A firsthand look into ranching on tribal lands with Santana Nez

By Mackenize Martinez, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders. 

Santana Nez recently spoke to our Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Cohort during the virtual immersive farm tour held in December, 2020. She provided students with a firsthand look into her experiences as a Native American beef cattle producer.

Santana grew up on a beef cattle ranch on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. She is currently a first-year student in the inaugural class at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine and a part-time rancher. After finishing her M.S in Animal and Biomedical Science from the University of Arizona, Santana knew that she wanted to return home to the Navajo reservation and support her community and the family ranching operation. To aid in that effort, she founded Burning Daylight Consulting, a consulting business that focuses primarily on Tribal agriculture. As a consultant in the Tribal agribusiness sector, Santana supports Tribal producers in various capacities and strives to encourage the next generation of Tribal youth to get involved in agricultural production. After completing her education, Santana plans to move back to northern Arizona to work as a rural veterinarian and continue playing her part in the family ranch.

G Lazy 8 Ranch History

Located on the Colorado Plateau, Santana’s grandparents created the G Lazy 8 Ranch back in the 1960s. What started as a single cow operation has grown to 21 cow/calf pairs and one bull, which nears the maximum stocking rate for their given land base. However, her grandparents did not see themselves as ranchers; they felt more like caretakers of the land. The main goal of the G Lazy 8 ranch remains to produce high-quality cattle and sell them at a price that indicates this quality. As time progressed and the ranch grew, Santana’s family decided to switch from a three-letter brand to a state brand in the late 1970s due to the common stigma at the auction yard that Native-raised cattle were of low quality. Switching to a state brand allowed them to conceal the fact that their animals were Native-produced, thus securing a more favorable price that accurately reflected their cattle's quality and evading any prejudices. While the ranch is not the family’s primary means of income, it is still a valuable source of education and responsibility and is supplemented through diversified income streams. 

Ranching on Navajo Land

Ranching within the boundaries of the Navajo reservation is structured through a permit system. Through this system, producers are allowed to have a set amount of animals per permit, and permits are passed down from generation to generation. Given the Navajo people's history as prominent sheep-herders, the permit system is measured in sheep units. Four sheep units equal one cow, and five sheep units equates to one horse. The permit system is a mechanism that serves to regulate the number of grazing animals on allotments. When operating through an allotted land system, the land is shared by all participants. Interestingly enough, there are no fence lines except for highway fences. Watering holes are shared as well. Ultimately, working together as a community and respecting one another appears to play a major role in ensuring the success of ranching through the permit system on allotted land.

Decision-Making on the Ranch

Santana’s family runs their cattle operation based on numerous key decision-making aspects including management, environmental health, water, herd management, and culture. Their management focuses on setting and accomplishing goals, practicing good record keeping, involving family members, and continuing education. Environmental health is another aspect of their decision-making process. Santana expressed the belief that, essentially, ranchers are grass farmers, and range management and conservation practices play a critical role in ensuring a herd's success. Their top priorities when it comes to environmental health include soil, grass, and biodiversity. Water also plays a critical role in many of the decision-making aspects of Santana's family's ranch. Access to water is very limited and producers need to travel anywhere from 5 to 30 miles one way to haul water back to their operations. This is a very expensive process and accounts for a substantial part of the ranch’s annual budget.

Herd management is one of Santana’s greatest interests. Her chief area of focus encompasses vaccination protocols and ensuring that all of their cattle are vaccinated, healthy, and well-documented. Her main priority is making sure that the herd is healthy and has everything it needs to develop into quality beef products. She accomplishes this by providing preventative care, which saves both time and money in the long run.

The final decision-making aspects of Santana’s family’s ranch is their culture and community. One dream of ranchers in the area is to create a local market for their products. However, slaughter facilities are few and far between, so they experience difficulty getting their animals into USDA inspected processing facilities. Regulatory and consumer safety issues also arise in the storage process. As a result, Navajo producers often market their calves in October or November at a place that makes the most sense for their particular operation and provides them with quality prices. One market that they like to do business with is the Native American Beef Program. This program is based around ranchers on Tribal land and helps provide producers with price premiums. If that particular market is not accessible to them, they sell their animals at the auction yard, where they receive prices are generally lower. Ultimately, producers are commonly forced to sell because they simply do not have sufficient grass to keep their yearlings and grass-finish their cattle onsite.

Cultural values play a significant role in the decision making process. As they run their cattle operation, Santana and her family often reflect upon the Navajo word "hózhó,” which resonates to encompass balance, beauty, and harmony. This word is important to the overall mission of their ranch, which is to take care of everything around you so it can take care of you.

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Santana and Native producers everywhere face a myriad of challenges. Those challenges include limited marketing options, lack of infrastructure necessary to slaughter, process, and sell their beef locally, drought conditions, and lack of inclusion. Despite being members of sovereign Tribal Nations, Native producers are still affected by bureaucratic decisions made at both state and federal levels. Navajo Tribal members, and Native ranchers across all reaches of Indian Country, deserve a seat at the table and voice in those conversations. Native producers also struggle to access many of the beneficial, federally funded conservation and ecological restoration programs due to the complicated status of land ownership on reservations. The regulatory nature of this makes it hard for Native producers to improve their operations, pass their operations forward to the next generation, and purchase land. Feral horses also wreak havoc on grass resources and make caring for the delicate land even more difficult.

Santana gave us a firsthand look into the reality of producing beef cattle on Tribal lands. She spoke of her experiences growing up on a multi-generational cattle ranch on the Navajo reservation. While she left the reservation to pursue higher education, learning of her willingness and desire to return to her home community and serve her fellow ranchers while continuing her family business was certainly inspiring. Santana shared invaluable insight into her family’s decision making aspects and the additional marketing opportunities available for Native American ranchers. When speaking of the hurdles that Native producers face, Santana never hesitated to paint an authentic picture of the hard work that is involved in ranching. Santana strives to be the vessel that gets the next generation involved and prepared to dive headfirst into tackling the ranching industry.