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Unique grass-fed beef operation using rangeland

Idaho ranch trains summer interns, protects cattle from wolves.

6 Min Read
Cattle on range
Ranchers Caryl and Glenn Elzinga have a range permit in the mountains near May, Idaho, where they can pasture several hundred yearlings.Melanie Elzinga

Caryl and Glenn Elzinga started a direct-market grass-fed beef business on a small ranch near Tendoy, Idaho in 1987. They started small and grew their herd to meet the demand. When it grew to the point they were renting more than a dozen small places for pasture they found a larger ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley near May, Idaho, with a range permit in the mountains where they could pasture several hundred yearlings. 

They moved their family (seven daughters) and cattle operation in 2004. They were able to make it work by partnering with the Nature Conservancy—which made it more affordable.

“We’ve taken a relatively small operation and created a larger source of income that is sustainable for the family. We can keep our kids employed at a decent wage and also provide jobs,” Caryl Elzinga says. 

They have five full-time non-family employees and in summer hire two temporary people. They also run an internship program, bringing in young people for three to five weeks to ride and help take care of the cattle.

“This is a fun way to get an introduction to ranching,” she says. “It’s more attractive to beginners than giving them a shovel to dig post holes or irrigation ditches. “Our interns start coming in late May. We’ve been running this program for 18 years. Some kids come with no background with livestock or any kind of agriculture; they just want to do something like this.”

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She and Glenn saw this need, since many kids who grow up on ranches want to do something else, partly because it’s hard to make a living raising cattle.

Training new ranchers

“We need new people coming into this industry. We get a lot of urban kids and most of them go on to do some form of agriculture. That’s nice to see, but we also get some that become doctors or lawyers—and we’ve given them a background in knowing where their beef comes from,” she explains.

The internship program is a lot of work, but she feels it’s worthwhile. “This year we’ve switched it up so we can offer it to more people,” Elzinga says. “These folks need to work for a living; some have full-time jobs and can’t afford to take off a whole summer, but they want to learn from us. We created a program where they can do three weeks or five weeks. They go up on the range for a week at a time then come back to the ranch for a few days to do some things around the ranch.

“This work may be a little less glamourous, like helping with rotational grazing,” she says. The cow-calf pairs stay home on irrigated pasture and the yearlings go to the range.

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“We have a curriculum regarding what we want the interns to learn,” Elzinga says. “On the range they learn horsemanship skills and stockmanship, but also some range ecology. They need to understand that these vast western ranges aren’t just ‘waste’ ground that can’t be farmed; they are valuable and nutritious for cattle. We teach them a little about plants, appropriate grazing of these semi-arid rangelands and how we can improve them with proper cattle management.

“Our hope is that when they leave, they want to continue learning,” she says. “The internship program is popular. Last year we had almost 500 applicants and this year 700. This new generation of kids are hungry to get out and do something real.”

Their oldest daughter Melanie and third oldest, Linnea, along with help from their two youngest daughters, Annie and Maddy, and Maddy’s husband Wesley run the intern program. “They get the horses ready, and make sure the interns stay safe, and learning,” Elzinga says.

Cattle on the range

The way their ranch runs cattle is different than a traditional BLM or Forest Service permit. 

“Glenn and I can plan where we want the cattle to be,” Elzinga says. “We have complete control over where our cattle graze, unlike most BLM or Forest Service allotments. Most of our riparian areas have not been grazed in the past 10 years. We’ve had beavers come in, and their dams store water. We have a private inholding in the middle of the range, and it always used to dry up in late summer. Now we have water there in the fall. As the cattle come down from the mountains we can leave them there two weeks to graze, and they have water—whereas in the past it was dry.”

Related:Brothers seek advice on expanding dairy-beef operation

On the range, the cattle are kept together in one big herd, as protection against wolves. “We had a 6% loss one year, which is really big for us. These were yearlings—the ones we were going to sell in the fall as beef—so it was a big hit on our profit. We’re struggling, because everything we do has to make a little money so we can survive.”

The next year, they discovered that wolves had a den and pups where they were going to turn out. “We kept the cattle home that year.  We had enough grass at home, and bought a little extra hay and it worked, but spent that whole year trying to figure out how we could use the range without losing cattle. Glenn and I decided to have people out there living with the cattle.”

They didn’t know if they could keep the cattle together or if this would keep the wolves out of them. “That year we only took out 200 head. It was successful; every animal came home. We didn’t lose any to poison, wolves or sickness because we were right there and could take care of them right away,” she explains.

“We run a cow camp and yard the cattle near camp at night, kept together as a single herd with riders there at all times,” she says. “In the morning we take them to the best grass, take them to water to drink--portable water troughs we set up--then to more good grass, then bring them back to camp at night. We’ve had wolves around camp; we hear them, but they don’t come on in.  We have 2-strand electric fence around the cattle while they are yarded up at night.”

Remaining wary

With hunting allowed now, wolves are more wary. “We have fewer issues than we did earlier,” Elzinga says. “They don’t come as close. People assume that since we don’t have as much wolf pressure we can stop living with the cattle, but there are many benefits; we no longer lose any cattle and can also recover the riparian areas and get better weight gain on the cattle.

“Our business is growing grass, and running it through a saleable product, which is our cattle,” she says. “If we are not efficiently using that grass, we are not making money, or not as much as we could. We found that by doing the herding, and running yearlings (keeping the cows and calves home) we can bring them to the best grass. We can’t get the gain they’d get on irrigated meadows, but last year, the yearlings averaged 1.7 pounds per day. This year we are shooting for 2 pounds per day.”

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