For most ranching families, the cattle are the driving force behind management decisions, but at Double C Cattle Company, fifth generation ranchers Chuck and Ruth Coffey, who run 1,000 spring-calving pairs with their three children, put focus on the land first.
“My son sums it up with the three L’s. We look at our land, livestock and legacy. Those are the keys to our future and the future generations,” Chuck Coffey says. “We look at the land first, including the forages, the soils, the water, the wildlife—everything that the land has that is not a human input. Then we look at the livestock, and we do that for a source of income. But, that's kind of a sideline deal, we mainly use the cattle to manage the land and if we do it right, we can make a little money and some years, but a lot of years we lose money due to the cost of improving the land.”
Coming from ranching families, the genetics of loving the land and good stewardship were instilled in Chuck and Ruth from the start, and that ties into the third L: legacy.
“We both grew up with the land, around livestock and wildlife and as things improve or degrade it makes an impression on you throughout your life. And it instills almost a spirituality of wanting to see the land, at least maintain itself or improve over your lifetime,” Coffey says. “And then carrying that on to the next generation is one of the most important aspects of regenerative agriculture in my mind because if we don't, we're only going to have input for 20, 30, 40 years, and then it's all for nothing. Unless that's instilled into someone else, and they're willing to pick it up and carry the ball—all could be lost.”
Chuck and Ruth both studied ecology and rangeland management which strengthened their resolve in putting the care and consideration into the land they’re watching over. The experience is put to use, as each end of the ranch presents a different management challenge.
At the western side of the ranch, which is a more recent expansion acquisition in the last few years, water is a limiting factor, where in some cases it can be over a mile to the stream access, and running electricity isn’t an option. To ease the supply challenge, the Coffeys have installed 20 solar well systems across the property.
“That allows us to do things with our grazing management, it gives us a better distribution of livestock now we've got forages that we can take advantage of that we couldn't before, because of a lack of water nearby. And that inherently allows you to increase your stocking rate,” Coffey says.
“For us, because water is such a limiting factor it becomes very difficult to run extremely high stocking rates. But our goal is to manage the land first, everything else that we do is a tool to do that. The cattle for us are a tool, they're not the focus of the operation. Truly the cows are a management tool to help us in regenerative agriculture to keep the land healthy, to keep things recycling, to take that grass plant that a human can't do anything with and turn it into a consumable protein, beef, that is highly preferred in this country,” he continues.
On the eastern side of the ranch, ash juniper has encroached on the property and it’s managed through mindful implementation of prescribed burning.
“It is very difficult because reclamation fires are very hot and dangerous. It can take years to get these trees to burn. So, we blend in mechanical control by shearing the trees and using bulldozers, cutting strips through the trees so when we start a fire it that carries into the trees and starts to diminish their population,” he notes.
Not only does the elimination of the juniper allow for grass regrowth and use with the cattle, but it also provides habitat for wildlife and prevents some of the erosion and water use issues those trees cause. Critics may point to prescribed burns as something to do away with, but that would have an unintended domino effect, Coffey says.
“If I don't use fire on the property, and we take the cows off the land, we're going to be a cedar forest in a matter of 30-to-50 years. And when that happens, we may have very little soil and plants to regenerate because of things like erosion and shading,” he says. “When that happens, you lose your wildlife, maybe a few birds would live in the trees, but you're going to run off all the turkey and the deer, and quail and killdeer, because there's nothing for them in a cedar forest. And that's what much of Oklahoma is turning into.”
Also dotting the expanded western portion of the ranch: wind turbines, which provide an additional source of revenue.
“It's difficult to be sustainable in agriculture without an economic source of revenue, and to buy land anymore, and pay for that land with livestock and wildlife, crops and the things that we do has become next to impossible,” Coffey notes. “The new land that we and are in the process of managing would not have been possible for us to have acquired without the turbines and that additional stream of revenue.”
The infrastructure needed in roads to the turbines provides an added bonus of fire guards for their prescribed burning. And the wind company pays to maintain those roads, which is beneficial Coffey says, because it’s extremely expensive to build and maintain fire guards, but the roads also serve another purpose.
“It allows me to get out and feed in the wintertime. I can see the 1,000 head of cows in a half a day with two feed trucks because of the roads and the infrastructure of the wind farm that we have doesn't take up more than 3% of our entire property,” he says.
The sum of the parts generates an impressive figure and legacy for the future: From their ranch alone, the Coffeys can grow enough beef, store enough water and produce enough energy to be sustainable for over 50,000 homes.