From nationally renowned Ayrshires to a herd of successful Black Angus, the LaFranchi Family has been raising cattle in Sonoma County for more than 100 years.
At 14 years old, Massimino LaFranchi emigrated from Switzerland in 1888 and made his living milking cows throughout Sonoma County before meeting his wife Anna Nicklaus in San Francisco.
In 1912, the couple bought 500 acres of land on the outskirts of Calistoga forming Oak Ridge Farm, named after all the oak trees found along the hills of the Knights Valley property.
Massimino and Anna raised cattle on their property but had a farm more typical of the time including horses, chickens and pigs. They went on to have five children: Frank, Madeline, Alfred (Al), Nick and Henry.
Henry purchased two Ayrshire heifers in 1936 as part of his FFA project at Calistoga High School. He was quickly joined by his brothers Al and Nick, and the three worked together to develop one of the country’s most respected herds of Ayrshires.
The brothers were passionate about raising and showing their Ayrshire cattle, and they travelled around the country via boxcar to exhibit at fairs and expositions where they consistently took top honors.
The Oak Ridge Ayrshire herd became known for being one of the first herds to dehorn their cattle. Although the Ayrshire breed had been commonly known for having beautiful horns, Henry began dehorning the cattle because of the potential danger after suffering an injury.
Ayrshires including Oak Ridge Connie Kathleen, Oak Ridge Flashy Starlet and Oak Ridge Kellys Rosid (who was the first cow other than a Holstein to be named Supreme Champion at the World Dairy Expo in 1975) went on to become some of the most influential cows of the breed. Today, the majority of Ayrshires from coast to coast have some lineage that dates back to the herd of Oak Ridge Ayrshires.
On the first Saturday in August 1975, the LaFranchi brothers held a dispersal sale, selling nearly all of the Ayrshires. The dairy herd was replaced by beef cattle, predominantly registered Black Angus.
Five years prior to the sale, the LaFranchi family had purchased an additional 700 acres of land across the street where they originally began running beef cattle. In years since, they have developed multiple long-term leases and currently rent more than 3,000 acres of rangeland in Sonoma County.
Henry LaFranchi married Judith Little in 1958. Her family raised Guernsey cattle in Gridley, CA, and the couple had two children, Cheryl and Eric, who became the third generation involved in the cattle industry.
Cheryl followed in her father’s footsteps to run a successful beef business focusing on disposition as well as genetic traits that include calving ease and soundness. She believes that animals raised on the rolling hills are more likely to preform well.
The family held their first annual Angus bull sale in 1979, a tradition that continues today: 2017 will mark the 38th Annual Oak Ridge Angus Bull Sale.
In the 80’s, the family’s Angus herd was around 200 cattle, but throughout the 90’s, this number increased to more than 400 head of Angus.
Cheryl attributes the growth of the herd to the family’s partnership with the Bear Republic Brewing Co. The ability to feed brewers’ grain has cut the amount of hay needed in half. The ranch feeds approximately 25,000 lbs of brewer’s grain six days a week.
The family runs the cattle in the hills during the winter and brings them down to flatter pastures in the summer after cutting hay. Each year, the family cuts and stacks more than 6,000 bales of grass hay grown during the winter and spring.
Today, in addition to selling Angus bulls in the annual sale, the ranch sells cattle year round via private treaty and through various other channels including the annual Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale. Additionally, the ranch is selling a significant number of animals to the Sonoma County Meat Company where the meat is then distributed to high-end retailers and restaurants throughout Northern California.
Cheryl is married to local large animal veterinarian Frank Mongini, DVM. Eric and his wife Stephanie have three children – the fourth generation lives on the Knights Valley property and are involved in the family’s cattle ranch in addition to being involved in the local agriculture industry.
The family is still passionate about running cattle and plans to maintain their agricultural land far into the future.