Women of the West - Diane Bohna
Amid one of the worst droughts in California history, this fifth-generation rancher finds ways to sustain her cattle operation and continue her family’s ranching traditions.
Interview by JENNIFER DENISON • Photograph by DARRELL DODDS
Last fall, the rolling hills at Three Bar Ranch in Raymond, California, were brown and barren, and the massive oaks dry and droopy. Diane Bohna, who owns and operates the ranch, has weathered drought in the San Joaquin Valley before, as well as trailed remnant cattle out of the high country during heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Tough and independent, she knows how to patiently weather the elements and manage her ranch to survive. In addition to raising her own cattle, she also takes in pasture animals for diversification and extra income. While she does much of the daily ranch work with only her horse and stock dogs, her top hand, Abe Alvarez, assists with some of the heavy-duty work. She also enjoys it when her family helps gather, brand and move the cattle into and out of her summer pasture in the Sierra Nevadas, the place she feels most at home.
When I was 8, I told my father I wanted to own and operate my own cattle ranch, have a high-country United States Forest Service permit to summer cattle, and winter in the San Joaquin foothills. I am fortunate enough to have all of that today, plus a bit more.
My father, Henry Bohna, could read cattle way past their next step or health condition. He could tell you where he would find them the next fall on his 138,000-acre grazing permit. The best advice he gave me was, “Sometimes slowest is fastest, and a great cowboy can drive a herd of 600 right by you and you will not hear a thing.”
At 18, I was in charge of an all-male ranch crew. One day, the rancher I was working for handed me paychecks to distribute. When I got my check it was $25 less per day than the men. I handed the check back to him. I told him that out of respect for him I would continue to do my job, but I would rather not get paid if I was going to be paid less than my crew. I realized this was just how it was in his generation, and he did not mean any harm. But I can tell you he wrote me another check for $50 more per day than the rest of the crew from then on.
After graduating from California State University in Fresno, I got a job with the water district in Fresno. After about a month, I went to my boss and told him I was going to have to retire [from an office job]. I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and that was ranching.
While I was in college, my dad asked me to do him a favor and take ballroom dancing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but then the cows took over. My daughter, Justina, is a professional ballroom dancer and competes all over the United States.
The two things I take the most pride in are being able to track cattle in the high country and find them when nobody else can, and reading a herd of cows. My dad taught me both of these skills without me even knowing it.
Being alone does not bother me. I learned that in the high country as a kid; we rarely saw other people. We would leave the valley in June and didn’t come off the mountain until the day before school started.
I was fortunate to have Bill Dorrance as a friend. He taught me how to make rawhide hondas, and how to handle a big loop and throw a long shot onto an unsuspecting calf. He would help me brand calves, and I learned something new every time I was around him. He had such a true knowledge of horsemanship and livestock handling. Some say it was a gift, but he would say he worked hard to accomplish his humble abilities.
Good business people say that you need to lose darn near everything to really learn how to grow and keep it. I have done that, and I can tell you it is a good lesson.
I am still living my retirement life. I have had the opportunity to work with and meet some great people like Pete Bonds of Texas. I have taken his motto, “I am writing my own legacy.” I can’t say who will take over when I am gone. I just know that while I am here I am going to continue growing and perfecting the ranch I operate.