Cattle have been part of California’s economic and cultural fabric since the establishment of the first Spanish mission more than 300 years ago. Under Spanish and Mexican rule, the territory was parceled into large land grant ranchos, some of which still remain intact and operated by descendants of the original grantee. In addition to cattle, the Spanish also brought with them their unique style of horsemanship, giving rise to the California vaquero tradition of horse and stock handling, characterized by highly finessed bridle horses and elaborate loops. Their fancy horse and rope work are matched by equally stylish garb embellished with ornate silverwork.
Ranching in California is not for the faint of heart; increased urbanization, political hurdles, and a history of drought mean ranchers have to get creative to hang on to their way of life. Through innovative land management, operation diversification, and skillful stewardship, California’s cattlemen keep the state’s centuries-old ranching heritage alive.
In 1865, four Mexican land grants were combined to create Tejon Ranch, which has the distinction of being one of the oldest working ranches in California. At 270,000 acres, it is also the largest contiguous piece of private property in the state. Though the ranch has diversified into myriad functions—including crops, real estate, and resource management—it still runs 12,000 head of cattle.
Carver Bowen Ranch
Settled in 1872, the Carver Bowen Ranch has been going strong for seven generations. The cow-calf operation runs cattle on both private and public lands, from near sea level to summer grazing at 8,000 feet in elevation.
Duane Martin Livestock
On nearly 50 owned and leased ranches spread across the West, Duane Martin runs some 8,000 head of mother cows and feeds another 10,000–15,000 grass cattle. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Duane Martin Livestock’s cow-calf operation ranks 14th in the United States.
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Likely Land and Livestock
Billy Flournoy and his brothers own Likely Land and Livestock. They own 18,000 acres of deeded lands and run some 2,000 head of mostly black Angus, and a remuda of riding horses. Six or seven cowboys work full-time and others are added seasonally. Billy is currently the president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.
Orvis Cattle Co.
Orvis Ranch boasts the oldest commercial Hereford cattle operation in California, established in 1918. Its cattle are grazed on the Snow Ranch (est. 1873) in northern Stanislaus County, but also spend time in the high Sierra, a grazing rotation that produces better-conditioned animals. Orvis Ranch is also known as one of the premier seedstock producers in the Hereford cattle industry.
This 30,000-acre ranch in Northern California is known for its sustainable practices. The ranch runs 3,500–4,000 animals on various ranch locations during the year, with a harvest average of about 1,100 animals each year. The low cattle volume means meticulous attention is paid to the fine art of harvest, dry-aging, and beef processing.
Rancho San Julian
Nestled in the heart of Santa Barbara County, Rancho San Julian is one of the last land grant ranches that still remains in the family of the original grantee. Initially owned by the Spanish crown as a Rancho Nacional to feed soldiers stationed at Santa Barbara, the land was granted to Jose de la Guerra in 1837. It has been lived on and run by his descendants ever since.
This 31,000-acre ranch has been family-owned and operated since 1863. Today, the fourth, fifth, and sixth Rankin generations manage operations. They graze grass on the mountains surrounding Walker Basin and are then finished on grain at a feedlot in Bakersfield. In 1965, the Rankin family started welcoming guests, sharing ranching skills and traditions with folks from all over the world.
[Read more: Great Ranches of the Southwest]
San Juan Ranch
San Juan Ranch has a history of livestock production that dates back to the era of Mexican land grants. Today, the 44,000-acre ranch is owned by John and Brenda Stephenson, who specialize in the production of Gelbvieh cattle and world-class performance Quarter Horses, including CD Diamond, the 2012 National Reined Cow Horse Association Open Futurity Champion.
Santa Margarita Ranch
Santa Margarita, Calif.
For nearly 250 years—since Franciscan missionaries came to the area in the 1770s—cattle have grazed on the grassy hills that now comprise Santa Margarita Ranch. Now owned by three families—the Filipponis, Rossis, and Wittstroms—the 14,000-plus-acre ranch is one of the oldest continuously operated cattle ranches in California and is known for its emphasis on conservation and progressive rangeland management.
On 20,000 acres in Central California’s Cholame Valley, V6 owns prime cattle country. Their grass-fed cattle live out their entire lives on the ranch’s pastures. In addition to its beef division, the V6 also hosts an impressive variety of events, including cowboy schools, cattle drives, and horsemanship clinics.