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W. Marin man hopes frozen sperm takes ranch to 'next level'

Joe Wolfcale
Marin Independent Journal

VERY LITTLE has changed on the fertile pastures of the Jacobsen family ranch in Chileno Valley over the decades.

Cattle ranching in West Marin is still tough going.

The winds from the Pacific Ocean whip incessantly, there's always some fence mending to do, animals need to be cared for and the land must be replenished.

Rancher John Goldbeck spends 60 to 80 hours a week doing just that, tending to his 1,000-acre J. G. Angus Ranch on Chileno Valley Road. He wants to take the ranch to the next level, and a small, dusty barn holds the pot of gold he hopes will help him get there.

There on the floor is a white nitrogen-filled container that, when opened, reveals a handful of metal straws containing purebred Angus bull semen used to impregnate cows to produce Angus calves.

The frozen semen in the vat is valued at between $5,000 and $10,000 and is the first step in a revenue stream that can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars. The vat includes semen from a $2 million animal that had to be put down.

"This is so much in my blood," said Goldbeck, 44, a fourth generation rancher. "And for me, it's all about retaining the family tradition. I'm doing everything I can to take this to a whole new level."

Like the bulls he produces, Goldbeck comes from extraordinary stock.

He got involved in the ranching business while attending Santa Rosa High School and was a ranchhand for his grandfather, Elray Jacobsen, who was among the biggest commercial cattle dealers in Northern California.

The Jacobsens traded their Petaluma ranch in 1968 for a ranch in Chileno Valley. Goldbeck's grandmother Ruth, 84, still resides in Petaluma.

"We just fell in love with this place," Ruth once said.

Elray died in 1992 at age 72 and Goldbeck became Ruth's right-hand man and assumed full control of the ranch in 2003 when she retired. Goldbeck began his Angus breeding business in 2001.

He pays tribute to traditions and hangs the Jacobsen ranch sign above his on the barn facing the roadway. In his office are two beige cowboy hats worn by his grandfather.

Petaluma's Al Caletti, 82, was Elray Jacobsen's key ranchhand for more than 30 years. Last week, he had lunch with Goldbeck, and took a look around.

"He's fixing it up really nice," said Caletti, who retired about 20 years ago. "He's got a good set of cattle. He's done a great job. He had a good teacher. I've got a lot of great memories from out there."

Goldbeck is the only purebred Angus bull breeder in Marin County and one of few in the Bay Area. He runs about 200 head of cattle and sells about 50 bulls a year, fetching from $2,000 to $5,000 per animal.

The artificial insemination process, done with a special injector, allows the bull semen to be used on a number of cows, thus producing more calves.

Goldbeck, a registered member of the American Angus Association, sells bulls from the Central Valley to Oregon. He is an excellent rancher and expert breeder, says fellow Chileno Valley rancher Mike Gale.

"He's really modernized the operation quite a bit, and he's put an awful lot of hard work into it," said Gale, president of the Marin Farm Bureau. "It's really an art what he's doing. Buying bulls from him is perfect for me. The animals are already acclimated to the weather here, so it's a real advantage for West Marin ranchers. The bulls are all ready."

Gale, who runs about 100 head of cattle with his wife Sally, said Goldbeck's bull operation is "pretty unique for this area. I've bought several bulls from John.

"There are several purebred breeders around ,but he's the only one in Marin County."

Gale said Goldbeck has been a mentor.

"He wants the very best genetics in his herd, and the fact that he's been successful as a commercial breeder is key. He has good knowledge of the industry and comes from a long line of family members who worked in this industry."

Goldbeck takes pride in the ranch. He has replaced most of the wood fencing with steel, purchased a hydraulic system that lets him treat and care for animals humanely, and has gone to extremes to keep the property spotless, including landscaping areas near the main ranch structures.

"It's pretty amazing what some of the ranchers are doing out in Western Marin," Marin Humane Society animal services director Cindy Machado said.

When he isn't ranching, Goldbeck cares for five structures on the property - he renovated the 1870s farm house - and has upgraded with new plumbing and wiring. But he's a one-man operation, and that's the way he wants to keep it.

In the pasture out back is one of Goldbeck's prized 41Ú2 -year-old bulls. He weighs 2,600 pounds.

"You don't want to get too close, just go close enough until he turns," Goldbeck advises.

Two other bulls are segregated near the hay barn. "You don't want them together. They're very territorial. They'd just beat each other up, and then they'd be no good to anyone," Goldbeck said.

A month ago, Goldbeck was tending to his herd in the afternoon when he heard what sounded like gunshots ring out near the property.

After watching a crowded car of teenagers flee, Goldbeck discovered a cow was shot. The cow had to be put down. It's owner, Joe Vierra, leases land from Goldbeck and tends to about 40 head of cattle on 84 acres.

A $15,000 reward has been posted for apprehension of the culprits.

Goldbeck's cattle wear numbered yellow tags on their ears and are tattooed for identification. Each animal's genetic information is recorded and documented. Semen is manually collected from four herd sires responsible for the booming business.

Many factors each year determine the ranch's business success - the economy, the price of corn, the weather, the cattle industry.

Lack of rain this winter has affected the growth of pasture grasses, requiring more feed, and could produce a lackluster year, he said.

Goldbeck's annual take averages between $100,000 and $250,000, depending on the wealth of the season.

When he wants a change of pace, Goldbeck turns his attention to a flock of about 40 Indian fantail show pigeons he breeds in a small barn. He also serves as a judge for certified club competitions around the country. It has been his hobby for more than 20 years.

He also is an actor with several television and print commercials to his credit, including ads for automobile companies, airlines and hardware.

Goldbeck has four daughters: Christina, 16, a junior at Petaluma High; Kayla, 18, who works at Walker Creek Ranch; Sarah, 21, a Petaluma bank supervisor; and Cynthia, 26, who works in a Petaluma office.

The phone answering machine at the ranch says, "You've reached the home of John and the girls."

The girls help out in a pinch.

"It's not too often that he needs our help," Cynthia Goldbeck says. "I really think it's absolutely amazing what he's been able to accomplish.

"I think it's great he got an opportunity to take the ranch on, and look what he's done with it."

Contact Joe Wolfcale via e-mail at jwolfcale@marinij.com