Sol RanchEight-month apprenticeship on a cow-calf/custom graze cattle operation in Wagon Mound, NM
Sol Ranch is a cow-calf/custom graze cattle operation in the short grass/canyon country of northeastern New Mexico outside of Wagon Mound. This business is owned by young rancher, Emily Cornell, who is transitioning into the tenure of her family’s land. Sol Ranch grazes their cows, calves, and yearlings on grass year round on 13,000 acres. In 2020, Sol Ranch began marketing their grass-fed/finished beef through locally owned farm stands as well as directly to the consumer. This business is growing and changing as it adopts the structure and strategies of successful grass-fed beef production on rangeland in rural New Mexico. Sol Ranch strives to manage for biologically diverse ecosystems with healthy soil through continuously improving grazing management, infrastructure development, monitoring, and collaborations with scientists and neighbors.
Sol Ranch is a cow-calf/custom graze operation in the short grass/canyon country of northeastern New Mexico outside of Wagon Mound at around 6000 ft in elevation. This business is owned by young rancher, Emily Cornell, who is transitioning into the tenure of her family’s land. Emily began purchasing mama cows from her father’s well adapted, grass-based cattle herd in 2018. The herd has grown to approximately 120 mama cows and heifers. Sol Ranch is currently expanding their new grassfed beef business and developing the marketing and production strategies necessary to produce locally grown range-fed beef with minimal inputs and zero hormones or antibiotics. Sol Ranch custom grazes other people’s cattle when the ranch has excess forage.
The Cornell Ranch, operated by Emily’s parents, Jeff and Camille Cornell, runs the remaining 40,000 acres of the family’s land situated along the Mora and Canadian Rivers. This is a cow-calf operation with a herd of 500 black and red angus/black white face mama cows. The Cornell Ranch has practiced intensive rotational grazing since the 1980s and had some of the original designs of wagon wheel cell grazing developed through holistic management. This operation has proved effective in low-stress, low-input cattle grazing management adapted to this rugged landscape for 40+ years. The ranch has remained profitable even during a five year drought in the early 2000s.
Sol Ranch is also in the process of working with the local NRCS office to improve ranch infrastructure in order to facilitate improved grazing management practices, soil health, and wildlife habitat. Sol Ranch partners with the High Plains Grasslands Alliance of the Las Vegas, NM area as well as New Mexico State University and Highlands University to implement sound range monitoring practices. Other projects currently taking place on the ranch include targeted goat grazing through the use of herding techniques for predator control; rangeland compost application trials; habitat improvement, groundwater monitoring, and university research. Sol Ranch strives to manage for diverse ecosystems with productive, healthy soil through continuously improving grazing management, infrastructure development, and collaborations with scientists and neighbors.
Ranching is a year round endeavor but contains seasonal workloads that are more intensive at certain times of the year. The cow herds on both Sol Ranch and the Cornell Ranch calve out on the range in late March/early April. Cattle are rotated closer to the working facilities in late spring so that calves can be branded in June. Neighboring is a big part of the culture in this region. Ranches exchange labor during the branding season to gather and brand each ranch’s calves. After branding, cattle are moved about the property according to forage availability and managed with careful observation and adaptive planning. Cattle are sorted and steer calves are shipped off in late October/early November. Heifers are fence-line weaned and then grazed on stockpiled native grass throughout the winter. The yearlings, which are custom grazed on Sol Ranch, arrive in May, are carefully watched for the first three weeks, and are then rotated as one large herd through the property according to forage availability and overall rangeland health goals of the ranch. They are shipped out in early October. The summer months of July-August/September are spent working on various projects across the ranch.
Primary Mentor: Emily Cornell
Emily Cornell grew up on the Cornell Ranch and has worked on the ranch since she was a young child. She remembers lots of time spent moving large herds of cattle horseback and checking electric fence and water. Upon graduation from Wagon Mound High, she left to attend school at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado where she obtained a degree in Environmental and Organismic Biology. While in school, Emily worked as a river guide in the four corner’s region during the summer months. It was through this work that Emily reconnected with the land and began to develop an appreciation for the natural world. In true Durango fashion, she began to see the landscape as a playground and developed a passion for hiking, climbing, trail running, snowboarding, camping, rafting, etc. Combined with her education in ecology and soil biology, she developed an ever growing passion for understanding the ecological processes at play on the land and the importance of careful land management.
After graduating college, Emily became a range technician for the Manti-La Sal National Forest outside of Moab, Utah. She spent her time working in the forest performing range trend and utilization analyses of the grazing allotments while spraying weeds and working on spring developments. After her first season, she returned home to the ranch to help her Dad through his shoulder surgery recovery. It was then that she realized that if she intended to manage land, it needed to be her family’s land, so she moved home. She started out working for her Dad, managing his cattle on part of the ranch. She attended Ranching for Profit school and completed online courses through Holistic Management International while soaking up as much education on land health and cattle management as possible. She began custom grazing yearling cattle on her own in 2016 in between short stints in Texas where she worked as a bug trapper for Texas A&M Extension and as a vet assistant managing 300+ mares on a daily basis.
Today, Emily’s focus in on improving the land while building her cattle business and pursuing diversity of ranch income. She spends her free time monitoring well water levels in her county, exploring the endless canyons on the ranch, pursuing agriculture and land health education whenever possible, and escaping occasionally to the mountains or rivers to play.
Secondary Mentors: Jeff and Camille Cornell
Jeff Cornell was born in Clovis, NM to a family with a rich heritage in Texas/New Mexico/Montana ranching, but he did not grow up on a ranch. He left Clovis after high school to attend the University of New Mexico where he studied psychology. It was there in Albuquerque in the late 60s/early 70s that Jeff began to develop a greater understanding of holistic lifestyle. Upon graduating from UNM, Jeff moved to Las Vegas, NM where he began working on his parent’s recently purchased cattle ranch. It was then that he met his wife, Camille. Jeff and Camille worked to learn the culture and skills required of a ranching couple while maintaining their unique, outside perspective. Jeff attributes his ability to think outside the box and pursue alternative methods of grazing and land management to the fact that he didn’t grow up on a ranch and was free to observe and learn from nature.
Jeff and Camille are Ranching for Profit and HRM alumni, early members of the Quivira Coalition, and long-term partners in stewardship with the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS). Additionally Jeff was a member of the Mora-Wagon Mound Soil Water Conservation District board, a winner of the Society for Range Management’s Excellence in Grazing Management award, and a long time daily runner/walker. Jeff and Camille strive to achieve holistic health both on their ranch and in their lifestyle. Jeff is constantly reevaluating his practices while continuing to be an avid learner, reading anything he gets his hands on. He values nature and her infinite wisdom and looks to her for answers rather than to more conventional methods of ranching. He is an accomplished grazier, running 500-700 mama cows in a rough landscape with minimal outside help.
Nuts and Bolts
Through the apprenticeship at Sol Ranch, an apprentice can expect to learn:
- Routine checks of water, health, numbers of cattle etc.
- Livestock water pipeline system repair and management.
- Construction and movement of temporary electric fence.
- Construction and repair of barbed wire and high tensile electric fence.
- Supplementation of protein in non-growing season, salt and mineral.
- Moving and sorting cattle on horse, ATV, afoot, or with cake feeder using low stress techniques.
- Vaccination, branding, etc. of cattle in the spring and fall.
- Calving heifers and cows (usually uneventful here)
- Basic record keeping
- Grazing planning and monitoring, including forage forecasting.
- Genetic selection and planning for low input, adaptability and profitability.
- Regular work with neighboring ranches to accomplish seasonal cattle or goat work.
- Exposure to NRCS projects in various stages of progress, including land planning of water and fence infrastructure, erosion control, brush control, follow-up management, nutrition analysis, grazing planning, etc.
- Time spent with NMSU range students and professors working on long term range monitoring, weather monitoring, and precipitation monitoring on the ranch. Time spent with other scientists studying local hydrology, geology, and ecology in the region.
- Various opportunities to learn from landowners in the area or in the High Plains Grasslands Alliance, including those working on riparian restoration, habitat improvement, and soil healthy restoration through a variety of techniques.
- An apprentices would have the opportunity to assist in the early phases of riparian restoration projects including building of Zeedyk structures, willow and cottonwood planting, fencing, etc.
- Time spent almost daily identifying range plants, assessing current season/ long range trend and overall plant community function.
- Apprentices will have the opportunity to become familiar with record keeping using both old school paper based techniques (used by Jeff) as well as more modern systems of record keeping via computer and online programs such as Maia Grazing and Quickbooks.
- Some basic education in financial planning, including profit projections, marketing, and adjusting production schedules to meet financial goals. These are just some of the skills apprentices will be exposed to.
Start and End Date: Ideally, March 15-20 to November 15-20, although students and individuals with alternate start and end dates will still be considered.
Who would be the main mentor and what is their primary role on the ranch?: Emily Cornell will be the main mentor. She is the owner/operator of Sol Ranch as well as the manager of conservation projects happening on the Cornell Ranch. Jeff Cornell is the secondary mentor and is the owner/operator of the Cornell Ranch. Additionally mentors are dependent on other current employees and their experience levels.
Are there specific challenges on the operation that the apprentice could help find possible solutions to address?: Apprentices are encouraged to research and educate themselves on various aspects of land health especially riparian and range condition. Input provided by apprentices regarding erosion, overgrazing, and various other resource issues is appreciated and will be considered as part of the grazing/restoration planning processes.
Stipend: The stipend is determined each year by available funds. Typically the take home pay is around $800 monthly after taxes and deductions for housing, utilities, etc. The stipend may or may not cover monthly expenses for the apprentice based on his or her needs and lifestyle. The position does not allow time for a second job, so the apprentice should consider his or her budgetary needs before applying to this position.
Time off : Apprentices will be given 1-2 days off a week. Seasonal workloads sometimes require 6+ days a week but more consistent time off is available during less busy seasons.
Visitors: The apprentice needs to inform Emily of visitors prior to their arrival. Family and friends are encouraged to visit but should not interfere with work time and may be required to help out.
Housing: The apprentice will live in a camper trailer on the property in close proximity to Emily’s home. The camper will have electricity, heat, water, toilet, and a kitchenette.
Food: Grassfed beef from the freezer will be made available to the apprentice. Meals will be shared several times per week. The apprentice is expected to purchase most of their own food including lunches on most days.
Pets: Working dogs and horses will be allowed on a case by case basis. The occasional pet that fits in with the living arrangement and does not chase livestock will be considered as well.
All the fun stuff: Alcohol use is allowed in moderation after the work day and on days off but we ask that the apprentice use safe judgement as to the appropriate time and use. Tobacco is permitted on the property.
Health Insurance: The ranching lifestyle has inherent dangers. While personal health insurance is not required to participate in the apprenticeship program, it is strongly encouraged. Sol Ranch carries Workman’s Compensation to cover injuries incurred on the job. But if the apprentice is injured on his or her day off, gets sick, or has or develops chronic conditions like allergies, these types of issues should be covered by personal health insurance.
Ranch Vehicles: Apprentice will use ranch vehicles for work.
Personal Vehicle: A personal vehicle is highly recommended for apprentice independence on their time off.
Services available to the apprentice:
- Washer and dryer: The apprentice will have access to a washer and dryer in Emily’s house.
- Internet connection: Wifi will be available in the camper by the time of arrival if not shortly after. Apprentices are always welcome to use Emily’s house including the living room and kitchen.
- What is cell phone service like on your ranch? What is the best provider for cell phone service? Cell phone service is limited on the ranch and comes and goes in the camper. The best service for our region is AT&T. There is always service for any carrier within about a 10 minute or less drive from the house.
- Are there any additional items the apprentice will need for the duration of the apprenticeship? 1. The camper will be fully furnished. Apprentices are welcome to bring their own coffee mugs, utensils, bed sheets and towels, but these items are available if need be. Apprentices are expected to provide:
- Their own work wear including practical footwear for riding and days spent walking around in rocky, rough terrain. The weather is quite variable even within a day and therefore apprentices should plan on bringing lots of layers and clothing they don’t mind damaging while on the job. Thrift stores are great for this reason. Practical daily clothing includes long-sleeved shirts, pants, and a hat that keeps the sun off the face along with sunscreen on exposed skin and sunglasses.
- A backpack to carry their everyday items in such as water, extra layers, tools, paper, pens, phones, snacks, GPS messenger, etc.
- Water containers for carrying up to a gallon or more of water with them.
Quivira Coalition Activities: This apprenticeship is offered through Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program. The full cohort of apprentices on regenerative ranches and farms across the west will attend an April orientation, participate in supplemental education provided in partnership with Holistic Management International, and attend the annual Quivira Conference, hosted with Holistic Management International and the American Grassfed Association, in November. Apprentices are also required to write several reports during their apprenticeship; these reports will go through the NAP Coordinator at Quivira, and be posted on the Quivira website.
Living in Wagon Mound: The village of Wagon Mound is about 15 minutes away from the headquarters. It is a tiny town of about 200 people with a couple of gas stations, a post office, and a school. The nearest towns for grocery shopping, hospitals, etc. are about an hour away in Las Vegas or Raton. Santa Fe and Taos are a couple hours away and have lots of music and such going on. Angel Fire, Eagle’s Nest, Red River, and Trinidad, CO are also cool little mountain towns about 1-2 hours away. The ranch is very rural but the area is prime for mountain biking, hiking, fishing, climbing, rafting, and more.
COVID – 19: Apprentices will need to be extra considerate of their aging mentors and apply social distancing techniques with all of the crew and neighbors when possible. Apprentices are expected to use good hygienic practices including washing their hands often going to and from town or while in town. When interacting with large groups of people outside of our daily work crew, masks will be worn to prevent spread of the virus. The apprentice should limit exposure to others by reducing social engagements in public areas and always practicing safe social distancing techniques. Should apprentices travel outside of the state, they shall have to work primarily by themselves for a period of two weeks upon return, which can place a burden on the operation depending on the season and should be taken into consideration.
“It is so much fun, so gratifying and also such a relief to see ways in which the ecosystems here on the ranch are functioning well and how the cattle are part of all that along with the wild grazers. As someone who became curious about ranching as a way of relating to the land and improving the food system, my newly acquired first hand experience of the real genius in this system is a profound and visceral affirmation.” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog
“Through my apprenticeship at Sol Ranch, I hope to gain an understanding of what it takes to make that happen; I hope to gain a deeper knowledge of the biological systems of the ranch, the planning, the horsemanship and low stress stockmanship, the fencing, the number crunching, and everything else that goes into getting delicious grassfed and finished beef from conception to plate. It has been a privilege to be here and work here thus far, and I look forward towards the days to come, and the unfolding of the season.” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog
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