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Cowboy Days

Cattle ranchers still rope and ride on the East Bay’s rolling hills


Drive up Walnut Creek’s North Gate Road past the Mount Diablo park gate, and you’ll see black-and-white Angus lazily grazing on a hillside. Watching over the herd is rancher John Ginochio, a fifty-something fella in dusty Wranglers and leather boots. Ginochio has been raising, branding, and rounding up cattle in Contra Costa since he was a kid.

That’s right. Cattle ranchers still exist among the rest of us working stiffs in Diabloland. These aren’t fantasy camp cowboys—lawyers and loan officers who want to butch up their midlife, as Billy Crystal did in City Slickers. These East Bay ranchers are hard-working, dirty-hands types who spend the year raising the buttery beef we cut through at Ruth’s Chris on Saturday night.

"This is a way of life," says Ginochio. "When I was in high school, I realized that if I didn’t stick with ranching, I’d have to work in an office someday. So it wasn’t a hard decision to make."

Ginochio runs a herd of roughly 1,000 heifers, steers, and bulls on about 7,600 acres throughout Contra Costa County, mostly around Mount Diablo. Every September, a new batch of calves joins them. In February, the calves are branded and then enjoy their best days as prairie grazers. Eventually, the calves will be shipped to Nebraska, Wyoming, or other Midwestern states to be fattened on corn and sold at auction.

"It’s a tough business, because you can’t control the market or the weather," Ginochio says. "You might work hard all year and not get paid accordingly. But what I love is being able to raise the highest quality Angus cattle possible and then to top the market price."

The area’s handful of remaining cattle ranchers do it to make an honest buck—but also to keep their families’ traditions alive.

Longtime rancher Marie Cronin runs Cronin Ranch in Dublin, one of the large cattle outfits in the area. She moved to Dublin when she married into the Cronin family in 1960. "There were 53 residents of Dublin when I got here," she recalls. "But the next year, people started coming by the busload."

As the Tri-Valley population grew, Cronin learned the ranch life. In 1979, her husband fell ill. Just before he passed away, he asked her to keep the family’s livelihood going. "I said that I’d try," says Cronin, "and I’m still trying."

The Cronin Ranch matriarch loves to see her grandchildren helping at the ranch, especially at roundup, when the calves get branded. Watching the sixth generation of Cronin ranchers is "very amusing, because it’s identical to when my three kids were that age."

Turlock resident Ron Batteate also gets help from his family with his herd of about 100 cattle, which graze on Livermore land he leases from the East Bay Regional Park District. His family has been in the beef business since the 1920s, and his two sons help him with the livestock. The Batteate boys enjoy certain adrenalin-rush elements of the tradition, such as roping. But to make a living, they also have full-time jobs, as a truck driver and a Stanislaus County police officer. Ron Batteate runs a trucking company and ranches his cattle on the side.

John Ginochio isn’t sure if his eight-year-old son will follow in his footsteps. "I hope so. I hope it’s still an option for him. But he’s like every other kid in Walnut Creek right now," Ginochio says, shrugging. "He’s into video games."

Ginochio heads out to the field to see his heifers, which are eight months pregnant and getting ready to drop their calves. "This is my favorite time," he says. "I love when they drop and then picking out the best of the best, the cream of the crop, for the future."

Later, Ginochio breaks up bales of alfalfa around the edge of a corral. The heifers approach cautiously at first. Finally, one cow digs in, and the herd gathers round and blissfully enjoys the feast. Ginochio wipes his brow with his baseball cap, looks at his livestock, and smiles.

"I don’t know if they seem beautiful to you," he says, beaming with pride. "But they sure look beautiful to me."

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