In the Heart of Lickskillet Country

Cattlewomen lead the way at WB Ranch

By Drew Myron

Cathy Brown loads hay bales that she and ranch co-owner Jamie Wilson will haul to the herd on their ranch 15 miles southwest of Grass Valley. Photo by Drew Myron

On a high ridge 50 miles south of The Dalles, in a rocky landscape known as Lickskillet Country, two women are working against great odds. Jamie Wilson and Cathy Brown independently operate their own cattle ranch, WB Ranch.

Of the nearly 900,000 cattle operations in the United States, just 9% are headed by women, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average cattle rancher is 58 years old. At 40, Jamie and Cathy break yet another norm.

Lickskillet refers to both poor-quality soil and the difficulty of making a living in the dry, scrubby terrain. It’s not a new moniker for the tough landscape, but one Jamie and Cathy proudly claim.

“Everyone thinks we’re out here with the rattlesnakes,” Jamie says. “But we’ve only killed three this year.”

The ranch is 15 miles southwest of Grass Valley near the head of Sherar’s Grade along Highway 216.

“We raise beef cattle on this rocky ground where the grasses are few and far between, but this high-desert forage provides rich, high-protein grasses for healthy and happy cattle,” Cathy says.

Their animals are moved among 17 pastures on an orchestrated grazing routine.

“The cattle we raise on our ranch are fed here and get a very select feed to ensure the best marbling, tenderness, and flavor for our customers,” Cathy says.

Beef production is considered one of the most complex cycles of any food produced, with many distinct stops in the two to three years it takes to bring beef from farm to fork.

Typically, a cow changes hands several times during its short life. The exchanges can increase the price and diminish the quality. Cathy and Jamie are working to streamline the process with a direct-to-customer approach that aims to decrease feedlots, packing plants, distributors, and retailers.

Jamie brings a set of twin calves back to the corral to ensure the mother takes to the youngsters. Photo by Cathy Brown

Animal care is relentless as the women tend 10 cats, eight chickens, five horses, four dogs, three goldfish, and a bounty of cattle they have affectionately given names, such as Magic, Lucy, Ethel, and Oscar.

A typical day can include hauling water to the herd, unloading hay trucks, seeding pasture, weaning, vaccinating, and carefully monitoring grazing cattle.

“We check on them more than most people, maybe because we’re women,” Cathy says. “We really take care of our animals. We take better care of them than we do ourselves.”

How rare is it to find a cattlewoman running her own herd? Jamie and Cathy recently attended a women’s agriculture conference in Oklahoma. Of the 75 farmers and ranchers from across the nation, they were the only women leading a ranch.

“I guess what makes us unique is that we have no husbands to help us or tell us what to do,” Cathy says.

“Women have stepped into very demanding ranch roles,” notes Diana Wirth, president of Oregon Cattlewomen.

In Oregon, about 26% of ranchers or principal ranch decision-makers are women, according to the advocacy group.

“Women can ride like a man, rope like a man, pull calves like a man,” Diana says. “With the advent of new technology and information, there really is nothing women can’t do.”

Since forging a friendship as teens at Sherman High School, Jamie and Cathy have been united in a vision of rural self-reliance. They attended Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, where they studied livestock and agri-business to fortify their working experience with deeper academic knowledge.

The two come from a long line of ranchers. Cathy’s parents are retired wheat and cattle ranchers, and her sister runs a wheat farm with her husband.

Jamie’s father, Duane, was a farmer and rancher, and her brother also runs a cattle farm. As a child, Jamie worked with her father and learned the cowhand skills she uses today.

The WB cattle brand originally belonged to Willard Barnett, a Grass Valley cattle rancher and farmer who died in the mid- 1990s. Duane worked for Willard as a hired hand for many years before taking over the cattle and buying the brand.

Cathy Brown, left, and Jamie Wilson of WB Ranch independently operate their cattle ranch near Grass Valley. Photo by Drew Myron

When Duane retired, Jamie and Cathy took on herd and house, and in 2004 embarked on their own ranching operation. The WB brand still stands strong, now representing Wilson & Brown.

“He always believed in us, and because of him we are able to follow our dreams,” Cathy says of Duane. “We are so very grateful for that.”

The ranch house was built in 1890 and stands as one of the oldest in Sherman County. The house sat vacant nearly 20 years with no heat, no water, and a battered roof.

On a mostly solo mission, Cathy and Jamie went to work to restore the eroded structure. From doors to floors, rafters to roof, Jamie and Cathy sanded, straightened, painted, plumbed, and repaired nearly every inch. The house is now a bright and welcome home surrounded by colorful flowers and thriving gardens.

Jamie says there is a tendency to romanticize rural life. It’s hard work out where the closest neighbor is a 3-mile drive, the vet is more than an hour away and the most basic needs must be carefully planned. A can-do approach is an essential job requirement.

“There’s a lot of hauling water and building fences, and that’s not very romantic,” Jamie says. “It’s real hard work, and you can’t run across the street for help or supplies, so you gotta figure it out.”

Rather than shine in their accomplishments, the women are quick to credit a tight circle of friends and family.

“We’re not good at asking for help,” Jamie admits. “But we have lots of great lifelines. They’re really good at helping us out.”

Gazing across a parched plateau of land, Jamie says she has never felt more at home.

“We love living out here in the middle of nowhere, in the rugged West,” she says. “I never thought of living anywhere else.”

WB Ranch offers beef directly to the public, sold by the package and the pound. Call for pricing and availability: Cathy Brown, (541) 993-2780; and Jamie Wilson, (541) 993-2252. On Instagram: Cathy of WB Ranch @wb_beef.