By Cynthia Armour
City on a Hill Press Reporter
When wrangler Tommy Williams honks the horn of his hay-filled flatbed truck, the cows come running down the field.
“Give them a little hay, honk the horn a bit and they just come right in,” wrangler José Ramirez said.
The cattle are not an unusual sight on campus, but they are an irregular one. They spend six months of the year on UC Santa Cruz grounds, and the other six months on Younger Ranch or on city or county grounds.
“The brown ones are just like pets,” Williams said. “They won’t charge you.”
The cows, which typically number between 30 and 40, would travel across all of Empire Grade very early in the morning to get from Younger Ranch to the East Meadows.
“They used to cowboy them over. That was a great sight,” said Dean Raven, the senior superintendent of grounds services. “They would have eight or 10 cowboys, all dressed up with scarves and hats, and we would stop all the traffic to let the cows through.”
Raven said leasing the field to cattle ranchers is the practical thing for the university to do.
“Cattle-grazing has three primary functions: fire-fuel reduction, habitat maintenance and aesthetics,” Raven said. “The open meadows are UCSC’s signature look, and the cattle are a big part of that. We’re not city. It makes a statement.”
According to a report by Jamie Self, the first student intern to study grassland management, on the development of a UCSC Grassland Monitoring Program, the cattle are part of the university’s campus conservation plan. They are brought to graze up on campus as an “affordable wildfire tool” and to preserve certain native plants.
“Having the cows graze in early spring allows them to eat the non-native plants before the seed,” the report stated. “The cattle continue to graze into early summer, reducing the fuel for potentially threatening wild-land fires.”
Cattle-grazing is “a big part of grassland management,” Raven said.
When the university first opened, the Porter meadow, the Great Meadow — which extends from below the Arboretum to the Farm — and other areas were all grazing pastures for the cows. However, grazing on campus ended in 1991 after repeated conflicts between bicyclists and cows.
“The bike paths went through the Great Meadow, and accidents happened often enough,” Raven said.
It became such a concern that the cows were removed.
Cattle-grazing on campus resumed in 1993 on the East Meadows, where there are no bike paths. The vegetation is surveyed every year and the cattle rotate every other month in order to prevent overgrazing. UC Santa Cruz leases the land out to Williams, but has no affiliation with the cattle. The school does not manage the cattle or use them for education or research.
Williams believes that having the cattle on campus is beneficial for everyone involved.
“We have an agreement,” Williams said. “I pay them a yearly lease. It’s a fair price for them and for me to make it all work.”
Raven said there is very little money involved in the exchange.
“It’s a very nominal fee — in exchange he maintains the fences and gates,” Raven said, and the cattle maintain the meadows.
“See how quick those calves grew,” Williams said. “That’s where the income is, in selling calves.”
Being a wrangler is not a full-time job. Williams and Ramirez, who work part-time, do not do it for the money.
“You gotta love what you do,” Ramirez said. “To make money in this business, you have to have a lot of cattle. And you have to own your land.”
For Williams, being a cattle rancher “is just a hobby, something I do because my grandfather and his father did,” he said.
The herd itself is “a cross herd,” Ramirez said. Two-thirds or more are Black Angus, and all are still branded “N-A,” the brand name of Williams’s great-grandfather. They have had the brand since the ’40s, and are “keeping the brand in the family.”
“Most of the cattle still get branded the old way,” Ramirez said, using a branding iron. While Ramirez prefers to do all his work on horseback and secure the animals for branding by roping them, William uses the modern ranch practice of running the animals into a confined area to apply the brand.
Ramirez also competes in ranch rodeos. He said he does not have time to train for Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos, but participates in local rodeos.
“I’m the support team,” Williams said.
Williams is not concerned about students interfering with the cattle, particularly because there are no bulls on campus. Nevertheless, some problems occur.
“Once a month, they’ll get out. Someone will leave a gate open or the calves will twist the wires and get out,” Williams said, laughing. “They were up in the parking lot for Christmas.”
The animals here are well-off, the wranglers said.
“We don’t give them any hormones,” Williams said. “Vitamins, vaccines, yes. Antibiotics, no — unless they’re sick.”
And the cows are rarely sick. In other regions, where cows have to walk far to get water, heifers are sold off after “five or six years. Their livers are just shot,” Ramirez said.
Here in Santa Cruz, the heifers are sold after nine or 10 years. Watching the cows graze peacefully and bask in the beautiful weather, Ramirez chuckles.
“Climate is great. They don’t have to walk far for water,” he said. “They have it made. We all got it made.”