The little red truck pauses on the precipice of a rainwater-rushed ravine. Dennis Moroney stretches up and over the steering wheel, surveying the terrain. Satisfied, he settles in, shifts the truck into gear, and says, “It’s really not as bad as it looks.”
With 22 years of Arizona ranching experience under his belt, Dennis Moroney would know. Maneuvering a beat-up red pickup truck across rugged desert rangeland is all in a day’s work for Moroney, who owns and operates 47 Ranch, located just north of Bisbee on the northern flanks of the Mule Mountains, with his wife of 42 years, Deborah Moroney.
The 25,000 acres of 47 Ranch span an elevation gradient of 2,000 feet, tumbling down from juniper-studded rolling ridges of the Mule Mountains and spilling across a Chihuahuan Desert plain that ends only 11 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border; the cattle of 47 Ranch—35 purebred Criollo cattle and 160 crossbred “Arizona native” cattle—leave no corner unturned.
“Sometimes, we’ll leave them at the foot of this mountain,” Dennis says, pointing to the rise of a steep crest, “and when it’s time to rotate, we’ll find them on the other side.” Once or twice a month, Dennis will round up his roving herd and rotate them across the ranch’s 25 pastures, easing the burden on any particular landscape.
For desert ranchers like Moroney, managing cattle means managing the forages and water resources those animals depend on to live. And, for Moroney, management begins by paying close attention to scarce resources. “I pay attention to the plant community. How rainwater moves across the landscape. How rainfall varies in time and place,” he says. “If it rains, I’m out the next morning checking to see what changed.” He looks to make sure the water catchment basins carved across the ranch haven’t filled with mud; he checks to see that the trenches and culverts that direct water to those basins haven’t collapsed; thinks about where the rain might have sculpted new watercourses, what grasses might be bursting after a flush of hydration.
Ostensibly, Moroney must regularly check on the forage quality and abundance of native grasses in each pasture to plan the rotations of his cattle, though you get the sense that it’s his curiosity that keeps him out in the pastures far more than other ranchers nearby. He has an unrelenting desire to answer the question: What happens when? Below Moroney’s wide-brimmed white hat, behind his bursting white beard, lives the mind of a range science professor, a homegrown ecologist, and a pioneer in the collaborative conservation movement.
“This is a landscape that’s not static. It’s always in flux. It could be a year or a decade, but an event happens and it changes,” he says. “And with climate change, those patterns are becoming more unpredictable.” The way to deal with this change: Be observant. Observe grasses, erosion, water—or lack thereof—and, of course, “I always observe the condition of the cattle,” Moroney says. “If they’re not doing well, the landscape is not doing well.”
The red truck makes it across the riverbed without a hitch. After another few minutes rocking through ruts, the truck’s efforts are rewarded. Five steers emerge from the shade of a mesquite tree and gaze at their landscape’s interlopers. These cows are Criollos, America’s oldest heritage breed of large livestock, originally from the arid heat of southern Spain. They are both agile and beautiful, their coats an array of colors—shiny auburn, blond spackled, mocha brown brindled.
“While the flagship operation of the ranch is protein production in the form of solar energy, growing meat from wild plants, there’s another opportunity here on the land, to build it up to its full capacity,” he says. “We wanted to set a living example of ranching that is done in harmony with nature.
Dennis Moroney started raising cows as a teenager in a 4-H club in Phoenix while other kids were riding skateboards in air-conditioned shopping malls. Even though he “went through” several Phoenix high schools, he was accepted into Arizona State University’s animal science program, where he overlapped with Temple Grandin, who later would pioneer animal welfare practices in the livestock industry.
When Deb was accepted to medical school at the University of Washington, the pair relocated to the northwest, where Dennis taught forestry, agriculture and horticulture at an alternative high school. “I was a hippie before I was a rancher,” he says. “I was doing environmental things clear back in my teenage years.” Deb’s residency brought them back to Arizona, to a ranch just outside Prescott; in 2002, they bought 47 Ranch and returned south, to the Chihuahuan Desert borderlands.
“Dennis and Deb have a unique history,” says Rafael de Grenade, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona; she met the couple in 1993, when she was a 13-year-old longing to be a cowgirl. Dennis and Deb took her in “like family” and taught her how to rope and ride, how to gather and brand. De Grenade’s parents were farming and ranching on 55 acres near the Moroney’s ranch in Prescott—which is “some of the most difficult ranching country, anywhere,” she says. “There were a lot of pretty hardcore ranch families with strong identities as rough country cowboys. Dennis came in, a hippie with a beard, and Deb, a doctor with Hispanic roots—it caused a lot of suspicion.
“It was a different time then,” she says. “There was pressure from the environmental community to get ranchers off the land. The Moroneys arrived and said, ‘Let’s get people together—the Forest Service, environmentalists, ranchers.’ In that time and place, they were almost revolutionary.”
In Arizona, most ranches consist of a mix of private land—land that Dennis and Deb own outright—and public land—leased from the state or federal government under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service or State Land Department. Permits to graze cattle on public land usually come bundled with the “base” property—typically 15 to 500 acres where you’ll likely find a house, barn, storage, and any other infrastructure needed to keep the ranch running and cattle happy.
In the case of 47 Ranch, that infrastructure includes corrals, a wool spinning and weaving studio for Deb, a workshop, a greenhouse, five rainwater harvesting cisterns, two windmills and a solar array, which together produce enough electricity to power the ranch—and Dennis and Deb’s home—and keep it entirely off the grid.
The Moroneys commitment to environmental stewardship extends beyond their private holdings. Dennis is regarded as one of the founders of the collaborative conservation movement in working landscapes of the West, playing active roles with the Diablo Trust, the Quivira Coalition, Malpai Borderlands Group, and National Cowboy Poetry Gathering ranchland workshops. Over the past decade, Moroney has distilled what he has learned through these venues and worked with Arizona Game and Fish and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put two conservation easements on his property.
“While the flagship operation of the ranch is protein production in the form of solar energy, growing meat from wild plants, there’s another opportunity here on the land, to build it up to its full capacity,” he says. “We wanted to set a living example of ranching that is done in harmony with nature. We now have 2,500 acres under conservation easement, which means that no matter who owns the land, even hundreds of years in the future, it will remain open space.”
Conservation easements place deed restrictions on land, tying development rights to the land title; they’re often issued to protect waterways, migration corridors, and endangered species. In the case of 47 Ranch, the presence of 13 “species of concern”—one level below endangered—qualified them for a grant to create a 960-acre easement. Between the two easements, the Moroneys earned enough money to pay off their mortgage and their operating loan in less than a decade. “Now, we’re debt free. That’s huge from the standpoint of the viability of the ranch,” says Moroney.
“They’ve held onto a multifaceted vision of what ranching can be,” says de Grenade. “It’s hard to make a living ranching, and they’ve done that by diversifying.” In addition to cattle, the Moroneys also grow Navajo-Churro sheep on a small set of irrigated pastures, and keep goats for brush control.
“They’re both visionary thinkers,” says de Grenade. “They have this way of looking across agencies and across different kinds of people—to incorporate both traditional methods of livestock management and land-stewardship, to ask, how do we utilize our natural resources to produce food in this harsh landscape?”
Of course, Dennis’s facility at marketing their fine grass-fed beef and lamb also helps them meet their triple bottom line of economic, ecological and social sustainability. For all the conservation work he does, Moroney’s main task in any given week is to raise cattle and sheep to sell their meat. About once every week, he loads “an average of four and half cows” into a trailer and drives them to the UA Meat Lab in Tucson. (“Though,” he jokes, “They usually don’t like when we send half of a cattle.”)
Four weeks later, after the cows or sheep are slaughtered, the carcasses aged, and the meat processed, he picks up frozen cuts of beef and lamb to deliver them to commercial customers: Tucson’s Food Conspiracy Co-op, the Sierra Vista Co-op, and a few restaurants. The rest of the meat goes back to the ranch and into the freezer. On Thursdays, Dennis and Deb pack up a trailer and head to the Sierra Vista farmers’ market; Saturday mornings, Dennis repeats the endeavor for the Bisbee farmers’ market.
“The retail part is very rewarding,” he says. “I get to have weekly conversations with people who are being fed by what we do. It’s a strong feedback loop. Our repeat customers become like extended family.” And they’re getting closer to their ultimate goal: To sell everything they produce to the end consumer. “It’s more profitable and more satisfying,” says Moroney.
The Moroneys began raising and direct-marketing grass-fed beef in 1996. They’d been finishing their cattle on a grain-based diet and realized the input costs weren’t getting paid back in the price of beef. “It wasn’t profitable. We were trying to find a way to make ranching profitable,” says Dennis. When a friend—incidentally, de Grenade’s mother, Rebecca Rouston, who had been raising grass-fed cattle since the early 1980s—suggested they turn their cows back to the land to browse on native vegetation—namely, grass—the Moroneys hinged their business on a model they hoped would support them over next two decades.
They chose well: The grass-fed meat market in the United States has sustained a 25 percent annual growth rate over the past 15 years. On a per pound basis, direct-marketed grass-fed beef returns far more profit—as much as two to three times the price per pound—to a rancher than cattle sold on the whims of the commodity market.
At first, the Moroneys sold their beef through ads in penny saver papers—halves and quarter cows only. As farmers’ markets and CSA programs became more widespread, Deb and Dennis visited grocery stores and farmers markets to compare other’s prices; they had a butcher break down processing price per cut, and then they crunched their numbers. “We want to earn a living and also sell affordable food,” says Moroney. Sold under the name Sky Islands, their ground beef sells for five dollars a pound, a price premium that represents, for consumers, a price increase of $1.50 over the average pound of grass-fed beef sold in the supermarket—but for Dennis and Deb, that increase represents a living wage.
“We try to keep everything pretty simple here,” says Deb. “We’re not investing in fancy rigs or machinery.” They have two kids, a son and daughter, who used to help them and a partner on the ranch but have both now moved away from home. “It’s a lot of work for the two of us,” says Dennis. “The successional thing is a big issue. It’s hard to find young people who want to do this kind of work.”
It’s hard work, of course. Early mornings, rough roads, leaking water tanks. Back-ups at the processor, inventory overfill or scarcity. Direct-marketing is labor and time intensive—frequent trips to Tucson, early mornings at farmers’ markets and long evenings bent over balance sheets. But it offers a certain freedom, one some ranchers don’t have if they are beholden to a bank, a livestock management corporation, or one of the six meat processing multinationals that set the prices for most of America’s commodity beef. “At least, I like to think I have a lot of freedom,” Dennis says. “I have the satisfaction of working in the natural landscape and have a role in feeding people.”
Back on the ranch, as a group of five cattle jogs—or rather, skitters—past the red pickup truck, Moroney points out the hip-bones of an auburn steer, which are hidden below ripples of muscle and fat, and asks me to compare them to a blond-haired calf that, well, looks like skin and bones. “He’s almost ready to go. You look at the tail, the head. You’re looking for animals that are rounded.”
We’ve only climbed 300 or 400 feet since we left the ranch headquarters on the plains below; still, at the base of these etched mountains, we’ve gained a new perspective on the ranch. On what makes up a ranch. There are 200 head of cattle, of course, eating an array of Arizona’s native grasses, but that’s just the beginning. Before us spans the habitat of many of Arizona’s disappearing wildlife species—long-nosed bats and green rat snakes; northern aplomado falcons and black-tailed prairie dogs. Unseen, there are the miles of pipeline that Moroney laid, redistributing water across the ranch; there are the tiny escape hatches he built on open water tanks so the bats, rodents, and birds that also utilize the tank’s water don’t drown when they fall in. (“It’s actually made a huge difference,” he says.) Groundwater wells powered by solar arrays and fields re-seeded with native grasses; a pond, re-shaped and sculpted to form a hospitable habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog; the invisible treads of the many Audubon Society and school groups that come out to the ranch to learn about the Moroneys’ work.
For all his observation, all the photographs he takes, ditches he digs and grasses he nurtures, Dennis likes that the ranch extends beyond his capability to comprehend or control. “In these big open spaces, there are all kinds of wildlife—coyotes, deer, mountain lions. It’s nice to think that they still have a home here,” he says. Of course, he loses a few cattle every season to predators—but very few. “And that’s just the cost of doing business out here,” he says. “I happen to believe there’s some grace in inefficiency. I like coming out here on horseback. Riding on horseback, you get into a whole different time dimension. It can feel like a sea out here.” The slightest crest offers a land’s perspective; each fall, a submersion into its nuance. ✜
Find the Moroneys at the Bisbee and Sierra Vista Farmers’ Markets (Thursday and Saturday). Contact at 520.642.9368 or facebook.com/pages/Sky-Island-Brand-47-Ranch.
Criollo Cattle, which came from the Canary Islands to North America through the port of Veracruz in 1519, spread out to many habitats and diversified into some of the continent’s most distinctive “Spanish” cattle breeds: Texas Longhorn; Florida Cracker; Pineywoods; Chinampo; and Corriente. The Criollo/Corriente breed dominated the rangelands of Chihuahua, Sonora, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas through the early twentieth century, and provided nearly all the beef that filled K-Ration tins during World War II and the Korean War. After the war, the Hoof-and-Mouth epidemic and the introduction of cattle breeds better suited to rapid weight gains in feedlots brought the Criollo breeds to their knees.
But Criollo cattle have slowly been making a comeback, in part through the work of ranchers like Dennis Moroney of 47 Ranch who believe in the unique genetic package offered by this desert-bred animal.
Criollos are as much browsers as grazers, subsisting on many foods other cattle wouldn’t touch, from prickly pear pads to leaves off oak trees. “It’s one of the only breeds that will fatten up and marble on prickly pear and tumbleweeds,” says Moroney. “Because Criollo evolved in a semi-arid landscape, their eating habits are different than cattle that evolved in northern Europe.
They have an incredible genetic package for this kind of environment. They utilize more of what’s out there, instead of concentrating on lower grasses. You get equal impact over the whole landscape.” Studies by range scientist Ed Frederickson of Eastern Kentucky University confirm that Criollos sample a broader range of plants than other breeds in the same pasture, thereby allowing a diversity of plant species to coexist.
Criollo are less expensive upfront, requiring fewer initial inputs like shelter or feed. But because they depend on whatever food they can forage—no matter how nutrient rich or poor—these cattle grow slowly. Compared to an Angus breed, which might reach 1,200 pounds after only 24 months, Criollo cattle might arrive at a packing plant after 36 months of maturing weighing only 750 pounds. Although it may take them longer to become slaughter-ready, they’re subsisting exclusively on pasture, which means significantly smaller input costs.
“Before I had tasted Criollo meat, I thought it was more marketing hype,” says Moroney. “But it’s is not like anything we’ve had before.” Moroney bought a dozen heifers from Fredrickson, who had personally escorted the cattle out of the barrancas in the Chiapas region of the Sierra Madre. Since then, he’s bought more, virtually eliminating all non-Criollo bulls in his herd. He continues to be an active manager of his herd, selecting cattle for general disposition and palatability of the meat, and culling those that don’t measure up. “I’ve found that gentleness in disposition translates into tenderness in the meat,” he says.
“Criollos were fairly common in Mexico just forty years ago,” says Moroney. “Over time, a lot of the ranchers have been lured into crossing them with European breeds in order to have better market acceptance. Many of the ranchers in Mexico that were raising these kinds of cattle aren’t raising them any more. Criollos have 10,000 years of selection pressure in a semi-arid, hostile environment. There’s a concern for long-term survival of these genetics.” Through a market that rewards consistency and feedlot-bred cattle, “[Most ranchers have been] promoting the proliferation of cattle from Scotland and northern Europe where conditions were fairly easy,” says Moroney. “Most people that raise that kind of cattle in this environment spend a small fortune on supplements.” Criollos, on the other hand, “represent a path to sustainability, especially in the face of climate change.” ✜
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.