Chuck Coffey uses prescribed fire to boost the land’s health and ability to support beef cattle.
Chuck Coffey’s place looks like a scene from the musical Oklahoma! Tucked between the Arbuckle and Osage mountains in Murray County, beyond the switchbacks and on top rolling hills, the Double C Cattle Ranch is an of possibility.
Chuck Coffey applies prescribed fire to his land.
Picture an open country of butterflies, scissortails and skeletons of old cedar trees — evidence of routine prescribed fire and a lifetime pursuit of conservation and land management. There are tufts of native grass, the occasional boulder that represents the billion-year-old aquifer bubbling beneath, blue ponds, rocky bluffs and bucks resting on open prairie. The Double C Cattle Ranch inspires any visitor to ask, “What did the Great Plains originally look like?”
“Somethin’ like this,” Coffey says as he smiles.
Coffey has dedicated his professional and personal life to Lloyd Noble’s mission: to provide solutions to great agricultural challenges, especially for ranchers. Coffey is a fifth-generation cattleman, a Texas A&M alumnus and former agriculture professor at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. He’s retired after 20 years as a Noble Research Institute pasture and range management consultant, and he still uses the organization’s resources to inform decisions about his operation. Today he serves as chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Board, traveling globally to advocate for beef.
Looking at Progress
Chuck Coffey regularly uses prescribed fire to improve the quality of land on the Double C Cattle Ranch, which sits between the Arbuckle and Osage mountains in Murray County, Oklahoma. He operates the land alongside his wife, Ruth, and their three children: Aaron, Seth and Sarah.
“I’m not sure where the passion comes from,” Coffey says. “But I believe the mark of excellence is putting more focus on the land than you do your business or livestock. In ecology, you have to give to receive. It’s better to only take a portion and give the rest back to the ecosystem. The same goes for life. The more you give, the more you get. Life just works out that way.”
Coffey was a pasture and range specialist at Noble when Robert Wells, Ph.D., was hired as a livestock consultant in 2005. Wells remembers Coffey as an inclusive team member with a gravitating ability to promote excellence in everyone.
“It’s easy to trust someone like Chuck,” Wells says. “He exudes quiet confidence about what he does and knows. He has this natural knack of pulling people into a conversation and helping them want to be part of the solution.”
He also has an “eye” and intuition that can’t be taught, Wells adds.
“Being a rancher is as much of an art as it is a science,” Coffey says. “And a lot of it’s in your stomach.”
Coffey discovered the art of ecology in his hometown of Harper, Texas, at just 13 years old.
Chuck Coffey (right) and a volunteer firefighter take a break from a prescribed burn.
“We had a neighbor whose land looked great and ours looked terrible,” Coffey says. “Ours was cedar-infested and the stocking rate was declining. His was increasing. His was doing better because he was prescribed burning, and he called us one day to come out and help. He handed me a drip torch and said, ‘Here, son. Go light this trail of fire.’ And I did. It was fun, but it was also one of those ‘wow’ moments in your life.”
Coffey’s beliefs about beef production and land management have been refined and redefined over the years. And, at times, put to the fire. The 2011-2012 drought remains one of Coffey’s greatest lessons in leadership, conservation and making the right decision for future generations.
Cattle graze on the Double C Cattle Ranch in Murray County, Oklahoma.
“Where I had grass, I didn’t have any water; where I had water, I had no grass,” he remembers. “At first, I was pushing too hard. I wasn’t being conservation-focused. I was just trying to maximize the number of cows I was trying to run.”
Coffey reduced his herd by 50%. Selling quality, bred cattle was a decision to uphold the integrity of the land. But it wasn’t an easy one.
I'm not sure where the passion comes from. But I believe the mark of excellence is putting more focus on the land than you do your business or livestock. In ecology, you have to give to receive. ... The same goes for life. The more you give, the more you get."
— Chuck Coffey
“I just leaned up against a post and cried,” he says. “But I learn more from my mistakes than I do my successes. The only way a person can truly fail is to not try. If you try and fail, you’re not a failure. If you fail to try, you’re a failure. That’s Winston Churchill, by the way.”
Coffey never misses an opportunity to give credit where it's due. He operates the ranch with his wife, Ruth, and with the help of his three children: Aaron, Seth and Sarah. Together, the family holds multiple degrees in agriculture, serves across countless boards, leads various associations, and volunteers in plenty of roles. Leading through example is a passion Coffey passed down, and helping others is his living legacy.
Burn for Good
Chuck Coffey discovered the importance of prescribed fire at age 13 through a neighbor in his hometown of Harper, Texas. Today, Coffey and his family continue to use prescribed fire to manage eastern red cedars, an invasive species, and to improve their land’s overall health and productivity.
“Ultimately, we’re just a cow-calf operation,” Sarah says. “Dad’s passion is the whole beef industry. He wants to see these ranches succeed into the next generation not only for our family but for other families. He wants to help not only us but other people.”
Coffey’s short-term goal is to clear all cedar trees from his land and return the ecosystem to the original Great Plains. He envisions a savanna or open prairie habitat that can support life, livestock and his family for many more lifetimes.
“Everyone has their passions,” Coffey says. “Mine is to give as much to the land while we're alive.”