The Roney Ranch is part of one of the most unique landscapes in California’s Sacramento Valley, the Vina Plains. Covering some 150 square miles northeast of Chico, the Plains have an austere, yet compelling beauty. Generally devoid of trees, it is an area of windswept, broad, open vistas where thin nutrient-poor soils lie atop an impervious layer of clay. The rains fall in a generally brief and undependable winter period, followed by eight to nine months of drought. The winter rains produce a brief, vivid prairie carpet of native grasses and wildflowers, but are too brief to make the land suitable for farming. The only sustainable form of agriculture on the plains is cattle ranching.
The Roney Ranch was homesteaded in the late 1850s and is still in the family five generations later. Today, Wally Roney continues to run a productive cattle ranch, which is no small achievement. Even though the grasslands look verdant after the winter rains, the thin soils hold only the rainfall, can quickly dry out, and the relatively sparse flora is easily overgrazed.
Today these grasslands are sought by environmentalists, government wildlife agencies and land managers, largely due to the unusual vernal pool ecosystem at the heart of the Vina Plains. Soil depressions fill with winter rains, holding water above the impervious clay until evaporated by summer's heat. Over thousands of years, unique plants and animals evolved in association with these ephemeral oases. The pools sustain unusual flora and fauna, including striking successions of brilliantly colored wildflowers, unusual grasses and a soup of invertebrates including tiny fairy and tadpole shrimp.
Many of these pools have disappeared through industrial and residential development, and some of the uncommon endemic species are disappearing and have been listed as threatened or endangered. The Roneys, however, through careful grazing methods and an innovative selective breeding program, maintain one of the richest vernal pool habitats in this part of the state. They prevent overgrazing by monitoring the condition of the ranch and by moving their cattle off the grasslands and into the foothills in the spring, onto mountain meadows in the summer, and back to the grasslands in the late fall. They have also cross-bred their cattle with African stock to produce cattle which are both grazers and browsers, reducing their impact on native grasses and flowers, riparian areas, and wetland habitats.
The Roneys demonstrate the genuine land ethic that comes from the long-term secure ownership of land and that accompanies their working ranch. Their interest in maintaining the land, the vernal pools, and the native wildflowers and grasses is not altruistic – their business and livelihood depend on it. In a marked contrast, there is no longer a vernal splendor at a nearby nature preserve that has taken a hands-off approach to save this rare plant community.
History and Location
The biogeographic province designated as the Vina Plains stretches from just north and east of Chico for some twenty miles to the north around Los Molinos. Route 99 approximates the western edge of these thin-soiled plains as the Sacramento River, and its thicker alluvial soils and sediments, lie a few miles to the west. But to the east the plains stretch five to ten miles to the Sierra Nevada foothills, forming a total expanse of somewhat over 150 square miles.
About 150 years ago when the first settlers were struggling across the continent to seek their fortunes, the first Roneys came upon these vast grasslands on the east-central side of the Sacramento Valley. Here they carved out homesteads from the wilderness, mixing blood and sweat with faith and hope to establish a new life. Wally Roney is the fifth generation owner of those original land holdings He manages what is now the 111,500 acre Roney Land & Cattle Company.
Wally’s great-great-grandfather and his family carved out farms and ranches in the Valley just after statehood and prior to the Homestead Act. They homesteaded a portion of the original 3,100 acre Roney Ranch in 1859, from lands included in the enormous Leland Stanford land grants – so technically the Roneys are the second owners of the land, although the first to live on the land. In 1912 Wally’s great-grandfather purchased Clover Valley in the northern Sierras, east of Mount Lassen. Using the experience he developed during a decade living in Idaho, where he was the first rancher to divert water from the Snake River for irrigation, he distributed previously diverted water to a high desert sage meadow to create one of the most productive lush grass meadows in Lassen County. In the 1920s he established the first adjudicated water rights on the Susan River, which the family retains today, as well as storage water rights on Caribou Lake.
The 3,100 acre base ranch with the Roney home, offices and ranch buildings, is located on the east side of Route 99, eight miles north of Chico and about 90 miles north of Sacramento, straddling the Butte and Tehama county line. The Roneys own another 2,500 acre parcel in the Sierra Nevada foothills, visible in the distance to the east. They also lease about 3,500 acres in the foothills, as well as a 1,300 acre area partly in the foothills and partly on the Valley plain. They also own an 1,100 acre parcel, Clover Valley, in the northern Sierra mountains, which is partially forested, but contains a beautiful, lush 700 acre mountain meadow complex. This serves as the summer ranch. The Roneys also hold grazing permits and leases to some 100,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service grazing lands and private timber company lands adjacent to the ranch’s Clover Valley property.
Federal leases and grazing permits are typical of ranching operations throughout the West where there is relatively little privately owned land and most of the land is owned, managed or held in trust by the federal government, with much of the rest largely owned by the state, county and municipal governments. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a typical ranch of Roney’s size consisting of at most a quarter section of 160 acres, with grazing permits on a hundred thousand acres of federal grazing lands. In the Roneys’ case, their 6,700 deeded acres is quite a lot of land. Over half of their leased lands are private lands as well: 4,800 acres in the foothills, and approximately 50,000 acres in the mountains. The Roneys believe that most of the available forage on their mountain leases is on private timber company lands.
To a large degree, the family’s reliance upon a large base of private lands traces back to Roney’s grandfather and his belief in private property and self-reliance, his suspicion of government ownership and control, and his disapproval of government land management practices – even in those early days. His grandfather wanted to minimize his dependence on the federal government and he instilled his belief in the importance of private property in his children.
With secure, private landholdings on Valley lands, in the foothills, and in the high mountains, the family has been able to continuously move their cattle according to the season, rainfall, and forage conditions. They almost always have some forage and water available somewhere, and were even able to survive, however painfully, some of the great droughts in California history.
Roney’s mix of largely treeless Valley plain lands, brush and oak covered foothills, grasslands, and mountain coniferous forest, meadow and sagebrush lands has made it possible for the family to successfully conduct a sustainable ranching operation for well over a century, providing a high quality life, while also bringing beef to the tables of California. Roney’s son, the sixth generation, has recently married, and he and his family will likely carry on the family ranch into its second century.
The Valley Environment
One of the first things the original homesteaders to the east side of the Sacramento Valley learned was that no matter how lush and verdant those grasslands were in the late winter and early spring following the seasonal rains, it was actually a very ephemeral and delicately-balanced environment. The soils were very thin and high in clay, and while they would hold moisture and standing water long after the winter rains, the lush native grasses and wildflowers that carpeted the plains were easily overgrazed. As the soils dried out and grass growth slowed and stopped, it was easy to graze down to bare soil and still easier to erode those thin dry reddish soils down to the bedrock. Experience was a demanding teacher and the Valley’s landowners quickly learned the basic principles of carrying capacity. They had to watch the rains, pooling, soil moisture, and grass growth very carefully in order to survive on these lands.
This part of the Central Valley has a Mediterranean climate, with a cool, moist late autumn, winter and early spring during which the year’s rainfall comes, with an average annual rainfall of 28.32 inches, followed by a long hot, dry, rainless late spring, summer and early fall. Winter is also characterized by dense ground or tule fogs. It is a land of feast and famine: four months of rain (at most), followed by at least eight months of drought. Even though the average rainfall seems plentiful, it varies from as little as 18 to as much as 47 inches, putting a twist on the old "make hay while the sun shines" to make grass while the rain falls. Once the rains stop, the ranchers must be ready to move their livestock elsewhere in order to maintain healthy vegetation, allow for reseeding, protect the soils, and leave enough grass for autumn grazing.
In spite of these harsh conditions, a lush sea of wild prairie evolved on the thin soils of these Valley lands, including some 300 species of native plants, including annual and perennial grasses and wildflowers. Only along the streams and rivers was there sufficient soil to support bushes and trees. The all-important fall and winter rains bring the land to life, inundating it with rainfall and runoff, quickly producing a lush, green carpet of grasses and then a multicolored blanket of wildflowers, coming in different colored waves depending on each plant’s requirements for water, temperature and season. The impervious clay soils hold all the water on the land, maintaining the lush growth and vibrant colors until the cessation of rain and the heat of summer finally evaporate the last moisture from the soils. Quickly, the plants set seed or dry up and go dormant (estivation) through the heat of the summer and the lush green prairie turns golden and then dull brown – until the late autumn rains again bring the Valley carpet back to life.
The high diversity of plant life across these Valley grasslands was maintained by a combination of heavy grazing by pre-settlement herds of Tule Elk and Pronghorns which roamed the Central Valley. Mule Deer would also leave the streams’ riparian shelter to feed in the lush meadows. These in turn were preyed upon by Grizzly Bear. As the prairies dried out in summer they were often burned by the Amer-Indians for game management and cultural reasons, and in the fall lightning-caused fires would also sweep across the grasslands. Thus, these species-rich grasslands evolved with an unchecked natural and anthropogenic fire regime as well as native animal herbivory. This helped prevent a climax condition from evolving, prevented brush encroachment and maintained continuous stretches of early successional prairie and a high diversity of species.
One of the most striking characteristics of this landscape is the presence of vernal pools –springtime rainwater pools. These myriad shallow depressions are dimpled all across the grasslands, ranging in size from a small puddle, or swale, to an acre or more. The smaller ones are locally refereed to as "hog wallows" or "pot holes in the rangeland." A winter with higher than normal rains will see the thousands of small vernal pools coalesce into huge expanses of water, becoming more of a vernal lake complex on flatter terrain.
The vernal pools are almost always shallow, from a few inches deep to a few feet at most. Indeed, in the sere brown landscape of the late summer and early fall there is little if any indication of their presence. And even in the late spring and early summer the only hint of their existence are the circular patches of darker green where the last of the land’s moisture remains.
For varying periods from the beginning of February through late May these vernal pools bring a unique and striking spring-time splendor to the land. For each pool is a little universe or ecosystem with its own succession of native wildflowers and grasses, most of which are endemic to California, some to certain parts of the state, and a few even to specific vernal pools. Also, because much of the native grasslands of California have been converted to agricultural fields, orchards, industrial sites, and housing developments, many of these unique plant species have become listed as endangered or threatened species on the federal Endangered Species List or by the California Native Plant Society.
As the first cool rains of late fall begin to moisten the mud-cracked, brick-dry red clay soils of the vernal pools, the cycle of the seasons begins to stir. With water accumulating in the depressions, the seeds of the annual grasses and wildflowers germinate, and the long dormant perennials send up new shoots. The wildflowers that evolved in the world of vernal pools have many unique adaptations. They are only in what might appear somewhat normal conditions for a short part of the year. For much of the year they are under water, adapting their germination, growth, flowering and seeding to an overly wet world, but then for nearly another half of the year, or longer, they must survive in a prolonged hot, dry, waterless world, remaining ready to quickly take advantage of the returning life-giving rains.
Following the annual inundation, as the water level in the pools slowly begins to drop, concentric rings of wildflowers begin to grow up around the margins of the pools. Each ring is usually dominated by one or a few species, for which the conditions of water depth, temperature, day length, and soil moisture (once it is out of the pond) are optimal. As these rings of wildflowers bloom successively they create a stunning mosaic of bands of alternating colors surrounding each vernal pool. Most of the pools are shallow enough to act as a mirror and reflect the brilliant sky. Together with clumps of dark green wide-leafed sedges poking up through the waters, they add further color to the vernal palette. The bands of color depend upon the dominant species for that time of the season and for that area. In late March 1997, the pools dotting the Roney Ranch were circled with multicolored floral bands. Rings of white Meadowfoam were in the wettest soil at the water’s edge. These were circled by bright golden-yellow bands of Fremont’s Goldfields, and an outermost ring of Fremont’s Tidy Tips, a small daisy-like flower with a pale yellow center and a white rim. Somewhat later in the spring as the last of the standing water dries up, a Downingia comes into bloom, filling the center of the vernal pool basins with a startling blaze of deepest blue.
This unique assemblage of native plants associated with the vernal pools has evolved with its own group of specialist pollinators, the vernal pool bees. As Sheila Barry, a local rangeland scientist, has noted: "Pollination of many vernal pool plants involve specialist solitary bees. These bees collect pollen from specific flowering vernal pool species. Goldfields, Meadowfoam, Downingia and Yellow Carpet each have specialist bees. These bees construct nests in the soil of upland areas near the vernal pools. Their pollination activities help the flowering vernal pool plants reproduce to their fullest potential."
The vernal pools also have a number of unusual native grasses which evolved with the vernal pool habitat and have many special adaptations to survive in the extreme conditions of those micro-environments. Among the rare grasses on the Vina Plains are at least two members of the genus Orcuttia and one member of the genus Tuctoria (until recently considered an Orcuttia), which have been placed on the federal Endangered Species List as threatened or endangered plants. All of the Orcutt grasses are unique to California and constitute a very distinctive genus. The California Native Plant Society considers the entire genus to be rare and endangered. They grow only in the deeper vernal pools that retain water into the early summer, growing up from the drying mud and blooming after all the water has evaporated. A unique adaptation of the Orcutt grasses is that they produce a sticky, strongly-scented secretion which appears to protect the plant from desiccation in the high temperatures and strong sunlight and to make it distasteful to various herbivorous predators.
One major concern of those individuals, organizations and agencies interested in saving as much of the vernal pool complexes as possible has been the change in the plant life making up the California grasslands. The coastal grasslands and the Central Valley grasslands were invaded long ago by non-native grasses, clovers, flowers, thistles, in many cases introduced by the first Spanish settlers and usually simply referred to as weeds. Weeds are simply plants out of place that someone doesn’t like. If native plants are preferred, non-natives are weeds; however one man’s weed is another’s flower. Indeed, non-native plants and animals, many of which play important and appreciated roles in their native environments, can become terribly invasive, aggressive and destructive species when they are introduced into a new, non-native environment and there are no biological checks and balances or predators or diseases to control them.
The floristic communities or provinces in the Vina Plains include two which have been accorded the highest priority ranking for protection by the California Department of Fish and Game Natural Diversity Data Base Program: the Northern Basalt Vernal Pool Community and the Cismontane Light Soil Flower Field Community. The Northern Basalt Vernal Pool communities consist of the vernal pool depressions scattered over the plains and their associated plant species. Because the environmental conditions of these pools are so unusual and so extreme, few plants other than those that specifically evolved with and adapted to the vernal pools have been able thrive in them. To a substantial degree these unique little ecosystems have been able to withstand the invasion of California’s grasslands by non-native plants. Seventy to ninety percent of the vernal pool flora continues to consist of the native species. Therefore, there is some urgency to efforts to protect this floral community from those non-native plants that do pose significant threats to the native vernal pool flora. Medusahead is perhaps the most troublesome, around pool edges, although Mediterranean Barley is also a problem. In drying pool bottoms the native grasses can be threatened by Cocklebur, Field Bindweed, Devil’s Claw and Perennial Ryegrass.
The Cismontane Light Soil Flower Field is largely uplands – the flat lands and low rolling hills surrounding and draining into the vernal pools. While these extensive expanses still have showy fields of native wildflowers, including the uncommon Adobe Lily, and many native grasses such as Purple Needlegrass, Western Witchgrass and Pacific Bluegrass, they are now substantially dominated by non-native, mainly European and Mediterranean basin species of annual grasses. These include Soft Chess, Red Brome, Ripgut Brome, Wild Oats, Yellow Star-thistle, Filaree, Rose Clover and other species.
The Valley’s vernal pool complexes are also inhabited by a large number of aquatic invertebrates which have evolved to rapidly speed through their life cycles in the short time that the pools contain water. Their eggs or cysts hatch as the waters rise. They quickly grow to maturity, reproduce, and then their eggs settle to the bottom and lie dormant in the dried soils until the next cycle of rains. This rich invertebrate soup contains everything from copepods and rotifers, to aquatic beetles, water boatmen and backswimmers, caddisflies and may flys, to clam shrimps, small snails and crayfish. Of particular interest to biologists, environmentalists and government regulators are a suite of tiny crustaceans, including the Vernal Pool Tadpole Shrimp and the various species of fairy shrimp. These tiny translucent crustaceans range in size from a small finger nail to the smallest finger nail clipping.
The many species of fairy shrimp are characteristic of Mediterranean climate vernal pool environments throughout the world in California, South Africa and Australia. Adapting to a world of scarce and unpredictable rains, they have evolved to respond rapidly to water that may last for only a short time and then not return for years. Fairy shrimp can hatch out and complete their life cycles in a mere two to three weeks and their eggs can then remain dormant, yet viable, for years. A certain percentage of each year’s eggs have harder shells, i.e., are cysts, and won’t necessarily hatch out with the next rains. This survival mechanism for the species assures that some eggs remain in the soils in case any one year’s rains are of such short duration that those that hatch cannot complete their life cycle.
In the last few years the federal government has listed or proposed for listing a number of the plants and invertebrates associated with the vernal pool habitat in the Vina Plains. Those listed as endangered include the Butte County Meadowfoam, Greene’s Tuctoria, Hairy Orcutt Grass, Vernal Pool Tadpole Shrimp and the Conservancy Fairy Shrimp. Those listed as threatened include Hoover’s Spurge, Slender Orcutt Grass and the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp.
Protecting Vernal Pool Landscapes
Numerous non-governmental environmental organizations in California and elsewhere, as well as the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are taking active steps to "protect" or "preserve" these unique ecosystems and their unusual biodiversity. One major way of accomplishing this is to formally list the plants and animals on an Endangered Species List as threatened or endangered. The federal ESA provides full protection for listed animals on private lands, but once species are listed, an extensive list of restrictions and regulations may fall upon landowners, often severely restricting their ability to use their lands and producing counterproductive results by penalizing good stewardship. Listed plants, however, are only protected on public lands. The State of California has its own Endangered Species Act, containing a number of species that are not listed on the federal list, but its protections do not extend to invertebrates or plants.
Other federal programs to protect wetlands and to achieve "no-net-loss" of wetlands have led to gridlock over development and land-use in the Central Valley. Landowners, builders or developers who want to build on existing vernal pool landscapes are required to carry out mitigation projects elsewhere. Generally they are required to purchase more acreage of vernal pools than they will impact and to set these aside as preserves or donate them to governmental agencies or to environmental protection organizations. This, however, does not guarantee that they are truly protected or that they remain protected, especially if such protection merely involves placing a fence around them without whatever requisite management they may require to remain functioning and thriving vernal pool ecosystems – which might well include grazing or burning since that is the natural regime within which these ecosystems evolved.
Acquisition by environmental organizations with an anti-grazing bias can also be problematic with regard to genuine protection of vernal pool landscapes. There is compelling evidence that a no-grazing, no-fire regime leads to the disappearance of the unique plant life of the vernal pools as non-native weed thatch builds up, choking out native flowers and grasses and inviting further invasion by still more non-native plants. Eventually the continual build-up of decaying plant material may actually choke out the smaller, shallower vernal pools as the pool edges recede.
Clearly physical replacement and destruction of vernal pool landscapes are the most serious, genuine and permanent threats to these ecosystems and their biodiversity. These include industrial sites, power plants, housing developments and conversion to intensive agriculture. Given the history of herbivory and fire on these vernal pool grasslands, it probably makes considerable sense to reconsider the merits of making cattle ranching so difficult, onerous and costly that ranchers are driven off the land and replaced by some form of development.
Birds and Mammals of the Vina Plains
The physical austerity of the plains has a limiting effect on larger animal life. With little more than a grass and herb covered landscape and few if any trees except around homesteads and along creeks, the resident mammals and avifauna are relatively sparse. Mammals are restricted to the common Deer Mouse, the Botta Pocket Gopher and the Black-tailed Jackrabbit. These serve as prey for Coyotes and a number of raptors. The Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier and American Kestrel are the three most common birds of prey. Winter brings an increase in numbers of resident species as well as Bald Eagles, which among other things are attracted to the afterbirth from calving, and occasional Prairie Falcons from foothill cliffs and Red-shouldered Hawks from the riparian forests. Northern species from the prairies and the tundra, the Ferruginous Hawk and the Rough-legged Hawk, also winter. Ravens visit the plains as well. Stands of old trees around farm houses will host a pair of Great Horned Owls. Generally, the soils are too thin for many Burrowing Owls, which live in old mammal burrows or cavities. However, a pair usually sit sentinel near the entrance gate to the Roney Ranch where an old abandoned section of irrigation pipe lies in a mound of soil.
The resident bird life is dominated by grassland and field species. Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows are ubiquitous – with winter fields hosting Water Pipits and a number of species of visiting sparrows, including Vesper Sparrows. Cow pastures have flocks of Brewer’s Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds from nearby marshes. Western Kingbirds utilize phone poles and fences. The ranch yard trees serve as nesting sites for Bullock’s Orioles and House Finches and the ranch buildings host Barn Swallows.
However, it is the rain-filled vernal pools of winter and spring which attract the most striking aggregations of birds as the migrating and wintering flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl stop to rest and feed on the rich invertebrate soup of the vernal pools. Flocks of giant Tundra Swans, and large flocks of geese, including Canada (and the small Cackling race), Greater White-fronted, Snow and Ross’, as well as dabbling ducks such as Mallard, Pintail, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal utilize these seasonal wetlands. Almost every pool attracts wading birds such as Great Blue Heron and Great Egret. The pools also serve as feeding and resting stations for shorebirds such as the resident Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet, as well as migrant Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher, and other sandpipers.
The Roney Ranching Philosophy
Wally Roney’s ranching philosophy combines elements of sound land use, ethical behavior, marketing, and business. Rather than being separate practices, they are all part of a seamless whole derived in part from the accumulated family experience of successfully living on the land for 150 years, facing and surviving almost any contingency over that time.
Roney views his land as his basic capital asset. He believes that by the time he can detect any deterioration in the land, soil loss or depletion of the forage in his pastures, that there is already some decline in the quality of his herd. He is aware that it is not just a matter of how his cattle look, but of maintaining their full nutritional health not only to produce enough high-quality milk to have good calves, but also to cycle back to quickly become pregnant again.
With his different deeded and leased lands, he moves his cattle through a cycle of the year. Usually his cattle are on the Valley ranch, the winter ranch, from about mid-October to mid-February. When they arrive they are feeding on the dry stubble of that year’s growth. They graze almost all of this dry growth down, removing standing vegetation and opening up the soil to the sun, giving all the new growth, native and non-native, annual and perennial, an equal chance to compete and thrive with the arrival of the resurrecting rains. Depending upon the timing of the onset of the winter rains and the rate of new growth, his cattle may eat some of the new growth, however, by mid-February he is already moving them up onto the foothill ranches, where they graze and browse for three months until mid-May. The prime grass growing season in the Valley is from mid-February through mid-June. Thus, his cattle take little of the annual new growth, much to the surprise of many other ranchers in the Valley who leave their cattle in the Valley until June. Roney’s view is that he wants as much new growth as possible, because his Valley lands serve as his "hay barn."
Around mid-May Roney brings some cattle back to the Valley to be processed and readied for market, while the rest go up onto the mountain leases for about four months until mid-September. Next he moves them onto his lush meadows in Clover Valley, usually for a month until mid-October, before beginning the cycle again on the winter ranch. His goal is to have enough standing dry hay to always have sufficient natural forage throughout his annual cycle. The key is to maximize the new growth during the winter and spring on the Valley lands so that when he returns his cattle after eight months there is enough residual dry matter (RDM) that the ranch is not forced either to sell the cattle prematurely or to undertake extensive and expensive supplemental feeding. He wants his "hay barn" to be full, and it is. Roney always has ample forage for his cattle; either grass, shrubs or brush in the foothills and mountains or the dry grass in the Valley. He doesn’t have to buy hay.
Roney’s rotation through seasonal grasslands also provides him with some additional flexibility and security during drought periods with below normal rains and relatively little grass growth. He often has the option of keeping his cattle on the Clover Valley spread feeding on its perennial plants into December. This flexibility, especially in meeting consumer demands and avoiding getting stuck with any particular market, is essential to running a small family ranch with no helpers over so large an area. Roney runs a cow-calf operation with about 500 to 600 head. He tries to have cattle ready to go to market at all times of the year, rather than bringing all his calves to market at the same time. Thus, he always has different qualities and ages of beef to bring to market. He can pull them off the mother cows at six months and market them as 600 pound grass-fed weaners, or put them on supplementals and sell them as 850 pound feeders, or continue to finish them and sell them as 1,200-1,250 pound fat animals.
Following this plan has other benefits. Roney keeps his bulls out with the herd throughout the year, which also means that his cows calve all year around. Thus, he maintains annual calving rates above 100 percent. He also doesn’t need as much bull-power with all year calving as he would for synchronous production. And by keeping his bulls with the cows throughout the year he minimizes losses. Because his herd spends two-thirds of the year in the Sierra foothills or mountains, they are subject to more predation than on the Valley plains, especially since he moves them early in the year when there may be food shortages in the Sierra. But if a Cougar, Black Bear or wild dog stalks his herd, they will tangle with the bulls first. He does not dehorn his cows, believing it is a natural defense mechanism against predators.
Roney maintains about 1,000 acres of the Valley ranch as a feedlot operation. Here he can finish cattle to feeder stage or to fat cattle. Again he tries to be innovative, utilizing wherever possible agricultural byproducts, especially waste biomass, as supplemental feed. In particular he has used almond hulls from California’s gigantic nut orchard industry, a byproduct which traditionally has posed a growing waste disposal problem. Likewise, Roney uses rice straw and rice bran, two other byproducts of the state’s agricultural industry. They will also use blemished, undersized or otherwise unmarketable fruit crops, especially oranges and prunes. Wally Roney does, however, offer a cautionary note about feeding prunes to cattle: "Just don’t stand behind them."
Roney uses grains and concentrates whenever it is required to get his cattle up to grade. What is unique in his operation is that he can feed his own herd to fat cattle and sell them directly to the slaughter house without going through a commercial feedlot. Or he can sell feeders to the feedlots or sell grass-fed calves to customers. Most of his beef goes to normal wholesale outlets: feedlots or slaughter houses. However, Billie Jean Redemeyer, Wally Roney’s fiancée, has started marketing some of their beef as Roney Beef through a few local retail establishments, for customers who want local beef, produced a special way. While this tiny operation utilizes no more than one percent of his beef, an expanding niche market for healthy, locally-produced, environmentally-sensitive beef certainly holds promise.