by K. Thornberry • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
At breakneck speeds, Jeff Ruyle flies down steep, boulder-strewn hillsides, skirts along river bluffs, hurtles into rocky creek beds and skids along the edges of green pastures—all the while grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel of his ATV. No attempt to portray this man could come close unless it adequately captures just how much rip-roaring fun he gets out of life.
Yes, Ruyle—lamb producer, owner of I O Ranch and known at local markets as “Jeff the lamb guy”—is clearly a happy man. “Every day is different,” he says, “which just suits my ADHD.” He lets out a belly laugh, then continues, “Seriously, though, no two days are alike, and I love that. One day I’m rounding up the lambs, the next I’m putting up a fence. On the weekends I’m at the farmers markets interacting with folks all day long, and midweek I’m out here in the quiet with my dogs and my sheep. You have to be an eternal optimist to ever make it in farming or ranching, because when you’re in the thick of it, it seems like everything is against you! Mostly the weather.”
The I O Ranch (named in honor of its heavy mortgage) was purchased by Ruyle’s father and a group of friends who wanted a place for get-togethers and deer hunting. “For many years, we leased out the land to neighboring ranchers,” says Ruyle. “My dad fenced the property and paid off the note. Eventually, the family bought out the other partners.” However, no one in the Ruyle family was interested in personally ranching the property until Jeff decided to take it on. And from the beginning he had ambitious ideas. “When I want to do something, I jump in with both feet,” he says. He had read that once invasive Ashe junipers are removed, the land can recover and the water table can rise—causing creeks and springs to flow again. Taking advantage of a federal fund-matching grant, Ruyle was among the first ranchers in Lampasas County to clear the cedars off his property. The creeks and springs on I O Ranch’s 1,800 acres responded quickly, and the ecosystem reverted to verdant post oak prairie. Ruyle was subsequently awarded Region V’s Conservation Rancher of the Year by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Texas.
Initially, Ruyle went into conventional cattle ranching—buying calves at auction and turning them out to pasture until they were ready to be shipped to the feedlot. Then, in 2010, a friend encouraged Ruyle to buy some Dorper sheep. Dorpers are a South African breed and well-adapted to hot conditions because they sport a thin, hairy coat rather than heavy, lanolin-rich wool. This friend (who shall remain nameless) told Ruyle that the Dorpers would eat the weeds out of his pastures—leaving the more desirable grasses for the cattle. “That sounded pretty good! So I bought some,” recalls Ruyle, and then with a mighty laugh, adds, “Unfortunately, it was TOTAL B.S.! Sheep will eat the best forage first, like any other ruminant. But I had plenty of forage, so I kept them.”
The historic drought of 2011, however, put an end to Ruyle’s conventional approach. That memorable year, ranchers across Texas were forced to slaughter entire herds rather than watch them starve or die of thirst. Ruyle says he doesn’t want to recall how much money he lost buying increasingly scarce (and ruinously expensive) hay for his steers. However, he noticed something important: The Dorper sheep were doing just fine without any supplementation. The terrible drought conditions almost seemed to suit them.
Ruyle took a fresh look at his operations. On the asset side of his balance sheet, he had a lot of grassland, but what he didn’t have was control over rainfall. The Dorpers could cope with drought conditions; the cattle couldn’t. “I bought half as many calves the next year and twice as many lambs. The year after that, I bought no cattle at all and doubled my ewes.”
With the switch to sheep, came sheepdogs. “You can’t do it—you just can’t keep sheep without the dogs,” he says. “I consider them my full partners. I’ve got five Great Pyrenees-Anatolian-mix guard dogs to protect the flocks, and my border collie, Cody, to round them up. He can get forty lambs into a pen in about two minutes flat.”
Along the way, Ruyle learned about the health benefits of grass-fed meats, and there was no going back. Meat from grass-fed animals is high in omega-3 fatty acids—often surpassing the levels in wild-caught, cold-water fish. Ruyle, with his abundant, recovered grassland, figured he would have a minimum of competition if he went all the way and raised lamb that is 100-percent grass-fed and -finished—eating fresh grass right up to the day of processing. He even quit using synthetic fertilizers three years ago because the sheep deposit all the needed fertilizer as they graze.
The quality of I O Ranch lamb is so superior that Ruyle’s business keeps expanding, but the success hasn’t jaded his true enjoyment of this work or his love of fun. Ruyle’s eyes sparkle as he gazes out over his lush fields. “Sometimes it helps if you’re just a little bit foolish.”
Find I O Ranch lamb at the Downtown and Sunset Valley SFC Farmers’ Markets, and at the Lone Star Farmers Market in Bee Cave. For more information, visit grassfedlamb.net.