Finding Gary and Lauren Nitschke’s family ranch in Jefferson County, Okla., just north of the Texas border, requires following directions like “turn left at the metal pecan shed” and “take a right when you see the small electrical substation”. Around the curve of a gravel road is the identifying marker of their property — a triple-wide trailer affectionately dubbed “Trailerosa” (inspired by the TV show “Bonanza” and its Ponderosa Ranch).
Outside the trailer, tending to a horse with an injured hoof, the Nitschkes look completely at home. They’re not much for cowboy hats — Gary usually dons an A&M cap and Lauren a visor — but they’re comfortable in overalls, jeans and cowboy boots.
Once inside Trailerosa, things look a little different. One wall is a shrine to Gary’s late father, John F., displaying three of his cowboy hats stained with the sweat of nearly five decades’ hard labor. Otherwise, however, the Nitchkes have outfitted the place in decidedly modern and IKEA-esque décor, one of the few indicators that these country folks are actually city
The Circle N Ranch in Oklahoma is part of their “dual life”, as Lauren calls it. Their other life is hundreds of miles away in an unassuming Tudor cottage on Tyler, where they have lived since the ’80s. Both have architecture degrees and design signage for hospitals, universities, churches and the like (hence the modern décor in both homesteads).
Their dual life began after the death of Gary’s 87-year-old father nearly six years ago. Though Gary grew up in Wichita Falls, his father began buying land in Jefferson County in 1954. Gary’s father spent his days in the oil field supply business, but after work and on weekends, he would take his only son to Jefferson County to look after the ranch.
As Gary’s father aged, he began talking to his son about what might happen down the road.
“It’s funny,” Gary says. “My dad had a saying that ‘if’ I die — it was never ‘when’ I die. I think he thought he was going to be taken up.”
But if it happened, Gary’s instructions were to sell the cows and lease the family’s land. His father didn’t want to obligate him, he reasons. But once his father was gone, Gary couldn’t shake his “very strong heart connection” to the ranch.
“I wasn’t ready at that point to turn it over to someone else, not knowing what the steward of the land might be,” he says.
The family ranch had grown to 2,800 acres by this point, and soon a neighbor offered to sell the Nitschkes another 300-acre parcel. The family ranch wrapped around this piece of property on three sides, “so it was certainly something you had to think about,” Gary says. When they made the purchase, “it was a defining moment in us moving more toward ranching,” he says.
Ranching was a hobby for his father, but the Nitschkes knew that if they were going to justify this long-distance endeavor, they would need to be profitable.
They weren’t interested in a traditional ranch, however. From the beginning, “we didn’t just want a typical commercial commodity,” Lauren says.
On the west side of the ranch are the mama cows, 200 of them, who give the Nitschkes roughly 170 calves a year. The calves stay with their mothers until they are weaned, then move to another section.
The calves are easy to spot, frolicking together with much more energy than their older, fatter counterparts. They will stay on the ranch until their final day of life, a decision that the Nitschkes made up front. Some ranches sell as soon as the calves are weaned, Gary says; others sell once they reach about 800 pounds, “then they go to a feed lot for the rest of a very sad life,” Gary says.
But letting the cows remain in one place is more humane, the Nitschkes say, and also produces better meat.
One herd of cows is nearing 1,100 to 1,200 pounds apiece, almost ready to make the trip to Austin to be sold to Whole Foods. The Nitschkes brokered this deal by being a “grass-fed and grass-finished” ranch, one of only 12 in the Texas Grassfed Livestock Alliance, which supplies Whole Foods grocery stores in Texas.
This essentially means the Nitschkes’ cattle eat nothing but grass their entire lives. Most cows are fattened up with hormones, antibiotics and corn feed, but the alliance strictly prohibits this. It does allow for typical fertilizers and herbicides, but the Nitschkes even stay away from these. An “unsatisfactory experience” with a commercial nitrogen fertilizer helped persuade them to take this route.
“We put a lot out on the pasture and it didn’t rain, and it ended up burning up the grass; $11,000 down the drain,” Gary says. “That was three weeks all-inclusive in Mexico somewhere.”
Their decision to be grass-only had to do with Gary’s connection to the land and “not wanting to rape the land for gain,” he says, but also was based on their Oak Cliff gardening practices, which had always been organic. Doing this on a ranch scale, however, was more complicated.
“I could find 40-pound bags of molasses and five-gallon bottles of vinegar, but it’s a ranch. It’s not my back yard,” Lauren says. “I needed 40 tons of molasses.”
They found help through the American Grassfed Association, as well as people like Betsy Ross, whom the Nitschkes describe as the “mother of grass-fed beef in the Austin area.” Grass-fed cows tend to be shorter-legged and lower to the ground, Lauren says, quoting Ross’ directive that “you’re looking for a pound of butter on four little legs.”
It’s difficult for existing ranches to switch from conventional ranching practices, Gary says, because their income stream depends upon reliable methods. The Nitchkes, just starting out in the ranching business, had the luxury of trying something on the cutting edge. They found that fertilizer actually mines organic matter out of the soil, so that over time the land needs more fertilizer and more water to produce the same yield, Gary says. To correct this, the Nitschkes use a “compost tea” soil treatment created by Ross to let the land heal and produce more naturally.
Cows graze like deer, Lauren says, and will eat anything — “low scrubby oaks, vines, they’ll eat all kinds of stuff” — but the Nitschkes are experimenting with different types of grass in an effort to keep something green and nutritious in front of the cattle year-round.
“The grass we’re growing is the difference between romaine lettuce and iceberg lettuce,” Lauren says. “We’re trying to grow romaine.”
This is what makes the difference in the flavor of the meat, the Nitschkes believe.
Whole Foods would buy every cow the Nitschkes produce, but one of their goals is to sell locally to the Dallas market. Whereas Whole Foods likes the cattle leaner, the Nitchkes have decided to hold back a few cows with each crop and let them feed on grass a little longer, getting up to 1,400 pounds or more. This produces a “certain amount of back fat” and a more pronounced marbling in the meat, Lauren says. But “if you take them to the sale barn, they’d sell as culled cows, and you’d take it in the shorts,” Gary says.
They call this private line “Nitschke Natural Beef” and hope to continue to develop this brand and find a larger market for it. Eventually, they plan to build a house in an oak grove on their property, and leave Oak Cliff to become full-time ranchers.
But right now, the Nitschkes aren’t thinking about adding more cows or more land in order to increase their production.
“One thing Lauren and I have in common is we’re both maximizers — we’re both more interested in getting what we’ve got where it needs to be than being the largest landowner in Jefferson County,” Gary says.
“We don’t want to be the biggest,” Lauren echoes. “We just want to be the best.”
Visit advocatemag.com and click on “multimedia” to see other photos of the Nitschkes’ ranch, and click on “blog” to read more about their ranching philosophy. Visit their website at nnbeef.com.