- Miriam Sitz
- Happy cows come from Devine
Do you know where your meat comes from? Where it lived, what it ate or who took care of it? Customers of El Rancho Ojo de Agua can answer all those questions with a resounding yes.
El Rancho Ojo de Agua has been in purveyor Susana Canseco’s family for six generations. In 1970, Susana’s father Guillermo “Memo” Canseco launched the ranch into the cattle business. Today, Susana and her mother run a complete calf-cow operation, producing grass-fed Hereford-Charolais-Angus hybrids. A lawyer by trade, Canseco runs the Texas branch of the Ojo de Agua business with her husband Brandon Seale, a native San Antonian, independent oilman and owner of Zaragoza Resources.
The beef’s journey begins at the headquarters of El Rancho Ojo de Agua near Acuña, Coahuila, in Mexico. Calves roam chemical-, pesticide- and fertilizer-free pastures just across the border from Del Rio, until they are weaned. The 10-month old steers then make their way to Devine, where they graze in grassy pastures. In times of drought like the present, Canseco augments the natural grass with coastal hay and alfalfa, which help to both “meet the animals’ nutritional needs and maintain our pastures in good health,” she explained. “We want to rest our pastures intermittently and give them time to rejuvenate.”
Canseco and Seale tend to the largely self-sufficient herd from San Antonio for another year and a half. They visit twice a week on average, monitoring the animals’ condition and food supply, mending fences or water troughs and rotating the steer between sections of land. “We haven’t had any big problems,” Canseco said of the herd’s health, though the ranch manager in Acuña or specialists with the Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension Service are available to provide expert advice when necessary. Another network of support comes from Canseco’s former classmates of the “Beginning Farmers & Ranchers” program by Holistic Management International. Canseco belongs to the 2013 graduating class of the program, which was designed to educate and empower women farmers.
When the time comes for slaughter, Canseco and Seale personally transport their animals to the Uvalde Meat Market and Processing facility. “Cattle are really lovely animals, and we take pride in giving them good lives and when the time comes, respectful and humane deaths,” writes Canseco on the Ojo de Agua website.
Canseco, Seale and the newest rancher, baby Memo, set up shop every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market where they sell beef and bolsas—bags made from recycled feed sacks. Canseco also meets with customers by appointment at her Broadway office location and makes regular deliveries to her hometown of Del Rio. “It’s already a challenge to buy beef this way, so I’m trying to make it as convenient as possible for clients,” she said. Ojo de Agua meat comes in kitchen-ready retail cuts or bulk quarters and halves.
“We sell off and on to a few restaurants as supply permits,” said Canseco, naming Zedric’s, Tim the Girl, Uncommon Fare grocery store and Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin. Her first client was the Little Aussie Bakery & Café, and she regularly sells to Andrea Thompson of Katie’s Jar all-natural pet treats.
The Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows product to be marketed as “grass-fed” when “grass and forage [are] the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” As an operation committed to providing natural, grass-fed meat, Canseco’s South Texas business faces one major and practically constant challenge: drought.
The leased pasture where Canseco and Seale keep their herd is designed for irrigation and lies within the Bexar-Medina-Atascosa Counties Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 (referred to as BMA). Water for irrigation in this area has been totally restricted since August, 2012. “It’s cut off until we get some rain,” said BMA Business Manager Ed Berger. “It’s just a very severe drought. There’s no water to effectively allow irrigation.” As of September 3, Berger reported that 11,360 acre-feet of water remained in Medina Lake. “That’s about 4.5 percent full,” he said. “You can’t give something you don’t have.” Until rain replenishes Medina Lake, farmers and ranchers like Canseco will have to wait.
No water for irrigation means slower pasture regrowth, which forces Canseco to downstock, supplement animal diets with other grasses and carefully manage her pasture. “Instead of fretting over things where we have zero control, we improve those things over which we do have control,” Canseco said.
“By scaling back the number of animals produced and focusing on quality, we’ve learned things over the past few years that have allowed us to improve consistency.”