Paul Schwennesen stares squint-eyed at one corner of his mesquite-covered property and draws a hand to his mouth to holler.
“Weee-up!” he yells.
The rancher is trying to give me a glimpse of his herd of cattle, though he says that when working with livestock it’s best to make no promises.
“Weeeeee-up!” he calls again, this time more insistently.
The Schwennesens’ cattle are an independent bunch, due to their parentage of Limousin bull and brangus heifer — a cross between angus and brahman. The mothers birth calves without help, the little ones hardly ever get sick, and the whole herd is sometimes hard to locate.
“They basically take care of themselves,” Paul says. “We like them aggressive and alert when we have them in the wild.”
Double Check Ranch isn’t technically the wild. It’s on the outskirts of Winkelman, 60 miles north of Tucson. But the acreage comes closer to wild than the feedlots where most of America’s cattle spend the ends of their lives. It has a mountain view, prickly vegetation and a generous supply of coyotes and snakes.
Paul and his wife, Sarah, might at first glance seem unlikely people to tend such land. They’re both Harvard-educated, and Paul’s exotic childhood took him as far from rural America as South Africa, Pakistan and Kashmir.
But most of his formative years unfolded on ranches — his father worked for the United Nations and World Bank managing natural resources — and Sarah, who grew up in suburban Denver, always dreamed of leading a rural life.
The couple unequivocally chose a life with cattle, and they also have chosen to ranch in a way that gives each cow a life. The animals forage for their own food and subsist entirely on grass — most of it native — which gives them a distinctive flavor.
“We have toothsome, full-bodied-flavored animals that have a history and a life,” Paul says as we tromp through a pasture searching for his cows. Foraging also makes beef higher in Omega-3 fatty acid and conjugated linoleic acid, a substance with anti-cancer properties.
Paul’s methods don’t mean he disapproves of more common ways of getting meat into people’s freezers. The large beef companies find ways of using every bit of meat, he points out, and they’re good at optimizing resources.
“It’s too easy to say a feedlot is a prison,” he says. “I like to see them here more, but that’s a personal preference. I think it’s a great thing we don’t have people starving in the streets.”
But people are beginning to understand the unintended costs of modern practices too, Paul says, some of them environmental.
The Schwennesens practice sustainability at their ranch. They use a fencing system that forces their cattle to eat everything in an area before moving on so the best species aren’t killed out. They also compost animal byproducts to enrich the soil and have begun to make biodiesel for their farm vehicles from excess fat.
“People who live on the land have a vested interest in it being around as long as possible,” Paul points out.
At the end of my visit, Paul leads me to the slaughterhouse where two cows are scheduled to meet their demise the next day. His pace slows as we come to the animals’ pen, and he grows quiet.
We watch the animals, their coats darkened by shadows from the setting sun.
“It’s important that we respect their role in this,” he says. “They’re a big animal. They have a personality. It’s not something to take lightly. And when you do it on a small scale like this, you don’t take it lightly.”
DOUBLE CHECK RANCH
Location: 4965 N. Camino Rio in Winkelman
Local Sources: Oro Valley Farmers Market on Saturday mornings (11000 N. La Cañada Drive), Tucson Farmers Market on Sunday mornings (4380 N. Campbell Ave.), other farmers markets periodically.
Farming practices: “We’re beyond organic in the sense that we don’t do anything foreign to the animals at any point. We don’t add hormones, antibiotics or steroids. We give them a one-time vaccine. That’s all.”