Old Creek Ranch is a picturesque farming and ranching operation perched along the coastal cliffs near Cayucos, producing a wide range of organically grown produce and meats that make them a favorite stop for many shoppers at the Aptos Farmers Market.
“Cowboy Bob” Blanchard and his wife Terri oversee ranch operations, which includes a herd of mostly black and some red Angus cattle. Bob recently took some time to explain the Old Creek Ranch way of doing things.
“We’ve been leasing a three and half mile strip of coastal land since “forever,” according to Bob. “We had to bid for the land every year, and as such, had to pay top dollar for the land. That forced us to graze our animals as much as we could, which wasn’t good at all for the fragile coastal terrace. It was intense, continuous overgrazing,” said Bob in a somber tone as he recalled his former way of doing things like a sinner who has since seen the light.
That changed in the mid 80s when PG&E bought the land as part of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear plant project. PG&E decided to manage the land themselves, and assigned a management team to the task that included several biologists. In 1992, one of the biologists saw what was happening to the land and suggested that Bob try a new method of grazing he’d read about, called “high density, short duration” grazing. This new method forced the herd into movable paddocks that were constructed in the open fields. The herd was then rotated to a new location on a regular basis, giving the land around six weeks to recover.
“Disturb and rest” became the new mantra for land management. The Blanchards knew nothing about it, but were committed to making it work. This new way of grazing, the biologists explained, would allow the foliage to recover. The fast growing grasses produced more protein for the animals to feed on as well as attracted “critters we weren’t even aware of,” recalled Bob with a laugh. “We started seeing all sorts of new life after a period of time, and new birds too. The practice we were using mimicked the way the old herbivore herds, like buffalo, used to feed.” They no longer needed to put out hay to supplement the amount of food the herd got, and that stopped the trampling and destruction of the grasses where the cattle gathered to feed.
Bob could see visible changes in the land as well as the herd, so much so that he became obsessive about it. “It’s hard not to get emotional about it, the way nature began to recover,” Bob explained. “I started dropping out everything from the operation that wasn’t organic, including antibiotics. The animals were getting only grass and water, period.”
Bob went on to explain that in most cattle operations, calves are weaned and sold at 8-10 months. “We wean the calves and then continue to grow them out to finish at 30-40 months. The physiology is that the animals must reach full mature size before the energy in forage no longer is needed for growth and can be mostly allocated to the production of fat and a flavorful, nutritious, eating experience for the consumer.”
PG&E was very supportive of Bob and Terri’s new approach to ranching, and helped pay for many of the changes. PG&E even helped pay for mistakes the ranchers made.
This new approach to animal husbandry meant that each animal “had to produce,” according to Bob. “That meant they had to give us a calf every year. If they didn’t do that, they were culled from the herd.” As a result, the overall health of the herd was never better. The Blanchards began attending seminars, trying to learn as much as they could, wherever they could. They began to critically evaluate their breeding program as well, becoming extremely selective about the bulls chosen for breeders. Bob explained the process. “The herd produces about three bulls a season, and we’d pick one as a breeder about once every two years. This is practically unheard of” according to Bob.
Bob began noticing changes in the herd’s appearance. “The animals were getting smaller, but they were healthier, and stronger.”
After Bob’s parents passed away, Bob turned his attention to the family orchards his father had established in the early 1960s. “My Dad used every new chemical or spray that came along, and he liked them all,” said Bob, laughing to himself at the way he and his father used to farm. “There was no life at all. It was like walking through a parking lot that had a bunch of trees sticking out of it.”
After seeing what had happened to the cattle herd, Bob and Terri decided to apply the same principles to their orchards. One of the challenges they faced was how to fertilize the trees, so they decided to try introducing chickens into the orchard. The birds roam through the trees, feeding on insects and whatever else they can find. All synthetic inputs were phased out.
“The trees have never looked better, Bob claimed as he looked out of his office window at the 37 acres of avocados and Valencia oranges he grows. “Our oranges are delicious, much different than a lot of other oranges we’ve tried.”
Bob reflected on the history of Old Creek Ranch. “We were just redneck cowboys that tried something new” he laughed and concluded, “I keep learning new things everyday.”
Old Creek Ranch offers 100% grass-fed, pastured meat including lamb, goat, beef and pork. All animals raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Organic produce includes oranges, lemons, and avocados. Other products from the ranch include leaf lard (best for pie crust); eggs; jerky; meat stock; fresh orange juice; preserves include tangelo, sweet orange, kiwi, kiwi/tangelo duet, lime, and citrus medley; dried orange bursts.