The red Ram truck kicked up dust as it negotiated the meandering hills of Trabuco Canyon.
Frank Fitzpatrick was at the wheel. His horses, Turk and Nick, were in a trailer hitched to the back. A black cowboy hat and a container of snuff sat on the dash.
“The nicest thing about my life is I have had a purpose since I was 8 years old,” Fitzpatrick said. “Every day I wake up and have more work to do than I can do.”
Fitzpatrick’s known since that age that he wanted to be a cowboy. Now 70, he runs 700 head of cattle at an 800-acre ranch in Trabuco Canyon and on 4,200 acres in Indio.
The Silverado native is one of the last cattle ranchers in Orange County. Settlers used to run cattle and other livestock centuries ago. But as the years claimed those men, and development claimed their land, so went their practices.
Fitzpatrick runs 5 Bar Beef with his son Ryan Fitzpatrick, 32, of Orange. They pride themselves on the type of beef they raise — grass-fed with no antibiotics or hormones. The meat sells online and at markets in Laguna Hills and Irvine.
Though a cowman by trade, Fitzpatrick sounds like a chemist when explaining the benefits of grass over grain diets for cattle.
“The Omega-3 fatty acids that run through a cow turns them from a 16 to a 20 carbon chain,” Fitzpatrick said. “With that 20 carbon chain you turn that into myelin in your brain. That’s what separates the neurons.”
In other words: Grass-fed beef is healthier because of its high Omega-3 content.
Rusty Richards, a cowboy from Modjeska Canyon who married Fitzpatrick’s sister, influenced Fitzpatrick to become a cowboy.
Fitzpatrick began collecting hats and ropes. He got his first horse at 12.
While attending Orange High School, Fitzpatrick took agriculture classes and joined Future Farmers of America.
By his senior year, Fitzpatrick had 25 steers, 10 hogs and two sheep.
“My peers thought I was nuts,” he said. “I was pretty isolated and wasn’t in the trendy group, but at that point I really didn’t give a damn.”
Fitzpatrick has owned his herd for about 40 years. In order to ensure the health and quality of each animal, he maintains a closed herd at the two ranches. Fitzpatrick doesn’t own the land, but has agreements with the owners to tend it.
The Trabuco location has been slated for development for more than a decade, but there aren’t any current plans, Fitzpatrick said.
The cattle business vacillates between successful and not. Things are picking up this year.
During a recent morning in Trabuco Canyon, Fitzpatrick and his son corralled their horses into a trailer hooked to a red Ram 2500 and set out to “The Ranch” down the street. Hotshot, a 6-year-old, and Sandman, “the old bastard,” were left behind. Fitzpatrick used to ride Sandman, but the 29-year-old is now retired.
While driving the sprawling acreage, Fitzpatrick preached the virtues of his livestock.
“Cows are what’s going to save the earth,” he said. “When cows eat seeds it goes right through their systems. That’s how God plants grass.”
Outside the window about a dozen cattle lounged in the summer heat, much of the surrounding vegetation dead, bled dry by uncompromising sunlight.
During the lean summer months, alfalfa and bell peppers supplement the cows’ diets. On this particular day, a large mound of bell peppers were gathered at the foot of a hill.
The two cowboys exited the truck, saddled their horses and set about the rim of the small herd, leading them to the peppers. The practice will be repeated until the first rains. Grass usually sprouts between October and Christmas.
The work is hard — contending with encroaching development, the convenience of grocery stores and the sun — but Fitzpatrick has never considered any other path.
“I never gave it a thought that I would be stuck in some office job,” Fitzpatrick said. “I need the outdoors.”
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been working with his father since his early teenage years. He too has sworn off the typical 9 to 5.
“I like being outside, being in touch with nature and where my food comes from,” he said. “It’s important since we keep learning more and more about how sketchy the whole factory food process is. I like being able to deliver food to my community.”
The elder Fitzpatrick will not easily exchange the saddle for retirement.
“I am gearing up Ryan so he can take up the business after I drop dead,” Fitzpatrick said.