The life of a grass farmer and cattle rancher in Arizona

By: Amy Mattias, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

When Chuck Backus first arrived at his newly acquired ranch in the Superstition Mountains in 1977, the land wasn’t anywhere close to what it is today. Driving out to Quarter Circle U Ranch is driving through a beautiful Arizona desert with cacti and mesquite lining the roads to a backdrop of craggily cliffs. After miles of windy dirt roads, we crossed a cattle guard and the landscape subtly shifts to an undiscerning eye, like most of us in the cohort coming out from ASU’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. To more discerning eyes, like Chuck, his daughter Amy, and their ranch manager, Jordan, the change is profound. Over the last 50 years, Quarter Circle U has been managed in a way that heals abused land, allowing more grasses to grow, more birds to soar, and more native plants to flourish despite the lessening supply of precipitation.

The herd, like the ranchers, follow the lay of the land, using cliff faces as fences and rely upon the native grasses and browse for forage. They use a rest and rotation management plan on their twenty-two square miles of ranchland. The native grasses have come back through the Backus’ management style. When grazing is limited to certain areas at certain times, the plants are allowed to rest and aren’t overgrazed so they grow back stronger and healthier. The better the land is cared for, the higher the stocking rate, which allows for better profits from the same acreage.

The cattle herd is bred to thrive in the ranch’s eco-region to ensure quality meat, mothering genes, and the ability to navigate the steep, rocky terrain of the Superstitions. Finding a breed of cattle that can navigate the terrain of the ranch and produce high quality meat was a major process for the Quarter Circle U team. Over years of genetic searching, observation, and data management, the team settled on a cross between Gelbvieh and Angus, known as a southern balancer breed. To keep their genetic heritage, the ranch primarily relies upon artificial insemination. Calves who are born to cows at this ranch have the genetic knowledge of how to forage and navigate the desert terrain.

The team at Quarter Circle U Ranch do what they can to reduce stress on their herd. Their corral set-up follows guidelines set by Temple Grandin, a world-renowned specialist in animal behavior and livestock handling equipment design. A few years ago, they shifted away from hot branding to a freeze branding technique which allowed them to further capture a premium price for their hides as the freeze brand doesn’t scar the hide like traditional hot branding does.

Chuck and Amy have looked for ways to add value to their cattle operation to offset their costs of innovative management practices while continually improving the health of the land. They started by asking themselves how they could get paid for producing better cows. Their cattle eventually became verified natural beef by IMI Global which ensures no antibiotics or beta-agonists were used in the raising of the cattle. By enhancing these aspects of the operation, Quarter Circle U is able to receive a price premium for their meat. The cattle are fed out in the native scrub habitat and are trucked off to a finishing lot in the Midwest. They maintain ownership of their cattle at the finishing lot and sell to the packer directly. This allows them to keep more of the food dollar of the finished product and ensure the highest quality of meat ends up on the plate of consumers across the country.

The team at Quarter Circle U Ranch are committed to raising quality cattle on healthy land and they achieve it through their dedication. A mixture of data collection and the desire to keep learning allows for the team to get better each season. One morning spent at Quarter Circle U Ranch served as a reminder that working within the boundaries of a landscape is what makes ranching an art.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.