Inez and Elias Jaca raise cattle for Niman Ranch in western Idaho. Both are fourth-generation ranchers from immigrant families, and their ancestors’ turbulent stories typify the ranching experience in the American West.
Inez’s great-great-uncle was one of the first Spanish Basques to settle in Idaho, arriving in the mid-1890s at the age of fourteen. He took up sheep ranching, and in 1906 bought his own ranch, which remains in the family today. The land passed to his nephew, who later sold it to his own nephew, Inez’s father. In 1945, Inez’s father switched to cattle because the sheep business was no longer profitable. It had become too difficult to find skilled shepherds; nobody was willing to do such lonely work anymore. Adding to the sheep industry’s woes, American servicemen back from the war had eaten entirely too much mutton, and many swore off lamb for good.
Elias’s ancestors, also Basque, had settled in Winnemucca, Nevada. His great-grandfather enjoyed enormous success, owning many thousands of head of sheep and cattle, but he lost it all in the Great Depression. His son salvaged what he could, and then Elias’s father and uncle started over with a cattle ranch in Jordan Valley, Oregon.
In 1965, Elias and Inez married and began cattle ranching on her father’s property. Today, in summer, they have six hundred to eight hundred mother cows with their calves scattered over forty thousand federal, state and private acres. The cows calve in December at the ranch's winter headquarters on the Snake River, at twenty-five hundred feet. In April, a group of family members and hired men begin driving the herd into the Owyhee Mountains. It takes four people on horseback to keep the cattle moving.
From April until late November, the herd grazes on mountain pasture among Douglas fir and aspen and drinks from snow-fed mountain springs, moving gradually up to sixty-eight hundred feet. When it begins to snow, the cows begin the long trek down the mountain, while their calves are moved to a part of the ranch where they are fed hay over the winter. The Jacas’ son, Martin, and his wife, Susan, also of Basque heritage, run the family’s Snake River ranch and grow all the winter feed for the operation.
Inez has an air of dignity and the olive skin and handsome features of a Spanish royal. For years she served on the National Meat Board. She bristles at the notion that conscientious cattle ranching harms the environment. “My great-uncle always told me that if you take care of your land, the land will take care of you,” she says. “It’s in our best interest, and that’s why it’s so frustrating with the environmentalists who oppose all grazing. Our granddaughters will be the sixth generation here. We can’t degrade our rangelands.”
The Jacas rest some of their pastures two out of three years, to give the grasses a chance to regenerate. They know what their carrying capacity is—how many cattle their grasslands can handle—and they stay within it. “If you’re a good operator, you leave 50 percent of your grass after you’ve grazed it,” says Inez. “You don’t want to stay longer than that, so you have to have enough range to do that. We try to keep the cattle scattered, so they don’t become concentrated and damage the range.”
Inez’s father was Idaho’s Grassman of the Year in 1960, and she and Elias received the same award years later. The couple has also been honored by their county’s soil conservation district for outstanding achievement in grassland farming.
And it’s not just the land that gets the Jacas’s first-rate care; it’s their animals, too. The Jacas’s are the kind of stockpeople who regularly haul fifty-pound mineral blocks—on horseback—up virtually impassable mountain roads to ensure their cattle get all their nutrients year-round.
The Jacas combine their rich ranching heritage with an openness and willingness to innovate. Somehow, they manage to balance the new with the old perfectly. A few years ago they began using a new branding method known as “freeze branding.” It uses extreme cold, instead of heat, to permanently affix the ranch’s mark to the animal’s hide. It takes more time but is widely considered more humane.
“We’re not in it for the money,” says Inez. “We could sell our land and never have to do anything, but we love what we do. We love our animals, and we love this lifestyle. We put wholesome food on the world’s table, and there’s satisfaction in that.”