BJ Warnock, 23, is ranching the way his great granddad ranched –– the hard way. Not only is the fourth-generation Imnaha rancher running cattle in a semi-arid desert country of awe-producing ruggedness, he’s building his ranch from nothing.
That’s rarely done today. Most 19-year-olds fresh out of high school certainly don’t do it.
Warnock, now 23, and his young wife, Emily, 21, are living a 19th Century cowboy dream partly because they think hard work is just what you do and partly because the stars aligned.
“Imnaha ranching is in my blood,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a rancher from birth. I was herding things before I could walk.”
Wife Emily also descends from multi-generation ranchers. The Ketschers of Enterprise are her people. And she and BJ are raising up what is likely to be the fifth generation Imnaha country Warnock, seven-month-old son Miles.
Today Miles is smiling from a baby carrier strapped to Emily’s chest. He’s “doing chores.”
“I couldn’t imagine raising Miles any other way,” said Emily. “It gives you an opportunity to actually spend time together.”
Raising their family the Imnaha rancher way was a goal.
“Once we got married (July 2015) our goal was to work together,” said BJ. “That’s why we worked so hard putting this (business) together. We’re partners. She’s not in the house and I’m out working — we’re out doing it together, and that’s how we want to raise our family too.”
Reaching those goals required a huge capacity for risk-taking combined with some hard-won self-confidence.
“When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know how it was going to happen,” BJ admits.
But like any good pioneer, BJ Warnock defied conventional wisdom and went with his heart.
“When I graduated, everybody said what college they were going to go to, and I said I was going to be the fourth-generation to ranch on the Imnaha,” he said.
Six years later, with 350 of his own cows and managing hundreds of other people’s cattle on thousands of acres of private, leased or permit land, BJ looks back and realizes if he had gone to college he’d have missed his opportunity.
His first summer out of high school he cowboyed for Eric Porter of Grouse Creek 18 miles up the Imnaha River. And then, just as if it were meant to be, BJ got his first break.
In the fall of 2012, Don and Bonnie Marks of Imnaha agreed to lease him a herd of 100 cows and the use of their land. The deal was that BJ furnish the labor and expenses and they share the calf crop.
Shortly thereafter, Wayne and Jean Cook of Enterprise offered him the lease of 35 head. The cattle live in Enterprise in the summer and winter on leased land in Imnaha.
Two years later, BJ was able to purchase his own cattle, 74 cows, from Larry and Mern Moore of Imnaha. They came with a 6,000-acre land lease.
That may seem like a lot of land, but keep in mind that the best Imnaha land is only useable for a few days in the spring and a few months in the winter. Much of it is not usable at all.
Three years later, in 2017, now a married man with a baby, BJ purchased 83 head of cattle from his first champions, the Marks. Again the cattle came with leased land, but this time Warnock had a purchase option on 1,800 deeded acres as well.
“We had to take risks and take out loans,” Warnock admits. “Our philosophy is we want to take risks while we’re young, that way if it doesn’t work out, we have time to change it.”
He also began to feed and calve out herds belonging to others working out a deal that allowed him to use a large ranch owned by other landowners downriver.
Now BJ and Emily own 350 of their own cows.
“It’s a perfect fit to support one family,” BJ said. “We are extremely grateful for the opportunities these ranchers have presented us. Not everybody is willing to give a young, aspiring couple a chance at pursuing a career in ranching. We’ve been privileged enough to not only work with one family but a couple of families that are willing to give us opportunities.”
Warnocks have been all over the Imnaha and Snake River canyons, learning how to ranch there since 1879. Charles Warnock (1892-1961) started the Imnaha Warnock clan and Grant Warnock (1930–2017) kept it going, eventually handing it down to Joe, BJs father.
That kind of generational knowledge can’t be found at college or in a book.
Ranching in Wallowa County requires keeping a lot of balls in the air and a lot of trailing and transport, moving cows from place to place, chasing grass.
The envied benefit of ranching in the Imnaha is that the canyon is so deep, such a low elevation at the bottom, that there is winter grazing on the “golden ticket” of native blue bunch wheat grass.
“It’s the same grass my ancestors grazed 100 years ago,” BJ said.
Because of their careful management of this natural resource, successful Imnaha ranchers save a lot on winter feed bills, but “winter feed in Imnaha is not always all it’s cracked up to be,” BJ says with a laugh.
He’s been talking about the danger of ranching in the Imnaha –– telling tales about “the bad winter of 2016-17” when he had to go up in the steep country and trail cattle off the benches because the grass was giving out.
“It was extremely slick,” he said. So slick that over the winter six cattle grazing on a slippery north slope lost their footing on the grass and slid all the way into the canyon.
So, his horse was “sharp shod” (equipped with shoes with spikes on them for traction on the ice) when he went up to get his herd of cattle off the bench.
He gathered his cattle and got them on a dirt road, a cat road cut through the canyons with a 60-foot rim on the down side and started the miles-long trip. Along the way he dismounted and was leading the horse when it accidentally put a foot over the rim, lost its grip on the road and went over, yanking the reins from his hand. The horse tumbled all the way to the bottom of the canyon and was killed.
“The ruggedness is what makes Imnaha challenging and also what makes it unique,” BJ said.
But the Warnocks are bred for this.
“It’s not just a passion, it’s also an obsession,” said BJ. “You have to be thinking about it constantly. When you go to bed at night, you have to be thinking about it, and when you get up in the morning, you have to be thinking about it. Thinking about what you’re going to do if you lose a lease here or lose a lease there.”
“I started with a blank canvas.” — BJ Warnock