Just like family members, Kelly Beef cattle are raised with care and love. At the Arrow T Ranch in the Williamson Valley outside Prescott, Arizona, Tom Kelly and his wife, Tammy, bring together their relatives to work and gain expertise in treating animals, and human beings, right.
Tom Kelly was born in northwestern Arizona, where ranches are measured in not acres but square miles. He always wanted to be a rancher. But he realized that the landowners were often “attorneys from Phoenix or Wickenburg” — in other words, well-to-do gentlemen farmers. So Tom became a lawyer in order to finance his dream of becoming a rancher — and succeeded. Now he produces 100% grass-fed beef in the old-fashioned way while making sure that skills and experience needed to raise cows is passed on to another generation.
Home on the (free) range
The cattle are raised on two different spreads. Their first year is spent on the Kellys’ La Cienega Ranch, 130 square miles of mountainous open range in the Mojave desert. The calves thrive in this uncontaminated habitat, grazing on 27 types of forage. When the animals weigh 450 pounds, they are moved to the lush subirrigated grassland of the Arrow T Ranch. For the past 70 years, the native grasses in these verdant meadows have been nurtured and the invasive grasses culled without pesticides or herbicides.
Herding day on the ranch
Late last summer, I joined Tom for a roundup — which might more accurately be called a “push-up” — to the sorting pens. For these events, Tammy’s brother, Kasey Looper, brings his wife, Tyler, and children Cole, 12, Rio, 10, and Sage, 8, to work alongside family friend Mark Mingus and fiancée Savannah Lindau. There are no clouds of dust, no thundering hooves. What appears to be a quiet Sunday ride with his young nieces and nephews is in fact a carefully choreographed dance, as their horses “push” the young cows in the right direction from a distance of up to several hundred yards; the movement is gentle rather than aggressive, because stressed cows are hard to handle and even tougher to eat.
When the cattle reach the sorting pens, Tom allows time for a family lesson. The children learn about the sorting process, which Tom describes as “a conversation and comparison of opinions” about the quality and potential of each calf. Some are returned to La Cienega as breeding stock and others enter the commercial beef pipeline — but the best calves are selected to remain on the grass, fattening up naturally for up to 18 months until they are ready to be sold. Cole is already acquiring the skills that must become second nature to every cowboy, such as “heading and heeling” the calf. As dad Kasey throws one lasso over the animal’s head, Cole quickly lassoes its two back legs, or heels, on his first throw, displaying the accuracy that is needed to do the job gently and safely for both the riders and the calf, which can now be branded.
Looking back, moving forward
As small-scale producers, Tammy and Tom are developing a following for Kelly Beef one client at a time. In her Prescott store, The Rancher’s Wife, Tammy explains the more-unusual cuts of meat, providing instruction and recipes to help customers make the most of the nutrient-rich, almost purple meat. Don’t assume that health-conscious urban foodies are their best customers: Locals who still have roots in the agricultural community buy half or a quarter of a calf, sometimes on the hoof. They value knowing every player in the supply chain and are comfortable cooking every cut of meat.
But the Kellys are not trying to return to a lost agrarian paradise; they are looking to the future. They believe the demand for grass-fed beef is growing and that “knowledge-rich farming,” to use a term coined by rancher-author Allan Nation, will lead a younger generation to good breeding and good grazing management. That much was clear from my visit to Arrow T, as I obeyed his instructions about photographing the roundup from my car discreetly: no raised voices, no sudden movements that might spook the herd. Next time, though, I want to be riding beside him through the thigh-high red-wheat grass, watching the cows stroll back to pasture.
Main photo: On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel