Ranching on the Rocks

Trailing cattle on the rugged Spider Ranch in Arizona requires patience, respect for the land and weather, and sure-footed horses. It also helps to like cattle.

A heavy, wet spring snow delayed Spider Ranch foreman Gail Steiger and his partner Amy Auker’s cow work by two days. When they finally got their gear and horses to the Cottonwood Canyon area on the ranch, they discovered that an old oak tree had given in to the weight of the snow and fallen on the corrals, creating another delay. It took gail several hours to cut the tree up and drag it out. Then, he and Amy had to repair the damage to the corrals.

GailSteiger AmyAukerGail Steiger and Amy Auker have created a routine that enables them to do most of the cattle work on the Spider Ranch themselves.Spider Ranch is in Yavapai County, outside Prescott, Arizona. The lowest point on the ranch lies at 3,200 feet in the Sonoran Desert. The country climbs to more than 6,500 feet through the rugged chaparral, where granite boulders and cliffs tower over dense manzanita, and into piñon and juniper forests on mesas of volcanic rock. Three deep canyons that come together in the lower country score the ranch.

That evening, Gail and Amy trailed up a few head of the remnant left behind by the drives they had made the week before. In this region, it is more like hunting cows than gathering them because of the rough terrain and brush-clogged canyons. The cows aren’t hiding, but they are hard to find if you aren’t used to tracking them.

Gail and Amy had planned to gather the remaining cattle from the forest, let them eat and drink in the trap for the night, and then trail them to the branding pen below Smith Mesa, about four miles away. The delays were just part of the game.

If Gail has learned anything for certain about ranching in Arizona’s high desert, it is that he must compromise and let nature take its course. As Amy points out, this country will guarantee that cowboys learn to be flexible. Having worked on the Spider Ranch all but three years since 1981, and as foreman since 1995, mostly solo or with only a couple of other hands, Gail has learned to trail cattle in the rough country. Years spent studying the ranch’s habitat and how the cattle respond to it has led Gail to take a more relaxed approach to ranch management.

“I think the country dictates how you should run an outfit,” Gail says. “I let the land and animals tell me how to manage them, and I am always looking for better ways to handle cattle that don’t stress them.”

On Nature’s Terms

A close friend put the Spider Ranch together in the 1960s, and Gene Polk began to share in the management of the ranch in the mid-1960s and purchased it in 1980.

“Gene loves this ranch as much as we do and is great to work for and with,” Gail says. “He is always willing to listen to a new idea, but he brings more than 50 years of experience out here to the table, too.”

The Spider Ranch is almost 90 sections of both deeded and Forest Service land. The 300-head herd has been built back from a drought in 2002 with Barzona heifers crossed with Brangus bulls. The cows are now all native, raised on the ranch. Native cattle do better in this area because they know what to eat, how to get around on the trails and where to find water.

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