickly tells you that her job is to keep everyone fed.
Jimmy and Theresa raised three daughters – Tara, Karen and Laci listed from oldest to youngest. Tara is married to William Renfro and they have a son, Turtle, and a daughter, Rankin. The Renfros primarily manage the headquarters ranch, but participate in the rest of the business as well.
Karen is married to Ryan Rechichar and they also have a son, Ty, and a daughter, Bay. The Rechichars live in San Angelo, Texas, where Ryan is a fireman and Karen is a school counselor. Ryan works 24-hour shifts, which allow him several days each week to work at the ranch. Having no previous experience, Ryan has quickly learned skills of a ranch hand and enjoys it immensely.
Laci and Matt Ritchey are newly-wed and live in Midland, Texas. They are both employed in the oil industry, Laci as an accountant and Matt as a land man.
Observing a branding is an excellent way to learn how the Sterling Cattle Company operates and gain an insight into their principles. Branding calves in the A herd commenced on Saturday, December 2, 2017. The entire Sterling family gathered at headquarters the evening before. Karen and Ryan arrived with their kids in time to help prepare supper. Fajita preparation provided the first glimpse of how well the family works together. Lucille fried the onions, Jimmy grilled the meat, Karen made the guacamole, Theresa heated the tortillas, Ryan diced jalapeno peppers and Tara set the table. No one discussed assignment of tasks. They just filed into the kitchen and started to work in unison.
Jimmy called the group together when the meal was ready and asked Theresa to say the blessing. After everyone swallowed their last bite of fajita, Theresa served chess pie which she had baked earlier in the day (EDITOR: chess pie is an old Southern favorite). About the time the meal was finished, Laci and Matt arrived. During after-supper visiting, the girls related what ranch life means to them.
“I have always known that I want to remain involved with this ranch,” Tara shared. “It is important to me, but family is the most important. All of us are very close and each one of us has a voice in big management decisions. When there is a major decision before us, we hold a formal meeting with everyone in attendance. We each give our opinions, discuss the matter and then vote.”
“Karen and Laci are kept appraised of ranch activities through texting,” Tara continued. “We never discuss confidential business information this way. A typical message from me is: I’m taking a cow to the auction. What are you doing?’’
“I appreciate the opportunity to grow up on the ranch,” said Karen. “It taught me responsibility and helped me develop a good work ethic. Ryan and I will move to the ranch when the time is right. We enjoy ranch life very much and like to be with my family. My sisters are my best friends.”
“I have always enjoyed ranch work,” added Laci. “When I was little, I would sleep in front of Mom and Dad’s bedroom door so he couldn’t leave without me the next morning. At the present, Matt and I are enjoying our marriage and starting a life together. Someday, however, we will become involved in the ranch’s daily activities and probably live at Andrews.”
The next morning, a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and biscuits was served at seven. The family was joined at breakfast by cowhands from some of the Sterling leased ranches. Tim Arrott manages the Fort Chadbourne Ranch at Bronte, Texas and has been with Sterling for 24 years. The others manage ranches at Andrews, Texas – Russell Yates, 12 years at 5 Wells Ranch; Ric Baez, 2.5 years at Horse Camp Ranch and Quentin Jennings, the newcomer with three months tenure at Clabbor Hill Ranch.
After breakfast, the men were bragging about who could grow the biggest beard when Jimmy walked into the room and said, “It’s time to go.” Everyone immediately grabbed their empty plates and utensils, carried them to the sink and then headed for their trucks. Within five minutes or less, a caravan consisting of three pickups towing long goose-neck trailers filled with saddled horses and a pickup carrying the branding iron heater and other equipment headed through the dark foggy morning toward the ranch section where the branding was to take place.
Upon arrival at the working pens horses were unloaded, last minute adjustments were made to the riding gear, and then everyone climbed into their saddles. Jimmy was mounted first and rode through the pens opening all interior gates and one exterior gate.
The riders including Jimmy, the three girls and their husbands, Turtle, Ty and the ranch hands disappeared into the fog. About 30 minutes later, heads of black cattle began appearing at the front of the fog bank. The cows moved quietly into the pens with calves at their sides. There was not any hollering, whooping, cracking of whips or snapping of ropes.
After the last cow/calf pair entered the pens, the riders rode in and divided the cattle into two groups. Then the cows in the first group were separated from their calves. All sorting was done horseback.
Teamwork was again exercised in the unloading and positioning of the branding iron heater, syringes and vaccines in one end of the pen. Each person completed a task without any need for conversation. Tara, Ryan and Matt removed rocks that had worked their way through the soil to avoid injury or bruising of the calves. The sun came out and the fog disappeared about the time branding began.
While a calf was being branded, Laci approached it with a syringe in each hand. One syringe contained 7-way/Somnus vaccine, and the second syringe contained a modified-live virus vaccine for Mannheima haemolytica, one of the viruses that causes shipping fever. Laci quickly administered both vaccines under the skin of the calf’s neck.
“We try not to keep a calf on the ground for more than 10 seconds to reduce stress,” said Jimmy.
To avoid wearing out roping arms, William and Tara worked as a third team in rotation with the other ropers. Lucille and Theresa arrived with Rankin and Bay about 20 minutes after the branding commenced. Theresa is the official photographer for the Sterling Cattle Company and her quality photographs of family and ranch life line the walls of their ranch house.
As Theresa leaned through the fence to take pictures she said, “We like to tell our story to people who don’t have a good understanding of how their food is produced. School children were invited to some of our brandings. We soon learned that it becomes hard to keep the kids separated from the calves, so we built bleachers for them to sit on.”
The observed event occurs in a similar way on many successful ranches. Those who operate these ranches manage the land for sustainability, treat their livestock humanely and provide us with good quality tasty beef. But above all, they love and appreciate their families.