Prewitts’ cattle ranch downsizes in face of economic changes
By Marcy Stamper
The lowing of cows and their calves and the clatter of hooves on pavement have been a spring ritual in the Methow for more than 100 years. But this year the streets were silent at daybreak on the Sunday in early May when hundreds of cattle would normally have been herded through Twisp on their way to spring pasture.
To some people, it seemed like the end of an era in the Methow Valley.
“There was cattle moving on these roads before there was cars and people,” said rancher Del Prewitt, whose grandfather started the family ranch in 1887. The Prewitt operation was one of several ranches that herded cattle through town over the past century. But this year, Prewitt reduced the size of his herd and is grazing the cows on spring pasture near Pipestone Canyon, not far from the base ranch east of the Methow River.
In part, the cattle drive has succumbed to global economics in places as distant as China, said Prewitt. Running the ranch has always meant keeping an eye on the world market and calculating the optimal time to sell the cows. But international politics — for example, the Trump administration’s tariff threats — have many farmers worried about a backlash against U.S. agricultural exports, he said.
For years, cows have been sold not just at a local auction, but also by satellite, and Prewitt believes some of his herd ended up in Japan, Korea or China. So Prewitt is taking a hard look at the cattle business.
“There are tremendous expenses for a ranch of this size. I’m in the process of analyzing my economic model and don’t know what it will change to,” said Prewitt, who is weighing whether to continue with a cow-calf operation or to switch to a yearling operation.
A cow-calf operation needs an annual infusion of cash. “You have to borrow a quarter of a million dollars and hope for income to pay it off in the fall,” said Prewitt. Under the yearling model, he would buy calves and sell them when they reached a certain weight, instead of keeping cows year-round for breeding.
Prewitt has always been reluctant to cull cows, unless they can’t bear a calf. Some of his cows are as old as 15, and one had a calf last year at 18, he said. “I like my cows — as a herd, not as individuals,” he said. “I tell people not to name a cow because you’re going to be marketing them. If it’s Sarah or Emily or Sally, it’s too emotional.”
Prewitt’s grandfather made his way west from Missouri in the late 19th century. He passed through Texas and Oregon — places better suited to raising cattle — but stopped in the Methow because it was the most beautiful, said Prewitt.
When Prewitt was growing up on the ranch during the Depression, everyone in the Methow had a few cows for milk and meat and subsisted on a weekly check from the creamery, he said.
Ranching has never been an easy living. Prewitt’s father took over the ranch, which was much smaller then, but got a job as a school custodian at the end of his career so he would have Social Security, said Prewitt.
Prewitt graduated from Twisp High School in 1948. “The smartest thing I ever did was to leave the valley and go to medical school for 15 years. The dumbest thing was to take the ranch back over again when I was 35,” he said.
Prewitt retired two years ago after a 50-year career as a specialist in microscopic ear surgery. But he and his wife, Donna, always kept the ranch going in the Methow by hiring local managers.
“For the past 23 years, I had unexcelled help on the ranch in Dave and Shauna Hicks,” said Prewitt. But with the smaller herd, Prewitt said he doesn’t need year-round managers. There’s also less need for hay, so Prewitt leased the main ranch property to another farmer.
At its largest, the ranch had between 1,200 and 1,500 cows and calves, but over the past two decades, it’s been closer to 500, said Prewitt. This year, he reduced the herd to less than 200.
Even the cows and calves that made the annual pilgrimage through Twisp were only half of Prewitt’s herd, which was divided among several grazing allotments on federal and state land, he said. The cows may be still herded through Twisp later this summer to reach other grazing allotments, said Prewitt.
Prewitt still enjoys checking on his cows on their summer range in the mountains. “Once I’m on the horse, I’m good for all day — as long as I don’t have to get off,” he said. But he no longer herds the cattle on horseback. “You have to have a feeling for what the cow’s going to do before she does it. Dave [Hicks] is a master at that.”
The ranch itself grew over the years as neighboring farmers approached Prewitt about buying their land. Today the ranch extends from Pipestone Canyon to Elbow Coulee.
“Being an old-timer, I didn’t like to see the whole valley subdivided and parcelized in 5-acre parcels,” he said. “It’s an emotional, cultural thing. I want to preserve it the way it is. It’s not accidental. I have conservation easements on most of my private properties.”
In the 23 years they worked for Prewitt, Dave and Shauna Hicks managed about 400 cows and their calves on three grazing permits, said Shauna in “Part of It All: A Cowboy’s Life,” a short film about last fall’s bull drive made by videographer Leslee Goodman of Twisp Movie. Goodman called the annual cattle drive “a traffic-stopping spectacle, a reminder of a way of life most Americans no longer witness.”
“This has been a wonderful place and job. It was a great place to raise our kids, and we have friends that are closer than family,” said Shauna this month as she gathered their belongings for a massive yard sale and pondered their next steps.
The ranch supported two families through the haying and calving seasons, and it supported wildlife as well. After calving season, eagles would swoop in and eat the afterbirth, said Shauna.
“It’s the passing of a way of life — being in the mountains with the cows in the summer,” said Shauna, who said the Hicks often gave ranch tours and taught beginning ranchers about the work. “We always felt we were ambassadors for the beef industry.”