The people crowded around the stout loading chute at the Lubken Ranch were bundled up against the morning wind in a colorful assortment of winter gear, from cowboy hats and canvas Carhartt coats to wool beanies and Patagonia down jackets.
“I was hoping for a little better day. It’s a bit blustery,” said Scott Kemp, which made some in the crowd wonder what the local rancher might consider “windy.”
As a brisk “breeze” sliced though the wooden fences, Duane Rossi grabbed a shovel, dug a hole, tossed in some kindling and lit a fire that quickly warmed up chilled hands and backsides, and heated up two Dutch ovens. Later, he served up homemade biscuits and, appropriately, beef stew that also warmed up the crowd. Rossi’s Dutch oven cooking provided tangible taste of ranch life, which he spiced up with a dash of his cowboy poetry.
Kemp spoke about the century-plus history of the Lubken Ranch, and his family’s current cattle operation in the Owens Valley. The presentation was part of this year’s Community Reads program, sponsored by Inyo County Superintendent of Schools, which highlights ranching life.
Whether he was talking about the fate of “empty cows,” a heart-stopping confrontation with a “renegade” bull, the scourge of hypocuprosis or making hard decisions driven by the current drought, Kemp’s talk made it clear that a cattle ranch is a business first, albeit one that comes with a unique lifestyle.
Kemp’s talk also revealed that although plenty has changed over the years, some aspects of ranching haven’t changed much in the past century.
John Lubken started running cattle on the 760-acre spread on the flanks of the Sierra south of Lone Pine in 1897. Like the other Owens Valley ranchers, he took his herds into the Sierra for summer grazing season. In the 1920s, the Forest Service started requiring permits to graze on Forest land, and Lubken got the permit for the Monache Meadow, Kemp said. Over time, the Lubken family acquired additional grazing leases from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Lubken family ran the ranch until 1958, when they sold to Katherine Spencer, who quickly expanded her “Rancho Sameteguma” until the operation was running 5,000 to 6,000 head of cows, 250 to 300 bulls, and about 700 replacement heifers. Kemp’s dad, Sandy, managed the Spencer Ranch, and Scott started working the ranch right after college, alongside Rossi.
A significant change to the valley’s cattle industry came in 1957 in the form of a vaccine that eliminated the threat of calves suffering from a debilitating copper deficiency (the aforementioned hypocuprosis), Kemp said. That allowed ranchers to graze cattle on the valley floor throughout the year, instead of always moving cattle to the high country to avoid the malady.
In 1984, Spencer sold the sprawling Rancho Sameteguma in three parts: Bishop/Long Valley; north of Independence; and the private ranchland and leases from Independence to Olancha, which were purchased by the Kemp family.
Today, the Lubken Ranch is one of only three privately held ranches larger than 600 acres in Inyo County, Kemp noted. And it has shrunk a bit, to 720 acres, after 40 acres were recently subdivided into home sites. In a wet year, Lubken Creek provides enough water to irrigate up to 600 acres of pastureland, with the water delivered through a three-mile long pipeline built by the Lubkens.
The extended drought has severely reduced the amount of irrigated land and the number of cattle on the ranch. Kemp said he did not irrigate at all last year, and probably won’t again this year. That means instead of running the “normal” 250 head of cattle, last year the ranch only supported 145 head, and that number will probably drop to 45 this year, he said. The Kemps have about 120,000 acres of leases, with BLM and LADWP, and normally operate with about 1,000 cattle. This year, the number will drop to 500 to 600, because of the drought, Kemp said. “It’s been a terrible year.” The lack of rain has rendered huge swaths of pasture almost barren. Kemp said the 85,000 acre BLM lease that runs on the west side of the valley from Olancha to past Independence can’t support a single cow. In good, wet years, that land could feed 1,500 to 2,000 cattle for three months, he said.
Drought aside, the work cycle of a cow-calf operation remains the same. In the fall, about 60 registered Angus bulls “mingle” with the cows, just like in the old days, since artificial insemination isn’t practical, Kemp said. Before winter, the cows that do not get pregnant are sold and shipped to a slaughterhouse. “There’s no point in feeding an empty cow.” About now through April is calving time, followed by branding, vaccinating and castrating. The steers and heifers eat all summer, and typically weigh about 600 pounds in the fall when they are sold to a feed lot to pack on more pounds before slaughter.
A more personal cow story involved Lilly, a “wonderful cow” who produced 17 calves, as opposed to the normal output of seven or eight. “I had a plaque made for her,” noted Kemp.
His scary bull story wasn’t quite as traumatic as the one author Kent Haruf described in “Eventide,” this year’s book for the Community Reads program.
Kemp had decided it was time to send a huge, rank, “renegade” bull to the slaughterhouse (bull meat is “really red,” so it’s primarily used in hamburger, he added). They caught the bull once but he broke free and ran through several fences on the way to the Owens River. Kemp and his hired hand, Dudley, found the bull hiding in a big stand of brush and willows. The bull charged and knocked Kemp’s horse over and sent him flying. “I crawled into a bush and hid” until the bull went back to its clump of brush. “I asked Dudley what we should do. He said, ‘I’ve got a gun,’ so that’s what we did. That bull is still in that bush, and I still won’t go in there.”
If that doesn’t make you want to get a taste of the cowboy life, Kemp has another option.
The cattle drive is one of the West’s enduring, iconic scenes, and every summer, the Kemps drive cattle up to Monache Meadow. Kemp said going into the mountains “is not that much fun,” since most of the “driving” is done on foot. Coming out of the mountains in the fall is a different story. The weather is usually just right, not too hot or cold, and the trees are changing color creating a scenic, autumn backdrop that is hard to beat. For four or five days you’re riding though the spectacular high county meadows “gathering” cattle, and then you push them downhill.
“It’s really fun,” said Kemp, “and we always have room for some volunteers to go along.”