Between 1991 and 2001 Joan Bybee purchased land near Punta de Agua, New Mexico, leading to the establishment of the 887-acre Mesteño Draw Ranch. In 2012 she purchased additional grazing land in the Estancia Valley to bring her total to 1,370 acres on which she now has 12 pastures and runs 14 cows with a bull. When she originally purchased her land it was a monoculture of blue grama. Now there is a big increase in cool season grasses including western Wheatgrass.
Every pasture now has Spike muhly, which, along with wolf tail grass, has gone from rare to abundant. Joan has also seen the threeawn retreat with more vine mesquite and New Mexico feather grass coming in. And while she has always had galleta, it is now more abundant as is the side oats grama. Not only does this increased diversity and production improve her calves’ live weight, but she is now also seeing pronghorn antelope and elk on her property for the first time.
Mesteño Draw runs through the ranch and Joan worked with the Quivira Coalition and US Fish and Wildlife to install rock dams and other structures to slow the water, create a meander in the watercourse, and capture sediment to improve this important riparian area that is habitat for coyote willows, bluestem willows, white oak and Gambel’s oaks.
Joan readily admits she didn’t start with a good baseline monitoring of her grasses. “I had a lot of grasses like ring muhly, poverty three awn, and blue grama,” says Joan. “I also had a little Western wheatgrass and squirreltail. But, my growing season has changed so now I have green stuff from the beginning of March through half of October. That’s an extra month of grazing. I also have happy cows as they love to go to a new pasture. I can tell when they want to go. We only graze a paddock two to three weeks and we try to only graze a pasture once during the growing season so that’s four to 12 months of recovery.”
When Joan first owned the property she leased her land and insisted that the lessee move the cattle every 28 days. At this point, she had already created six pastures with the help of the NRCS. Then Joan started her herd in 2007 with only six or eight cows. Managed grazing helped to increase ground cover. Then in 2011 she enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program and started monitoring her grasses more formally.
In 2017, she noticed a big shift in improved production. At that point she had started using temporary fencing so she could create three more pastures. Even with the increased acreage in 2012 and increased paddocks, Joan has kept a low stocking rate because she is concerned about the health of land.
Because of the increased forage production and diversity, Joan has seen her live weight for bull calves increase by 100 pounds from 2014 to 2020 and 64 pounds for heifer calves for a 14% gain in live weight. She tries to get her bull calves to 700 pounds by eight months.
While Joan’s primary career was being a linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico, ranching was in her background. Joan’s maternal grandfather was a rancher in Texas, so she had a ranch to visit when she was a child. Joan helped with the round ups and always wanted a ranch but she never thought she would have one.
“I did like the idea of a place to go to get out of town,” says Joan. “So I acquired this land in pieces and became acquainted with Holistic Management in 2001 and with the Quivira Coalition. Then I got some cattle. I had already decided I wanted to improve the land, then I found out that grassfed beef was good for you. I was friends with Kirk and Tamara Gadzia who encouraged me and I was also inspired by the Ranney Ranch, who helped me understand more about when to take the animals for slaughter. Through them I got a feel for how things worked with a small direct market business. It helped that I had a little bit of ranch background and knew how to handle big animals in a corral.” With increased interest in local meat because of COVID, Joan has seen an increase of 60% in her customer base so she is working with other local ranchers to meet that interest.
Joan tends to an Angus/Charolais cross because the Charolais are good milk producers and the calves get big by eight months when she takes them to slaughter. But, Joan notes that the cows that are more Angus produce good calves, too, and she uses a Black Angus bull.
Joan’s passion for conservation led her to place a conservation easement on her property in 2011. “I’ve always been interested in conservation and had a love of nature, from having time on my grandfather’s ranch,” says Joan. “My parents took us to all the national parks, and I lived in New Mexico as a child. My father was a hunter and fisherman, so I went on lots of fishing trips. “
Joan also notes that she does a lot of educating with her customers who are excited about the food she raises. “I get so much gratification from selling good meat to people,” says Joan. “They are so grateful and they say thank you for doing this.”
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To learn more about how to create your grazing plan to improve land health and animal performance, try HMI’s Online Grazing Planning Course.