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Beef in Tehama County
Looking back at an industry that helped shape this county into what it is today
As the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale winds down, cattle people from all across the country will start for home, taking with them their newly purchased bulls. The amount of cattle business that is conducted at the annual bull sale is proof that the business of beef is alive and well in the U.S., with Tehama County pulling its weight in the industry.
Tehama County, sitting in the upper Sacramento Valley between the Mendocino National Forest on the west and the Lassen National Forest on the east, is perfect cattle country with rolling hills, creeks, and plenty of uninhabited acreage.
Currently the county is home to approximately 21,000 head of beef cattle, worth a financially more than $15 million, according to the Tehama County Department of Agriculture. Those numbers make the beef industry in the county number four in ag commerce, following behind walnuts, prunes and almonds.
Since 1956, nearly 100 years from the birth of the county, the beef cattle numbers have dropped (in 1956 there were 30,200 head), but the fiscal impact has grown (in 1956 the total value of beef was $2 million) with an increase of 87 percent in that 50-year period.
Originally the main four-footed crop of the county was sheep, as is visible on the county’s seal featuring three head of sheep, a shepherd and sheep dog. Between 1873 and 1930, 200,000 to 300,000 sheep and goats grazed the rural county. According to the California Cattleman, it is recorded that in the latter half of the 19th century about two million pounds of wool, approximately one-fifth of the state’s production at that time, was shipped annually from Red Bluff.
Around the 1930’s the sheep industry took a steep decline due to overgrazing, burning of brush lands, and new restrictions on public land use for livestock.
The sheep decline opened the avenue to growth in the county’s beef business.
Cattle ranchers found the county’s mild winters, nearness of mountain meadows for summer grazing and plenty of spring grazing to be ideal for raising cattle as well as families.
The first recorded incidence of cattle in the Tehama County region was in 1837 when Ewing Young trailed 700 head from Santa Cruz to the Oregon Territory. He camped overnight at what was later called the Hofft Place northwest of Red Bluff. Then in the early part of 1844, Peter Lassen and D. Dutton drove a herd of 350 head of cattle and 150 horses and mules from Sutter’s Fort and settled them at the confluence of Deer Creek and the Sacramento River.
Lassen received a land grant of 22,206 acres from the government, which later became known as the Stanford-Vina Ranch, where Leland Stanford did much toward developing the strain of Holstein cattle.
Others of that generation also received land grants from the government, stocking their ranges with cattle, names such as W.C. Moon, James A. Shelton, General William B. Ide, Toomes Dye, and William G. Chard.
W.G. Chard was the first rancher to register a brand in the county soon after Tehama County was inaugurated on April 9, 1856.
From that time for nearly 100 years, ranchers were herding heads of cattle by the thousands to Tehama County.
One of the most famous and respected of the original cattle ranchers in the county was Roy Owens, who was one of the original members of the Red Bluff Bull Sale committee and was for many years president of the Red Bluff Round-Up. In 1961 he was enshrined in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
It was sometime in the 1880’s that Galen McCoy is said to have bred the first purebred Shorthorns in Tehama County, with the other two most common cattle breeds being the Devon and Spanish cattle.
It wasn’t until sometime between 1898 and 1902 that the first purebred Hereford cattle were brought into Tehama County by Doug Cone. The Hereford breed, which went on to become extremely popular in the county, is what currently adorns the Tehama County Sheriff’s Department uniform patch.
Cone’s white-faced cattle were such a curiosity, according to folklore, that Cone brought one of his gentler bulls, one that had been exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, into Bob and Boone’s Saloon in Red Bluff, where it was oohed and aahed throughout the night.
In the early 1900s cattlemen were paid approximately 3 cents a pound for cattle going to market. Today, yearling cattle can bring in more than $1 a pound.
Back around the turn of the century and into the 1930s, cattle-drives took place late each spring to move hundreds of head of cattle to mountain meadow summer ranges. Popular trails included the Hog’s Back, Lassen Trail, and Paynes Creek.
Around 1936, the cattle-drive went the way of hauling herds by truck up into the mountains, although cowboys today still go up on the mountain and round the cattle up to be hauled back down for winter grazing in the valley.
By some approximation, the Tehama County Cattlemen’s Association was first organized in 1907 and then reorganized on Nov. 17, 1952, followed by the Tehama County CowBelles being organized in 1953. Both organizations, the CowBelles (now the CattleWomen) and the Cattlemen, have been going strong ever since and continue to be a strong influence in the politics and agriculture business of the county.
It is noted that one of the most significant contributions Tehama County has made to the beef cattle industry as a whole was the founding of the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale, which was originally called the Red Bluff Hereford Show and Sale, then the Red Bluff Bull Sale, followed by its current name, according to California Cattleman.
The grading and sifting system used at the sale was first established in 1947 and its use immediately set the Red Bluff Bull Sale apart from all others at the time, although it was at first rather a controversial move by the sale committee. In time the grading system proved to be the right call, as it became apparent cattlemen were willing to pay more money for higher grading bulls.
With the work and efforts of men like Don Smith, Dave Minch, and Bill Owens, the Red Bluff Bull Sale’s popularity across the nation grew astronomically. Today these names are still synonymous with the annual bull sale, which tomorrow will take place in the Don Smith Pavilion located within the Tehama District Fairgrounds, and the Owens name is recognized with the coveted awarding of the Jack Owens Bull and Craig Owens Ideal Ranch Horse.
As Tehama County has moved into the 21st century and the computer, embryo transplant, artificial insemination, DNA registration, and livestock insurance become as important to the cattle rancher as a good working dog, horse and cowboy. The cattle industry continues to thrive in the Upper Sacramento Valley, with names such as Tehama Angus Ranch, C.B. Ranch, Macfarlane Livestock, Byrd Cattle Co., and Denny Cattle Co., just to name a few.
Tehama County cattle ranchers still face some of the same problems cattlemen faced 100 years ago – cattle rustlers, disease, water supply, range issues, and cattle prices. But, today the cattle rancher also has to contend with government issues and the influx of development onto rangelands, thus losing the open space required for cattle grazing.
George Moran, director of the Tehama County USDA Farm Service Agency, said, “Cattlemen need open space for grazing, not 40 acre parcels but acreage of 100 acres and more. The encroachment by homeowners is definitely a threat to cattlemen. Open range has got to be protected by the county, the state and the federal governments. People moving into Tehama County need to understand that this is, by tradition, a rural county.”
Moran notes that numerous times people from the city move into the county right next to rangelands with the dream of “living in the country” and then complain because ranging livestock is bothering them.
“It is vital as the county moves forward on the updated General Plan they secure the cattle traditions of this county by zoning plenty of open rangelands,” said Moran.
So, as the cattle business in Tehama County continues, there may be many changes, but most things remain the same.
Managing editor Julie R. Johnson may be contacted at (530) 824-5464 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.