Preserving a Ranching Way of Life

Ranchers Find Enterprising Ways to Sustain a Western Legacy

 Photography by  Devon Balet      Janie VanWinkle     holds the bottom line of the cattle as her team drives the herd across the Uncompahgre Plateau towards the rim of Unaweep Canyon.

Photography by Devon Balet

Janie VanWinkle holds the bottom line of the cattle as her team drives the herd across the Uncompahgre Plateau towards the rim of Unaweep Canyon.

On a breezy February day, Grand Valley rancher Janie VanWinkle drives her ATV across a field near Reeder Mesa, where a herd of mama cows and their newborns are grazing on land the VanWinkle family leases from the city of Grand Junction. She’s looking for a calf to tag, to ensure she’ll know which baby and mama belong together if they become separated later. VanWinkle stops the four-wheeler. Kerchief around her neck and lariat in hand, she walks slowly toward an untagged calf to lasso, but the newborn quickly scampers away after a nudge from its mother.

    VanWinkle regularly traverses Mesa County to tend the family’s cows, which graze on both private and public lands. The city-owned ranch at the foot of Grand Mesa, where she’s checking on the mama-calf pairs, is surrounded by views of the Uncompahgre Plateau and the Book Cliff Mountains. At their place in Fruita, VanWinkle and her husband, Howard, take turns getting up in the middle of the night to check on the first-time birthing mamas they keep close to home during this calving time of year.

    Blue-eyed and sandy-haired, the 57-year-old VanWinkle grew up in western Colorado’s Unaweep Canyon, where both her parents and grandparents raised cattle. At age 18, she and Howard established their own ranch with 20 sheep and 20 cows — continuing a lifestyle that, more often than not, has entailed both of them working outside jobs in addition to the ranch work. It’s only been in the last three years that the family has supported itself with ranching alone. 

    The VanWinkles raise 550 cows and 30-plus bulls on their medium-sized ranch to produce the calves they sell during an online video auction in July. “People bid from all over the country on these cows,” VanWinkle says. “We can say yes or no. We sell by the pound.” Buyers send four cattle trucks in November to deliver the calves to feedlots — typically in Nebraska, Kansas, or eastern Colorado — where they finish fattening up before slaughter. 

    Locally, smaller ranching operations bring their cows, bulls, calves, and sheep to the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction in Loma, held Wednesdays throughout the spring. As a livestock auctioneer maintains a lively banter at a February auction, two ring stewards guide the animals through one gate for a quick prance around the arena before exiting out a second gate. Livestock might go for less than what the rancher wants, but all the animals are sold. A simple nod or lift of the finger from a cowboy or cowgirl sitting in the bleachers closes the deal. 

    Zane Odell, clad in a black cowboy hat, came up from his southern Colorado ranch to buy cows for a packer company. The job requires two to four days a week and supplements his ranching income. “This is what pays the bills,” Odell says. “We would live so meager if not for this.” While ranchers’ assets — including land, livestock, and machinery — may be great, the cash flow often is not. Still, it’s a lifestyle that many cherish.

    “All four sets of great-grandparents homesteaded where I live in Lewis,” Odell says. “It’s a pretty good damn place to raise your kids. They all know how to work and will have a good set of morals.” While his kids will likely inherit the property he came into, starting a ranching business from scratch is prohibitive for most, due to the cost of land and upfront capital needed.

   The Western Slope Cattlemen’s Auction in Loma, CO

The Western Slope Cattlemen’s Auction in Loma, CO

Alternative Approaches

Fruita rancher and large-animal veterinarian Kathryn Bedell lives at the end of a long, winding driveway atop a small hill that overlooks Colorado National Monument and the Book Cliffs Mountains. Horses and sheep graze outside her home, while her cows roam on other private and public lands in Mesa County. 

    Bedell, a 47-year-old with wavy, gold-flecked hair, raises her cattle from start to finish on grass and hay — as opposed to grains, which she says are not part of a cow’s natural diet. She made the decision to raise grass-fed beef after observing in veterinary school the practice of feeding human food waste to beef and dairy cows. In feedlots, food scraps such as potato peels from McDonalds, old bakery pastries, and expired candy still in the wrapper are ground up and mixed with grain. The mixture is then nutritionally formulated to feed to cows.

    “When I had kids that suddenly became more appalling,” Bedell recalls. “Giant feedlots do this,” she’s quick to add — not the small family ranches that raise their animals from birth to slaughter. During her veterinary training, Bedell also witnessed how growth hormones are added to cattle to make them fatter, another practice with which she disagrees for health reasons. 

    Bedell owns Roan Creek Grocery in Fruita, which carries her natural meats. Grand Valley restaurants also serve her grass-fed beef. She sells to the Palisade Café 11.0, 626 on Rood, and the Western Colorado Community College culinary arts program restaurant, Chez Lena. Café Sol also occasionally buys lamb from Bedell.

   The auction offers a place to sell everything from cattle and sheep to goats, pigs, and farm equipment.

The auction offers a place to sell everything from cattle and sheep to goats, pigs, and farm equipment.

    For her part, VanWinkle doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the local/grass-fed/organic food movement. In fact, she feels a responsibility to provide healthy, safe beef that is widely affordable. She notes, however, that her meat is hormone-free so she can sell it to Japan and Europe, where consumers require their food imports be free of added hormones.

    Bedell is busy these days working on a project that she maintains would help area ranchers of all stripes earn more money and also give them greater control over their end product. Currently, four large meatpacking firms process 80 percent of all beef in the United States, according to High Country News of Paonia, CO. Those companies — Tyson, National Beef, Cargill, and the Brazilian-owned JBS — have a monopoly on processing meat. Thus, they don’t pay ranchers enough for their cows, say Bedell, who contends this system is unsustainable. 

    To help compensate for the closure of smaller USDA-inspected slaughterhouses, Bedell is seeking to build a cooperatively owned, USDA-certified meat-processing plant near Fruita.
Co-op members would control the quality and cuts of meat while earning more for the animals they raise from start to finish. She’s been working with the Colorado State University animal sciences department and the Colorado Department of Agriculture while completing a feasibility study for the facility, which would be capable of processing 200 head of cattle daily. 

    Bedell has contacted Colorado Mesa University, the Mesa Workforce Center, and Western Colorado Community College about offering training for people to become certified meat processors.

    “The whole motivation is to make ranching more profitable,” Bedell says. “Ranchers would own the facility and supply their cattle to the facility. As a result, they would also own the brand. Ranchers would be taking profit from the whole process.” 

   Local ranchers look on and catch up as cattle are auctioned

Local ranchers look on and catch up as cattle are auctioned

Conservation Easements

While a cooperative meat-processing plant may help members boost their bottom line, some farmers and ranchers are preserving their way of life by protecting their land with conservation easements. Glade Park cattle rancher Jay Van Loan partnered with Colorado West Land Trust (formerly known as Mesa Land Trust) and Great Outdoors Colorado to preserve portions of his property in exchange for tax credits and a cash payment — an infusion of funds he needed to keep operating. “We were the first to sell our development rights in Mesa County — April 23, 1999,” Van Loan recalls. “We wouldn’t be here without that, no doubt.”

    He still owns the land and can continue to ranch or farm, or sell the property. However, the property can never be developed, a provision that remains with any subsequent owners.

    “I’ve never known anything else,” says Van Loan, who turns 70 in August. “My granddad and dad moved to Glade Park in the early 1920s. They had a small ranch.” Van Loan lives on the land his father bought in 1940. He added to the property in 1972, when he purchased the S+ Ranch on Glade Park.

    Van Loan partnered again with the land trust, and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to conserve 1,800 acres of habitat for the endangered sage grouse. For this he received tax credits and a cash payment for 80 percent of the easement value. Much of that money has gone to pay off operating bank loans — something that the ranch itself couldn’t do, he says.

    However, money wasn’t Van Loan’s only motivation for preserving his land. “We’re also preserving the views,” he explains. “We didn’t want to see the property broken up into 40-acre parcels.” The pristine property includes sagebrush, pinyon-juniper, oak brush, and important wildlife habitat. Two creeks provide drinking water for cattle and wildlife, and irrigation water for growing hay. Towering sandstone cliffs rise to the north of his property. He remembers his late wife coming home from town one day, looking across the expanse of Glade Park open space, and noting, “A hundred years from now it will look the same as now, with no houses on it.” 

    Van Loan grazes his 70 head of cattle on 5,000 acres of leased BLM property and 1,300 acres of private summer range. Typically, the cattle spend winters on BLM land in Utah, although not this year because it was too dry. “There’s a lot less snowfall than in the past due to climate change,” he says. “We’re sensitive to the weather changes. We’re feeling it.”

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Changing Trends

Van Loan is growing a new crop with hopes of becoming more financially stable. “Until this last year, hay and cattle are all I’ve known,” he says. Then, last year, he planted five acres of hemp. “Hay and cattle are worth half what they were four years ago. We haven’t shown a profit for a number of years now. That’s why I’m raising hemp. We knew we had to try something different. Crop farming is a new experience. Our hope is to make enough money growing industrial hemp to keep us in ranching as long as we want to, until we can’t crawl around anymore. We like what we do. We work as hard as we always did.”

    Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley’s family started ranching in the North Fork Valley in the early 1900s. Her sons will be fifth-generation ranchers when they take over the operation. While the number of people getting into the business “ebbs and flows,” the industry is holding steady, notes LeValley. “I often tell people, ‘If you’d asked me five years ago, I’d [have] said we’re losing that younger generation.’ But in the last five to seven years we’re seeing an increase in the number of young people coming back to existing family ranches, or other ranches in more of a management role.” 

   Rancher and veterinarian Kathryn Bedell

Rancher and veterinarian Kathryn Bedell

 
While the ranchers’ assets — including land, livestock, and machinery — may be great, the cash flow often is not. Still, it’s a lifestyle that many cherish.
 

    Indeed, it’s mostly people who inherit land that can afford to run a ranch these days, says Erin Karney, industry advancement director for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. While large ranches are consolidating and becoming even bigger, a greater number of smaller producers, or “hobby farms,” are emerging — keeping the number of Colorado ranches roughly the same, she says.

    Even as their roles evolve with modern circumstances, valley ranchers are carrying on a long legacy of hard work and resourcefulness. In this way they are preserving the lifestyle and livelihood they love, and an essential part of the American West.