ROCKVILLE, Ore. — When Mike Greeley was 12, he shot his first sage grouse on his father’s Malheur County cattle ranch near the Idaho border.
Nowadays, the ground-dwelling bird native to the West has been in steady decline for decades, no thanks in part to juniper trees, “water suckers,” Greeley, who is now 60, calls them. Although juniper is native, the tree has expanded into areas it had never occupied before, creating erosion issues, crowding out grasses and forbs that create natural forage for Greeley’s 450 head of Angus cross cattle, and his ruining habitat for his beloved targets, the sage grouse.
When Greeley took over his father’s nearly 5,000-acre ranch, he made a few changes that reflect this area’s longstanding shortage of water, and his own commitment to water, wildlife and soil conservation.
“My family’s been here for over a hundred years,” he said from his home perched on a hill above his ranch and Rockville’s 1897 schoolhouse, where he and his father and his children had attended grade school.
A quick look at his family history paints a picture of the rancher Greeley has become: His great-grandmother, divorced and raising four children in the 1890s, moved from California to a land claim south of Burns. Her son, Andrew Sr., Greeley’s grandfather, grew up working cattle and breaking horses, landing his own ranch on the Owyhee River when he was still a teenager. In 1903, Andrew Sr. registered the Greeley Ranch brand that is still used today.
When the river was dammed in the late 1920s, Andrew Sr. moved to a new spread around Mahogany Mountain and Rockville, and started a family. The Greeley Ranch became a base for the expanding cattle operation that became the passion of Andrew “Bud” Jr., Mike Greeley’s father.
Although he helped his father regularly on the ranch until Bud died in 2007, Mike hadn’t planned to be a rancher. Instead, he earned his college degree in industrial arts, and spent the next 30 years teaching the subject in high schools nearby.
“I hated the ranch work when I was a kid. I liked running the equipment, but I hated working with cows. Now I’ve figured out what pays the bills,” Greeley said.
When he took over the ranch more than 10 years ago, he began to re-create the 100-year-old ranch with an eye to a sustainable future.
Among those changes: The juniper that had been expanding its hold on his land for all of those years had to go. It was not only crowding out the sage grouse, which didn’t like to fly in juniper-thick areas, but the trees were also using precious water needed by the native grasses his cattle use for forage. When Greeley heard about the NRCS program that helped pay to remove juniper, he connected with Malheur County’s staff and began to cut in 2015. By next year, Greeley estimates his crews will have cut nearly 1,700 acres of juniper on his land.
Already, the grouse are returning and the grasses are rebounding.
Greeley has changed a few other traditions on his farm, with an eye to reduce costs and labor, and increasing herd and land health. Among them:
• Spring calves: Traditionally, Eastern Oregon ranchers calve in January, believing the calves are heartier. But the loss to cold weather and the extra cost for feed convinced Greeley to change to a March calving season. Where his father once lost 10 percent of his calves to sickness and coyotes, his son now loses less than 3 percent, and spends less because the cattle are sooner on pasture feed.
• Native grass forage: Restoring springs and protecting natural grasses and habitat is good for native wildlife, and it’s good for his cattle, Greeley said. He rotates grazing pastures each three years while the cattle are on the ranch in the fall and winter. In the spring and summer, his cattle are on adjacent BLM land. As recent fires on BLM land have reduced access, he’s had to increase pasture on his own land, making its health is even more important.
• Keeping costs down: Although he has two big trucks for hauling livestock trailers, his everyday rigs are old Toyotas and UTVs, to keep gas costs low. He and his wife, Theresa, and one hired man run the operation, with some seasonal help, to keep labor costs low.
• Haying practices: Greeley changed the way he cuts his hay fields, beginning in the middle and moving to the outside, to allow birds time to escape. He steers around nests and has attached flusher bars to his cutting equipment to give wildlife a three-foot head start.
“I’m still in business. We’ve got through the tough times. We’re still doing OK. I guess we’re doing something right,” Greeley said.