Oral history by: Robert Ellison
Submitted December 4, 2012
Listen to Robert Ellison’s Interview of Janet Burback
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TILTON RANCH, 1917: Madrone, CA
The Janet Burbacks of this state are a dying breed. A fourth generation cattle rancher, she is one of a handful who are still family owned in Santa Clara County. She vows to continue as long as it is financially feasible and physically attainable. So how did Tilton Ranch get its beginning?
In 1917 Janet’s great grandparents were running cattle on 30,000 acres in Gilroy and decided to retire. Retired they did not stay and they purchased 3200 acres in the township of Madrone, just north of Morgan Hill. In the late 1920′s the ranch was passed to their daughter Lillie Tilton and her husband Jere Sheldon. They continued to operate the ranch until 1960 when Jere passed away. Lillie with the help of her daughter Barbera Sheldon and her husband Harold Baird ran the ranch till 1993 when Lillie passed away one month shy of her 100th birthday. Harold, Janet’s father, passed away in 2005 with Janet and her husband Greg Burback taking over the daily affairs with help from her sister Barbera.
Janet Burback was born on June 5, 1962 along with her twin brother at Wheeler Hospital in Gilroy. They had the honor of being the first babies born there. Since Morgan Hill didn’t have a hospital, the nearest one was in Gilroy. This is still true today. There were a total of 5 kids in Janet’s family and all of them pursued jobs in the Ag business at one time with a sister who is a brand inspector for the State of Ca. and a brother who is still ranching.
Married with two kids, Janet hopes to one day pass the torch to the next generation. She has a daughter attending Montana State in Boseman , Montana who majors in ranch management along with a son at Sobrato High here in Morgan Hill. It is in their teens where the kids are bitten with the 4H or more often the FFA bug, which teaches the young students responsibilities required in caring for livestock as well as being future spokesmen for the Ag business. Janet has approximately 13 students from 2 High schools who are raising steers at Tilton Ranch who will sell them at the summer fairs. These are good kids who spend 7 days a week with their animals. Being that she was in FFA has given Janet an appreciation for the program and it shows with the passion she shares with the kids. I now would like to share some of Janet’s early recollections of school and how it was being a ranch girl at school.
Janet shared that when she went to school there were plenty of Ag kids so no one really messed with them. Sure there were a few fights or two with the city kids but we had strength in numbers. Remember Janet said, ” Morgan Hill was a one stop light town of 6,ooo residents and you didn’t need radios for communication because everybody knew each other and if you got in trouble your parents knew before you got home.” She misses the times when you could walk to your neighbor’s house and that you could trust everybody. Times were changing, as one summer Janet recalls they built 42 custom homes on 5-acre parcels so with the push in population also came the need for more schools. ” At Live Oak we had split shifts as in my sophomore year I went in the afternoon, my junior year I went in the mornings, and my senior year we went all day with the completion of the new Live Oak High School.”
Fast forward today, you have 38,000 residents of M.H. where the city dwellers have overrun the Ag kids as you might have 10 out of 60 on the school bus who still live in the country. “My kids had it much tougher than I did as they got picked on,” Janet remembers as the power in numbers shifted to the city kids.
After graduating from high school, Janet moved out of the house and was independent at the young age of 18. To support herself she worked her way up to supervisor at Burger King working a swing/graveyard shift. Other jobs she has held, she has worked at Nob Hill Foods and has worked on a ranch in Canada where she operated heavy machinery. It was there that she figured if she could drive big equipment she could certainly drive a school bus and got a job with Morgan Hill Unified and drove for eighteen years leaving to run Tilton Ranch upon her fathers passing.
Tilton Ranch is a cow/calf operation established in 1917 which today produces Herefords, Shorthorns, and a Angus Cross calves. All replacement cows are taken from Janet’s own stock refusing to buy outside which assures the quality of her calves. The goal is to produce 140 calves but like many aspects of ranching it is up to Mother Nature. Janet puts her bulls out in early December and after do their business all that is left for the bulls to do is fight and determine who is top bull. This pecking order is done often which leads to the high mortality rates of bulls. Calves are born in Sept./Oct. in which Janet shoots for less than 10% “open cows” where there is no calf to be born. She does preg test her cows and has been able to meet her goals of less than 10% and has been blessed with several twin births.
The spring is the busiest time for the cattle rancher where the new calves get their shots and are branded. As you can imagine, this is very labor intensified as family and friends are all solicited to help out. Janet actually prefers the city folks who don’t know anything who are very teachable compared to the local rancher who is set in his or her ways. The day begins with a hearty breakfast cooked by a hired chef who will serve lunch and dinner as well. First off is the roundup of the new calves. At Tilton Ranch this is done with the women on horseback and the men on the ATV’S, or all terrain vehicles. The cattle are gathered and the calves are separated from their mothers. Everybody has a specific job assignment and you are expected to not deviate from that position. This allows an assembly line production.
Once in the chute, the calf is led to a table where its head is secured and the calf is flipped over and given the 3 shot vaccine which will protect them from black leg, shipping fever, and pink eye. It is here while the animal is upside down where the castration takes place if needed. Janet still brands her animals, as do 17 of the Western States. Branding consists of the traditional mark in the right hindquarter but also includes the ear mark where a notch is cut out in the ear, which is usually similar to your brand. Since hair grows over your brand on the hindquarter it is important to have other identification. Tilton Ranch also uses a ear tag button which has a 10-digit number attached which identifies it as Tilton Ranch stock. When the calves are sold, a wand is run over the ear identifying the owner. This method of identification has reduced thefts and increased the ranchers tracking methods.
I asked Janet about cattle being extremely harmful to the land and she told me as long as you don’t overgraze and you give the land time to rest and grow more grass the cattle can be used to keep the grasses low and the fire risk as well. She commented that when you have too many animals on piece of land and they are not moved, it is then when you have destructive ranching practices, which she is totally against, Water on the ranch comes from springs that change in location as the earth moves. On one location on the ranch the water comes out of a tree stump. There are three ponds as well as a couple troughs that make up the watering holes for the cattle.
So what does the future hold for Tilton Ranch? Janet hopes that her daughter or son will take over when she and her husband are ready to hang it up. The regulations are making it very hard to continue. California is the toughest state to do business in with tractor equipment required to have 3 tier engines to deal with emissions when your car is polluting much more just in sheer numbers. The Bay Area is not friendly to ranchers, but Santa Clara County is a bit more friendlier. “Without the Williamson Act we could not continue,” said Janet. The Williamson Act allows tax breaks to ranchers with more than 40 acres who have made more than $2000 for the year from their property. “We are land rich and cash poor,” Janet says. To subsidize their income they lease to Coyote Valley Sporting Clays which is a skeet-shooting club on the ranch. They also manage other properties growing hay, where they get the hay and the rancher keeps his land in compliance with the fire dangers. It’s a win-win proposition. You don’t get into ranching to get rich; it’s in your blood. I hope that Tilton Ranch becomes a 5th generation, family owned ranch, which preserves some of the landscape of Santa Clara County.
I really enjoyed my visits to Tilton Ranch and talking to Janet and know that if I gave her a call and wanted to visit that she would welcome me. I really learned quite a bit about the operations in running a cattle ranch.