Pasture to Table

In Ventura County, the transcendent vaquero tradition means more than parades and silver-adorned saddles. It means beef—naturally raised and sold by modern cowboys. ANDREA KITAY saddles up and reports from the range.

By Andrea Kitay—Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva


stride his chestnut quarter horse, Slick, on a hot, hazy afternoon near Lake Piru, Shane Watkins lets out a loud Whoop! and, with lightening speed and accuracy, throws his braided riata around the calf’s neck. Fellow cowboy and hired hand Cody Real ropes its back legs while Shane and Slick step slowly backward, keeping tension on the rope until the ground crew rushes in to take over.

Shane and his father, John Watkins, formed the Watkins Cattle Company just a few years ago. “It’s in our blood,” says Shane. Ranchers whose lineage includes farming, ranching, and butchering, John and Shane are now producing Ventura County’s only hormone-free, pasture-raised beef. Sold exclusively at local farmers markets and restaurants, the beef is in high demand and has even been known to run out.

On the narrow and sometimes perilous one-lane road that leads to their leased land earlier that morning, miles went by before they emerged at an overlook. Stopping the truck, they piled out to do a quick visual check of the cattle grazing below. “See over there,” Shane said, pointing at a distant thicket and sheltering his eyes from the early morning light, “where the wash heads into that thick brush? A few weeks ago when we were here, the first thing they did was bolt up into all that. It took us half a day up there in the saddle to drive ‘em from that thicket of dense brush back down to the wash.”

The land does look idyllic, and the small black, white, and brown dots moving around below appear docile, unaware we’re watching them. But the view from a hundred yards belies the animals’ massive size, some approaching 1,000 pounds. John and Shane—dressed in work boots, hat and jeans, and silver belt buckles engraved with the Watkins brand—run about 30 pair of cattle (cattleman lingo for a heifer and her calf) and two bulls in this hilly, rugged countryside.

“This year is unusually green because of the great rainfall,” says Shane. “We haven’t had to do any extra feeding other than weaning calves and our normal winter supplement.” In drier years and in the winter they supplement with organic hay to keep the meat from tasting too grassy, a quality they feel compromises its flavor.

The Watkins, who’ve been doing business with local farmers markets for just a few years, can’t keep up with demand. In the weeks post-branding, they ran out of nearly every cut except for soup bones and the cheek meat, which John swears is one of the tenderest cuts. Though full-time ranching is a top priority for Shane, who also runs a fencing business, there is the very real issue of growing a business too fast. “Our goal is to be profitable,” says Shane, “but we won’t compromise our methods to make a quick buck.”

Tall and slim, Shane, 39, is friendly but reserved. Tanned from working outdoors, and sporting a Pancho Villa-style moustache, he comes alive when the talk turns to his passion: ranching and cowboy life. “Last weekend the whole family came out. Even my daughter Ashley, who’s eight, and Amber, my six-year old. They tallied the pairs. Amy started the barbeque, and friends and other ranchers helped dad and the ground crew. Cody, a coupla’ other riders, and I headed up into the brush. It was a great day. No television, no technology, just ranch life.”

John also keeps a close eye on the cattle. “We’ve got a mix: Black Angus, Hereford, Red Angus,” he says. “Even the calves have a lot of weight to throw around, so when we work with them most of the crew is on the ground. This last roundup, though, we had more guys in the saddle than ground crew. It was challenging.”

Riding on Slick, Shane and company spent the morning finding and moving the herd to the wash. The rest of the afternoon and early evening they cut out and roped the older, larger calves for weaning, vaccinations, and ear tags. All of the calves were branded. “Once they’re weaned we’ll move them to New Cuyama, where they’ll join up with another herd,” says Shane, opening a jar of Copenhagen chewing tobacco and shoving it into his cheek. “The land there is flatter, and the cattle are less likely to fall or wander off and get hurt,” he says, spitting.

The cowboys at Watkins Cattle Company all ride in the vaquero cowboy tradition. Cody Real, 50, a lifelong cowboy who grew up and worked on several Hearst ranches, is the most experienced. “It’s back in the brush where experienced cowboys are separated from novices,” explains Shane. “Cody is the best. He has total control over Bucky (his quarter horse) with very light use of his hands.”

The roots of vaquero riding go back to eighth-century Spain, subsequently to Mexico, and later to California, where it’s still in vogue. The cowboys wear chinks, a shorter version of chaps, and intricate silverwork on their bridles and saddles, and train their horses in a lengthy, multi-step process: from the hackamore stage to the two-rein, and finally to “straight up in the bridle.” The vaquero style emphasizes slight movements of a cowboy’s hands to transmit those cues through the bit.

Although the cowboys at the Watkins Cattle Company might take offense at being called tree-huggers—after all, these are rough and tough cowboys—providing a better life for the animals whose end was predetermined before birth is not only more humane, it’s good business. Their meat is healthier, better tasting, and increasingly popular amongst not only foodies, but also the folks that make the weekly journey to one of several area farmers markets to snap it up. And because the cattle spend their whole lives in the same few pastures, they never see a feed lot or receive prophylactic antibiotics.

If the preferences of consumers and restaurants are any proof, the Watkins Cattle Company suggests that family ranching is not only the key to top-quality beef, but also to a happy herd. And no one is happier about that than the Watkins boys. ­­


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