Who would think a Nuclear Scientist born in West Virginia would become a cattle rancher in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona? 2016 Pioneer Stockman of the Year and a current Arizona Farm Bureau member, Charles “Chuck” Backus, did just that.  He was born September 17, 1937, the son of Rev. Clyde Harvey Backus and Opal Strader. His Backus ancestors came to America in 1628 and Chuck’s roots in agriculture go back generations. As a youth, he spent time on the farms of his two grandfathers in West Virginia. Chuck’s father was a Methodist minister in West Virginia and when Chuck’s grandfathers passed away, the family moved to a rural town in Ohio.  During his last two years of high school, Chuck lived and worked on a dairy farm milking 120 cows. 

Furthering his education, Chuck was an engineering student at Ohio University in Athens.  Two life-changing events happened to him in 1957.  He married Judith Ann Clouston and Russia launched the first space shuttle. The launch of the shuttle inspired Chuck to devote his technical career to working on power systems for space.  1959 found him in Tucson at the University of Arizona for graduate study in Nuclear Engineering and advanced energy conversion systems.  During the summers, Chuck worked all over the West at various national labs and industries in the space power business.  

Perhaps it's those many years teaching engineering at ASU, but visiting with Chuck always becomes a learning experience and an enriching one. While at ASU, he pursued his goal of becoming a cattle rancher studying Animal Science and Range Management courses. Backus holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering and worked on the space program's Mars mission in the 1960s. In the 1990s, he was asked to lead Arizona State University's solar-energy initiative, now considered one of the world's premier solar-testing laboratories. This Arizona Farm Bureau member has a lifetime of experiences and insights that go to the heart of quality farming and ranching. (Photo by Steve Suther from Certified Angus Beef)

Time spent outdoors hiking and mountain climbing around the West and Mexico fueled his decision to want to eventually become a cattle rancher.  Finishing his Doctorate degree at the U of A, Chuck worked in the industry for three years on space power systems including the program’s Mars mission. He returned to Arizona in 1968 to become a Professor of Engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe. His technical expertise was in Terrestrial Photovoltaics (PV – solar electric) systems.  Chuck has written over 100 articles in the field and has been invited to speak all over the world.

While at ASU, he helped start the world’s premier solar-testing laboratory and served as ASU associate dean of research and later as founding provost of the ASU Polytechnic campus. During his career at ASU Chuck was also pursuing his goal of becoming a cattle rancher studying Animal Science and Range Management courses. He credits Lee Thompson, who becomes a substitute father, with advice on cattle ranching.  

In 1977, working with PCA, Chuck and Judy purchased the Quarter Circle U Ranch that was forty-five minutes from their home in Gilbert. This allowed him to gain ranching experience while still retaining his professional career.

At the time of purchase, the QCU Ranch consisted of about 22 sections of State Trust Land with a rated annual capacity of 207 adult animals.  You could drive to the headquarters but it was a horseback operation from there. The elevation ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 feet of very rough country of canyons, rocks, and cactus.  The ranch had not been well managed and no cross fences or water development had been done in the last 100 years.  The 600-square-foot ranch house was built in 1876 and the stone barn in 1891 with a wire fence for the corral. 

The Quarter Circle U Ranch is considered one of the oldest continuously operated cattle operations in Arizona.

The ranch was located seven miles from the nearest electrical line and it gave Chuck the opportunity to learn by doing while trying new technology. He recalls that a storm had wrecked a windmill in 1979 so Chuck set up a solar panel there. He then linked solar panels with dozens of golf-cart batteries and a big inverter for full 110 and 220 volt AC. The QCU became the first ranch or farm in the world to be completely solar powered.

A water distribution system has been designed and built to provide dependable waters at the springs on the ranch. Most of these springs are in back canyons and are accessible only by horseback.  A helicopter was required to drop off Poly storage tanks, Polywater lines and drinkers in the remote areas.  These water improvements served the cows and wildlife better, distributed the cattle more and resulted in a more uniform utilization of the grass resources.

Chuck contacted Dan Robinet at the Soil Conservation Service who agreed to do a soil and range condition survey of the ranch.  Chuck and Judy developed a management plan from the survey results and it was accepted by the Soil Conservation Service and the Arizona State Land Department.

In the first twenty years, with the help of family members and friends, slow but steady progress was made at the QCU. All external fencing was upgraded and cross fencing was built to allow herd rotations. Steel corrals were eventually built with holding pens and handling facilities. Major improvements were made for corral water storage and distribution and a large tack room and hay barn were built.

A U.S. Forest Service allotment near Lakeside, Arizona was located in 2000 for summer grazing only.  The cattle are grazed in the Superstitions for six months (November through April) and near Lakeside for six months (May through October). The improvement of both grazing land areas and better grazing conditions allow twice the number of cows to be raised. 

Retirement from ASU in 2004 allowed Chuck to devote full time to ranching. While much time had been devoted to the condition of the land; improving the quality of the herd with genetics was Chuck’s next goal.  His achievement in improving his rangeland was recognized in 1995 when Chuck was named Arizona Rancher of the Year by the Arizona Society of Range Management. He was later asked to give a keynote speech at the SRM National Meeting. In 2000 he received The Arizona Conservation Rancher of the Year Award from the NRCS at the Arizona Conservation Districts Annual Meeting

Chuck’s science and engineering background guided him with scientific trials and data in ramping up beef quality. He still raises calves with natural protocol, but it’s a whole different world with high-quality beef as the main target.  Chuck has seriously studied cattle genetics and attended national conferences on the subject. He experimented with Artificial Insemination on a few cows in 2007 to see if it would work on his range conditions.  AI is now used extensively; 350 cows were AI’d in 2016, and Chuck selects semen from the best bulls in the U.S. to increase the qualities he wants in his cattle. 

The QCU calves fed in 2015/2016 by Chuck in an Oklahoma Feedlot, had 95% qualified as “Prime” or “Certified Angus Beef”.  The calves were raised on the ranch and inspected/certified by a third, outside company, to have been raised as “Natural calves”.  They are fed in a certified feedlot on “Natural feed”.  This “Natural” certification also brings a premium at the packing plants because consumers will pay a higher price for these products.

Chuck’s new goal is high feed efficiency for his herd. High-efficiency cattle could greatly reduce the amount of feed required to produce beef to feed the world.  High feed conversion also reduces the forage required by cattle for maintenance of a cow on pasture.

Always pursuing the sharing of knowledge, Chuck writes articles on modern techniques in ranching for the Arizona CattleLog, the monthly magazine of the Arizona Cattle Growers. He also organizes day-long “Workshops for Ranchers” through the Arizona Cattle Industry Research and Education Foundation. The Arizona Cattle Growers awarded Chuck their Top Wrangler Award in 2004 in recognition and appreciation for his dedication and outstanding contribution to the Arizona Cattle Industry.   

The Quarter Circle U is very close to populated communities and the Backus family is always happy to share the ranch with visitors.  Chuck and Judy were the 2016 recipients of the Arizona Beef Council Brand Award for their longtime support of the Council.

Tiffany Selchow from the Council advises that they have continuously welcomed consumer groups to their ranch with the goal of educating about beef and ranching in Arizona. No request to tour their ranch has ever been denied and the Beef Council has asked a lot! Culinary and nutrition students, chefs and registered dietitians, as well as school students, have all had an opportunity to visit the Backus Ranch.  The ranch’s proximity to Phoenix, the adoption of technology, the approachability of the ranchers, and the vast knowledge shared make for a highly educational experience. Tour attendees leave the ranch knowing not just the ranch but the people behind the day to day operations.

In addition to hosting tours, Chuck and Judy have also been willing interviewees for media calls. The Arizona Beef Council has relied on the Backuses for last-minute media interviews and Chuck has provided excellent responses and on-air footage. In September 2016, Chuck and Judy received the “CAB Progressive Partner of the Year Award” at the Certified Angus Beef Annual Conference.

The couple has three children: Tony, Beth, and Amy.  They all rode and helped at the ranch while going through high school and college.  All still live in the Phoenix area and help at the ranch when their busy schedules allow it.  Their 7 grandchildren ride and help when needed. The couple has 5 great-grandchildren who will undoubtedly become future ranch hands.   

Editor’s Note : This article originally appeared in the Arizona National Livestock December 2016 Program.

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