Anyone worried about the future of U.S. agriculture or about the disappearing work ethic among the nation's youth would do well to spend a few hours with the Sanchez family on their purebred Santa Gertrudis ranch just south of Albuquerque, N.M.
Dr. Roland Sanchez, a family practice physician in the small Rio Grande Valley town of Belen, and his wife Elia, expect a lot of their six children, who range in age from 11 to 23.
The six siblings do much of the work on the farm, which consists of a 230-cow operation. Bulls and calves push the herd to about 420 head. Raising hay, managing an irrigated, intensely grazed pasture and producing show calves provide ample chores. And, says 18-year-old Roland Kent, better known as Scooter, “good grades are expected.” He's a bit apologetic about the one B he made last year as animal science major at Texas A&M.
Jessica, 23, and Alicia, 22, have already earned degrees from New Mexico State University. Adolfo, 20, is studying biology at the University of New Mexico. Florio, 15, is a sophomore in high school, and Emilio, 11, is a middle school student.
Since 1978, the ranch, Red Doc Farm, has been a family enterprise.
Dr. Sanchez bought the first piece of property in 1978. “It was the worst piece of land in the valley,” Jessica says.
The farm was losing money, eroding badly and producing scant forage. Intense management and hard work has brought the land back. The farm was part of a National Association of County Agricultural Agents tour recently. The group held its annual meeting in Albuquerque.
“There is a lot unique about this operation,” Jessica explains. “We've been using intensive grazing on the farm since the early 1980s. That's unusual.”
They also produce all-natural beef, no growth hormones, and sell primarily on a private treaty basis.
“We do a lot of international business,” says Alicia. “We sold 30 bulls into Mexico last year.”
Farm manager Dan Palecek oversees daily management. But the Sanchez children, from Jessica on down to Emilio, take an active role in running the farm and either of the six can answer any questions about the day-to-day operation.
“We've just always been involved,” says Jessica. “It's often hard work, but we enjoy it.”
She describes improvements the family has made to the operation over the past two decades with the pride of one who has a stake in the business.
“We have the home farm sectioned into 28 paddocks,” she says. “Each paddock is approximately one acre. We have some permanent fencing and some mobile fences that give us flexibility. The cattle always have access to water.”
Cattle rotate from one paddock to another every day or every other day for most of the year. “Rotation depends on the growth rate of the forage and the number of animals grazing,” she says.
Cliff Sanchez, a National Resource Conservation Service agronomist, says the intense grazing system increases forage production, daily gain ratio, soil quality and farm efficiency.
“We don't see bare ground in these paddocks,” he says. Forage consists of a mixture of fescues grasses, orchardgrass, some native grasses and clovers.
“They fertilize every year, three or four nitrogen applications and about 40 pounds of elemental sulfur to reduce salt damage. They add phosphorus and nitrogen but not much potassium. Cattle manure provides potassium and some minor elements,” Cliff says.
Weed control consists of Roundup only on ditch banks. “We can't apply it to the forage areas because it would take out the clover.”
Intense gazing limits weeds. “We don't see annual ryegrass, for instance, because the cattle graze it and prevent seed heads from developing.”
The Sanchez family applies about three acre-feet of irrigation water per year.
“The water district control the amount,” Cliff says. “The forage gets watered about every 10 days. Sandy soils may be watered more frequently during prolonged dry spells.”
He says coordinating fertilization and water is important. “They also have to coordinate forage to the number of animals they'll graze.”
Cliff says intense grazing allows the Sanchez operation to stock 3.5 head per acre. “The usual stocking rate on irrigated pasture is one head per acre,” he says. “They follow a feed supplement program in the winter.”
The home farm is not large enough to support the entire heard all year. “We lease farms for come cattle,” says Scooter.
But they bring the animals to the home farm in winter. “We want them to calve here,” says Alicia. “Calving season runs from December into late March. We may have some later because we provide show calves,” Jessica says, “and those often need to come off in the spring.”
Show calves are an important part of the operation and serve as a benchmark for the herd. “We may have 40 in the state fair each year,” Jessica says. “We like to compare our animals to others in the breed. That way we can judge what we're doing.”
The farm gives no second chances to brood cows. “We cull open cows immediately,” Jessica says. She jokes that all animals on the farm “including the kids, have to pull their own weight.”
Jessica and Alicia, and the other four siblings, have their own investments in the farm. “We borrowed money and bought a feed mill,” Jessica says. “Adolfo and Scooter bought a tractor and Emilio and Florio bought a hay baler.
“We mix supplement in our mill with cracked corn to make our own feed. We also were able to save some rained-on alfalfa by running it through the feed mill and adding grain and a supplement.
“We raise our own hay, and enough to sell,” Jessica says. They have about 150 acres of alfalfa.
Dr. Sanchez says the farm goal is to become sustainable. “We background some cattle to add flexibility,” he says. “That gives us another market option.”
They raise purebred bulls and replacement heifers and sell top quality beef.
“We produce a value-added product,” Dr. Sanchez says. “Some individuals come by and pick up meat. They like the low-fat beef. Restaurants also love it because it doesn't shrink.”
He says some customers will pay as much as 10 percent more to get hormone-free beef.
As impressive as forage production, superior breeding lines, and top grade beef, however, is the six-person work force that handles most of the chores.
Jessica recalls a weekend when all six Sanchez kids hand-planted hybrid bermudagrass in one of the paddocks.
“It was hard, hot, dirty work,” she says. “But we worked together and got it done.”
Sibling rivalry probably exists to some extent with the Sanchez kids. They seem to be quite normal, after all and each has a well-defined sense of humor. But hard work on the farm and keeping up with schoolwork leaves them little time to fuss among themselves.