The face of ranching in the West is changing. Ranches that have been the lockstitch in the fabric of Western culture, tradition and economy for generations continue to disappear as they’re sold for recreational property, subdivided into ranchettes, and overtaken by a multitude of uses, few of which include a cow.

It was into this changing Western landscape, then, that the iconic Bell Ranch in northeastern New Mexico came up for sale several years ago. That’s notable because, at nearly 300,000 acres, the Bell Ranch could well be the largest working ranch to be offered for sale for the next several generations.

Earlier this year, the Silver Spur Ranch, headquartered at Encampment, WY, purchased the Bell, bringing to a close years of speculation about the future of the historic ranch. To the relief of many, the Silver Spur plans to operate the Bell Ranch much as it has been managed for the 186 years of its existence.

Progressive approach

“Silver Spur’s goal is this will remain a working, productive cattle ranch with conservation and stewardship as the foremost of our goals,” says Cheramie Viator, who handles genetics and marketing for Silver Spur. “Our company mantra is creating ranch traditions for tomorrow’s generations. That’s what the core values of our operation are about – creating and maintaining sustainable ranches for the future,” she says.

“This ranch appealed to us from both the historic standpoint and the cow-calf opportunity here,” she adds. “It’s an incredible ranch in terms of grass, in terms of the infrastructure. But the iconic appeal had a lot to do with it.”

To that end, Silver Spur management intends to maintain many of the working traditions on the Bell Ranch. “The commitment to the community, to the beef industry, those things are very important,” she says.

In fact, many people have had a brush with Bell Ranch history and not realized it. For many years, a black-and-white photo adorned every Stetson hat box. The picture, taken in the 1940s, showed a cowboy heeling a calf just prior to its introduction to the branding fire. The cowboy in the picture was Mark Woods, long-time Bell Ranch wagon boss.

The Bell’s long history

The Bell Ranch was created by a Mexican land grant in 1824, just three years after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, says Don Hofman, who retired as Bell Ranch general manager in 1987. Hofman became general manager in 1970 when Bill Lane, patriarch of the family that previously owned the operation, bought the headquarters.

The distinctive Bell Ranch brand was registered in 1875, Hofman says, and is still used today. The ranch has had only a few owners since a group of Englishmen bought the ranch from the Juan Pablo Montoya family in the 1870s. The original grant was around 656,000 acres, says Hofman, and the British owners purchased the adjoining Baca grant, putting the Bell Ranch at around 700,000 acres at one time. In 1947, the Bell Ranch was divided into six tracts and sold.

When Lane bought the headquarters in 1970, he became owner of around 138,000 acres of Western history. A few years later, he was able to buy additional acreage once part of the original land grant, bringing the Bell Ranch to its current 292,100 acres, every inch deeded land.

The ranch can comfortably run 5,000 pairs, with room left for replacement heifers and summertime stockers. However, because of long and enduring drought, the pastures have been stocked much more conservatively in recent years.

That stewardship ethic shows. Even in the face of withering drought, the ranch’s large pastures are still abundant with grass. “It’s one of the best mother cow ranches in New Mexico and maybe the Southwest,” Hofman says. “It doesn’t take an awful lot of supplemental feed.”

The future

The Silver Spur Ranch, which began operations in the 1950s, consists of the headquarters ranch in Encampment, as well as ranches in Walden and Kiowa, CO, and the TO Ranch and now the Bell Ranch in northern New Mexico. The Silver Spur runs about 12,000 commercial cows as well as produces registered Charolais, Angus, Red Angus and Hereford bulls, and a composite they call Rangefire, which is a cross between Charolais and Red Angus.

While Silver Spur management has great respect for the Bell Ranch’s historic past and iconic status, some changes are in store. The Silver Spur runs a black-based commercial cowherd, but plans to keep a red-hided genetic base on the Bell Ranch. Under new manager Kris Wilson, previously with the Matador Ranch in Texas, they’ll shift away from Bell Red composite, grow their Red Angus commercial numbers in coming years, and eventually move into their Rangefire genetics as a terminal cross.

As they tweak the genetics, they’ll continue to be very sensitive, as they are on all their ranches, to matching females to the environment. “It’s incredibly beautiful, the ranch is,” Viator says. “For all the beauty the ranch has, I think when it’s dry, it can be equally as cruel. It will be important to understand and manage around what moisture and environment dictate.”

For the Bell Ranch, they’re shooting for a 1,150- to 1,200-lb. cow that can wean 50% of her body weight every year. In the good grass years, the cows will be expected to come in with a heavier calf, while in the dry times, bring a calf that’s a similar percent of her bodyweight and still rebreed.

Silver Spur retains ownership in the majority of its calves, feeding them in commercial feedyards and marketing fed cattle as natural or non-hormone treated cattle (NHTC).Their goal for a steer going to harvest is first a calf that will make money. To help accomplish that, they’re looking for 85% Choice, YG 3 or better and a mid-60s dressing percent.

Silver Spur has a large historical database of harvest information on its cattle, but tying the feedyard and carcass data back to the ranch has been a challenge. So they’re working to build a system to track from cow to carcass and back to cow, using visual tags on the cows and electronic ID tags on the calves. The goal is to gain efficiency by eliminating the bottom-producing cows across the entire operation.

“When we get through, everything will be individually identified. So we’ll incorporate technology with tradition in order to create profitability for the ranch,” Viator says.

“We have a lot of respect for the traditions and the culture of each area where our ranches are,” Viator says. “I think it’s important going forward that we maintain that. Silver Spur is very family-oriented and the core values of the company are things I think we need to see in our country – integrity, family, God. Those things are what we’re about.”

Those who care about the ranching tradition of the West find comfort in that. “It’s one of the last great places on earth,” Caren Cowan, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association executive director, says of the Bell Ranch. “It’s the foundation of the custom and culture of the West. It’s part of what you think is always going to be there. It always has been and we look forward to it always being there.”