Harmonious Herd
2009-09-29

Story and photo by Jon Lewis -- September 2009 issue --


MACDOEL'S PRATHER RANCH

A National Public Radio reporter was touring Prather Ranch recently and took his recorder into a pasture to capture the sound of cattle mooing. There was only one problem: contented, healthy, relaxed, well-fed cows don’t have anything to moo about.

The failure to provide the requisite sound effects may be the only drawback to life on this idyllic ranch in Butte Valley near the Siskiyou County town of Macdoel. However, that lack of bellowing is music to the ears of ranch managers Jim and Mary Rickert, who place a high value on harmony.

The Rickerts not only want their cows living in harmony, they want ranch employees and the land itself working in harmony. They’re firm believers in the humane treatment of livestock and responsible land stewardship, and the ranch’s livelihood depends on it.

For much of its past, Prather Ranch was a conventional hay and cattle operation, and it remained one when it was purchased in 1964 by Walter Ralphs, the former president of the Ralphs supermarket chain. The Rickerts began their association with Ralphs in 1979 and the three began collaborating on a shared dream to transform the ranch into a model of sustainability, conservation, productivity and environmental sensitivity.

That vision has become a reality. Prather Ranch has long been known for its certified organic dry-aged beef that’s available locally at Kent’s Meats & Groceries in Redding and the Mt. Shasta Supermarket, as well as high-end outlets like the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. It’s also served at finer restaurants, including the popular Moonstone Bistro in Redding and the Woodside Grill at the new Gaia Hotel in Anderson.

And that organic label is not slapped on willy-nilly. The ranch is home to about 3,800 head of cattle that are raised on approximately 40,000 acres of pasture in parts of five counties, including the headquarters in Butte Valley. It has been a closed herd for almost 20 years, with the only outside influences arriving in the form of frozen sperm to ensure genetic diversity.

The cattle spend their summers in the Macdoel and Fall River Valley areas and their winters on the warmer valley floor at wide-open pastures near Bella Vista, Anderson, Williams and Paskenta. The cattle are always isolated from non-Prather herds and graze on grass free of any pesticides or herbicides. To further reduce the risk of contamination, their spring-fed water sources are tested on a regular basis and they are never transported by commercial cattle haulers. Vaccinations, when required, are administered with disposable needles.

Cattle graze on grass and are fed organic hay, oats and barley grown on their 4,000-acre hay farm. They spend their final few months in a spacious feedlot where they’re fed a forage-based blend of chopped hay and barley-protein pellets.

When cattle reach about 1,200 pounds, they are selected for slaughter at the on-site, state-of-the-art facility designed in accordance with the philosophies espoused by Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor considered a national authority on humane animal handling.

From a calf’s first day to the time the packaged beef heads to the market, meticulous records are kept on every cow, charting their lineage, medical history, feeding patterns and more.

“It’s an expensive way to raise cattle,” admits Mary Rickert, but the records are vital to ensuring the ranch is producing the safest, healthiest beef possible. “We know where our cows are on a Saturday night.”

This paid off in a surprising fashion in 1990 when Terry Knapp, a plastic surgeon who used to practice in Redding, approached the Rickerts about providing hides that could be used as the source of pharmaceutical-grade collagen. Specifically, Knapp was looking for hides from an isolated and carefully controlled environment.

That inquiry started the sale of bovine raw materials to pharmaceutical and biomedical device companies that use hides, bones and glands to produce everything from collagen and surgical screws to artificial skin and slings used in hernia repairs.

“There’s nothing like it in the rest of the world,” says Mary Rickert of the ranch’s stature in the emerging pharmaceutical and biomedical research world. Sales add to the ranch’s sustainability, and the practice gives the Rickerts the sense that each of their cows has a higher purpose and even more reason to be treated with respect.

And there’s nothing quite like Prather Ranch beef in the kitchen, says acclaimed chef Che Stedman, who opened his Moonstone Bistro in Redding two years ago.

Stedman visited Prather Ranch recently to prepare a gourmet meal for a party of six. (The dinner was one of the top silent-auction prizes up for bid at the annual Shasta Women’s Refuge Crab Feed. Stedman volunteered his services and the ranch donated the beef.) A gold medal-winning graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Stedman says Prather Ranch beef goes hand-in-hand with his emphasis on regional cuisine prepared with ingredients that are as fresh and local as possible. Stedman proved to be an able ambassador for Prather Ranch, featuring its products in four of the five courses he prepared. •

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Prather Ranch hosted the author for her book