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A man of a different breed

While riding down a bumpy ranch road with Jimmy Sterling in Andrews County, Texas, a story unfolded about conservation, animal husbandry, family legacy, and stewardship. Sterling is not a man of many words but if you start talking about quality beef and land management, you will receive an education from a lifetime of ranching - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sterling is not your typical Texan rancher. He has ranches spread from Andrews County to Central Texas. On the family’s home ranch in Coahoma by Big Spring, Sterling took over the reins from his father in 1991.

Sterling Cattle Company is a cow/calf operation started by Jimmy Sterling’s father, J.M. Sterling, in 1954. Sterling currently runs several thousand cows on over 218,000 acres over nine counties on ten different ranches. One ranch is the Fort Chadbourne Ranch in Coke County where he has been leasing the grazing rights for over 20 years.

Walking the Walk

One of the many hats that Sterling wears is that of a District Director for the Howard Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). He is serious about his position and works with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help identify the needs of farmers, ranchers, and landowners in his area. He not only does this for the people of his district, but he walks the walk by working with the NRCS to have an active conservation plan on every ranch possible under his management. 

This October, Jimmy Sterling and his wife Theresa, were honored with the Texas Section Society of Range Management as the Outstanding Rangeland Stewardship Award winner for his exemplary efforts in rangeland stewardship. 

“When I lease a ranch, I want it looking better than the way it was given to me,” Sterling said. “I try to exceed everyone’s expectations by improving the rangeland through better grasses and proper grazing.”

One way he does this is through NRCS programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Through these Farm Bill programs, Sterling can use his excavators to their full potential to remove undesirable brush to restore the plains back to a grassland. He continues to improve the grasses and plant diversity by seeding native grasses as well as some introduced species such as kleingrass that is well suited for this area and the cyclical drought and dry spells.

Sterling continues to guide his walk by improving his grazing through the installation of cross fences and water sources so the cattle will utilize a pasture at optimum times while giving the other pastures rest. Frequent West Texas droughts have taught Sterling that a proper stocking rate and a drought management plan are vital for ensuring rangelands are not overgrazed.

“A good drought management plan doesn’t start after the drought has started, it is something that needs to be thought out in detail long before the rain stops falling,” explained Sterling. “I would rather bring in a few cattle for short durations during exceptionally rainy times than have to sell off a large part of my herd, so I don’t keep my ranch fully stocked.”

Jimmy uses prescribed burning as one of his tools to help increase plant diversity, kill or set back invasive brush, while also helping to protect his land from devastating wildfires. He typically will burn tabosa grass pastures to increase the palatability of the tabosa since it would not otherwise be utilized by the cattle.

Sterling understands that a lot goes into that piece of beef sitting on a dinner plate. Over recent years, he has built miles of fence, converted 11 windmills to solar pumping plants, drilled seven new wells with solar pumps, installed seven large water storage facilities and constructed nine miles of livestock water pipelines.

Tough Decisions

In West Texas, drought seems more frequent than above average rainfall. From October of 2010 to September of 2011, a drought plagued much of Texas and less than one inch of rain fell on some of his ranches. To make matters worse, a large wildfire scorched 45,000 acres on his University Lands lease in Andrews County. He lost more than 150 cows and 45 miles of fence. It was one of the hardest and most emotional experiences of his ranching career.

“The wind was blowing 70 miles an hour and most of the cows never made it to the fence in a mile and a half wide pasture,” said Sterling. “Then I lost a third of the March Ranch right out of San Angelo due to a fire, but luckily my cows were spared on that one.”

Sterling and his family had to make tough decisions due to drought and fire to try to hold onto his already thinned herd. They took a gamble and shipped 2,000 cows on 49 trucks to Oregon and California sending his daughter and son in law with the cattle. They stayed for the full 15 months until a drought hit Oregon and the herd came back to Texas.

“I would have liked to keep them up there a bit longer but it began to get dry up there, plus I had some rain on the ranch and leased another University Lands ranch.”

Quality, the end game

While Sterling works towards improving his land, he knows the end product is a quality cow herd that he can be proud of. He sees his end game as a profitable operation with the best cow that he can produce in West Texas. For years Sterling, raised Black Angus and marketed them to the natural beef industry. He began to create a quality herd through an extensive culling program. Always one to look for new opportunities in the beef industry, Sterling decided to try his hat at raising a Japanese breed called Akaushi. Akaushi are richly marbled, very tender, flavorful, and superior cut of meat. He took Akaushi bulls and bred them to his Angus herd and carcass quality was greatly improved. 

“We receive carcass results from Heartbrand Beef on our half Akaushi, half Angus calves.  They are averaging 40% prime, 55% choice with yield grades averaging under 3.” said Sterling. “We raise our cattle all natural. If we have to doctor them, we give them a permanent ear mark so we can remove them from our natural herd to our commercial herd after weaning.”

By selecting traits for the best cattle breeding, he culls based on factors such as a missed breeding, temperament, and birth weight. Sterling keeps his cattle tame while handling them horseback. He has also increased his weaning weights through his many conservation efforts such as prescribed grazing, water distribution, and brush management. In the past, most of his calves would wean at 520 pounds and now they are closer to 700 pounds.

“One of the hardest things in ranching today is educating the public that we care about the animals we raise. We don’t give them antibiotics and growth hormones,” Sterling said. “We are environmentalists in the true sense of the word by taking care of the animals, land, and our natural resources.”

A family that ranches together

Sterling and his wife raised three daughters and all have taken on a role in the ranching business. One daughter, Tara Renfro and her husband William, decided to stay on the ranch to learn how to manage multiple ranches.  Karen Rechichar, Sterling’s middle daughter, and her husband Ryan, also actively participate in many ranching activities.  The youngest daughter Laci Sterling is closely involved with the operation as well.  They have branding weekends with the family where even the grandkids get horseback to keep the cowboy tradition alive. Someday, he will turn over the reins to his children and grandchildren. His legacy will carryon for generations to come. Sterling grew up as a cowboy but through hard work, determination and vision, he became a true cattleman and steward of West Texas.

When asked for advice for young people getting started today in the cattle business Sterling said, “Control your brush, have decent fences, improve your grasses, spread the water out, and your cows will gain more weight. Spend some money, it will pay you back in the long run. Lastly, you must think like a steward of the land.”

A man of a different breed, Donnie Lunsford, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist,(2018, March)