High Altitude Ranching in a Nutshell
Our ranch operation is considered a cow-calf operation which, in simplified terms, means we raise and stock mother cows that give birth to calves yearly which we then sell or retain to replenish our herd. That’s the simplified, condensed version but ranching is so completely connected with the land, its inhabitants, and the changing seasons, it’s easy to imagine us, the caretakers, as puppets to something larger. Almost every moment of our lives is dictated by its needs. While it is a natural existence to us, outsiders who are foreign to the experience often ask, “What is it you do?” Here is a response in relation to the calendar.
January is cold. Temperatures often dip below zero, sometimes twenty below, sometimes even further, more often than not accompanied by high winds whipping stinging snow. The upside is most days are sunny with an endless blue sky above. Some are even warm, meaning 25 degrees above zero. The average January temperature is 18 degrees. Winter requires our 800 mother cows and horses get fed first thing in the morning. At this time of year, there are no calves, except the unborn preparing to make their appearance in the spring. Depending of the length and severity of the winter, a mature cow will requires approximately 2.5 tons of hay to get through the season.
Four wheel drive tractors are used to feed, with a bale processor on the back, unrolling long lines of hay for the swarming cattle to eat as we drive forward. Managing the resulting manure (important fertilizer for next years’ hay crop) requires that we move these lines into different feeding areas all winter long. The cattle are expectant; they know what time we feed and are always there to greet us. Our tractors can handle the snow rather efficiently most winters. In a wet winter, we have to plow a bit or make extra runs backward and forward through the deeper parts. Occasionally the snow depth proves too deep for our tractors–snowcats pulling sleighs are then utilized. Winter feeding also entails providing a source of drinking water for the livestock. This is usually accomplished by chopping holes through the ice on the streams.
Speaking of snow and ice, that is another large task on a snow day. On each ranch (there are three total), someone will be up at the crack of dawn on a grader or a dozer, clearing the employees’ driveways. To put this in perspective for you flatlanders, The Buffalo Creek Ranch alone, has over 10 miles of “driveway.” There are six homes on this one ranch. Shovels will also come out for decks and entries. A good back and a good relationship with a chiropractor is a local requirement.
The horses are pastured and fed separately. Their hay is baled in small squares weighing 75 pounds. The premium hay is kept for the horses, since their digestion is more sensitive. We typically throw their hay by hand. We also open their water holes, except in the areas that have heated electric tanks. Most of our horses are easy keepers, and require no grain in the winter. Our premium North Park hay is sufficient to keep them fuzzy and fat.
What is left of the day is spent on various chores, depending on the employee. Maintenance takes a huge chunk of time, both on the equipment and buildings. Besides the tractors and trucks and logging equipment to maintain, there are shops, offices, and barns as well. The acquisition of firewood is also a constant chore as we easily burn more than 25 cords each winter. Office work also is endless: bookkeeping, accounting, payroll and reports and marketing, such as writing this web page today on a sunny, “warm” January day.
The rest of the winter looks very similar to January, except it gets a little warmer as the winter wears on. Generally the snowfall gradually increases, typically peaking around the month of March. April, May, and even June can see snowstorms at our 9,000 feet of elevation, but daytime temperatures can reach the 50’s. It’s quite the paradox of living at high elevations—just when you’re sick of winter and the cold, mother nature begins to refresh your psyche with warmer temperatures, only to crush your hopes of spring by dumping 12” of new, wet snow. Springtime is, far-and-away, the primary demise of many folks’ best intentions on becoming a year-‘round, North Park resident! As the snow recedes, the cows start looking rounder and you prepare for the inevitable.
And voila! Spring erupts into a sea of mud and muck, affectionately known by locals as simply “mud-season.” Sometimes it feels like it happens overnight. Toward the end of April the mother cows are moved close to the calving barns and an around-the-clock watch starts as the cows start dropping their babies. If it’s too cold or a new mother has trouble with the birthing process, the ranchers have to step in to help “pull the calves” or bring them into warmth. Numbered tags are set in the ears and detailed records are kept to ensure we are breeding the most healthy and efficient cattle possible. Most cows are nonchalant about this process. A few mothers are rogue and become agitated. Everything is recorded in the books by ear tag number, so when sale time comes around, we know who we want to keep on the team for highest rate of production. These healthy mothers create healthy, high altitude babies that will be sold in the fall for either meat or for other ranchers to start their high altitude herds. Though scientific, it also has an element of the magical in the first moments a calf is born. Of course, some of the magic can be dampened in the event of a late spring snowstorm at two in the morning when you’ve only logged four hours of sleep out of the last thirty-six.
During this calving period, we must also find the opportunity to “drag our meadows.” Remember the “fertilizer patties” left on the meadows from winter feeding, they must be broken apart and spread across the meadows before irrigating can begin. This is accomplished by dragging a harrow behind a tractor across the whole field. A harrow is basically a mesh-like drag with short teeth that protrude downward and can vary in width’s from 16’-30’+. Dragging it across the meadow breaks the manure down and spreads it into the grass where it can more readily dissolve and provide organic fertilizer for the coming years hay crop.
Mud usually concedes to a green grass in mid-May: a thick carpet in our hay meadows and sparser, but nutritionally dense grasses dot our sage-covered hills and begin to grow lush again up into our aspen and evergreen forests. Before we release the cattle into Mother Nature’s virtually endless smorgasbord (they graze on over 20,000 acres), we allow the little ones to grow up a bit, and our cooks start pulling out their favorite recipes. Phone calls to neighbors are made to pick the dates for the big brandings.
And so the neighbors gather throughout North Park ranches on the last weekends of May. The average temperature is 45 to 50 degrees and, hopefully, without moisture as wet calves cannot be branded. A few city folk join the crew out of curiosity as it definitely is a cultural experience unlike most others. At first light the cow-calves are gathered by horseback into corrals around the branding pen. The fire is “stoked” inside a portable propane stove and the branding irons are wedged in to get red hot. Vaccination guns are loaded and people are assigned their tasks and stand ready. A small bunch of about fifty mothers and babies mill nervously at one end of the pen. A mixture of mothers and calves are kept together providing a calming effect on both. A cowboy (or girl) rides calmly into the bunch, lassoes a calf by the rear legs and drags it a short distance where two designated ground workers (flankers) wrestle the calf to the ground (there is a practiced maneuver to do this safely for both the calf and the person). The rider’s rope is released and they return to lasso another while the flankers hold the calf down on the ground. The vaccinator quickly administers shots. If it’s a bull, another hand castrates it. If it is one of the rare calves that are growing horns, the stump is cauterized to prevent further growth and eliminate a weapon of destruction. Then the brand is applied and the calf is released allowing it to jump up and run back to join its buddies.
There are always several riders and several pairs of rotating hands on the ground, as well as people who manage the gates and rotation of fresh cattle into the pen. Remember, on our ranch, there are usually 400+ of these little boogers to get through in one day, and everyone hopes to have it done by early afternoon, so the feast can begin! At North Park ranch brandings, there is always a feast. I think the most stunning portion of the day is watching the hands covered in dirt and manure, sitting down together to enjoy a bountiful lunch! Not only for the sheer amount of muck and width of the smiles, but because it is finally quiet. The calves have been reunited with their mothers and free to roam, all natural, no growth hormones, onto summer pastures.
Spring also means water–a ranch’s most precious resource! And it must be managed. High altitude ranching relies on flood irrigation from spring run-off (melting snow out of the surrounding mountains). The irrigation ditches emanate from local streams and gravity feeds the water to the awaiting hay meadows. A headgate at the ditches intersection with the water source provides the means for regulating water flows into the ditches and the amount of water, measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), is carefully monitored by a government official, the water commissioner. A rancher may only divert the amount of water they have decreed to them. Water rights are the lifeblood of any Western ranch and the long-standing source of many contested court battles, fist-fights, and even shootings. Take extra water for your meadows that is rightfully owned by a downstream neighbor and you’ll quickly know what I’m talking about.
Irrigation ditches, most of them made utilizing horses and hand labor in the late 1800’s, must be cleaned, cleared, and managed all summer so they flow consistently into the hay meadows. Using a shovel and ones back is a daily necessity to ensure all areas receive the needed moisture, leaving no patches of high, dry ground. Generally irrigating season begins in mid-May and is usually concluded around the first of July. Once the water is shut-off, the beautiful meadow grasses and clover grow rapidly for the next few weeks as the ground dries out enough to eventually permit equipment into the fields.
As the cow-calf pairs lazily graze their summer away, cowboys ride them (yes, we talk this way) about twice weekly. Mineral and salt is laid out in the vicinity. As you can imagine, it can take a while to find the herd in our high mountain meadows and forests! Twenty thousand acres is a big chunk of land. The animals’ health and condition of the grass is closely monitored. If the grazing has removed about 50% of the grass, the cattle are moved, via horseback, to a new pasture or new area. If doctoring is needed, the ropes come out and the hard work begins. Carefully managing our grazing is critical in maintaining nourishing habitat for wildlife and ensuring the grass remains healthy for years to come. The streams, rivers and ponds (riparian areas) receive special management considerations as these areas are particularly sensitive to trampling or over-grazing. Riparian areas are fenced off and receive minimal and timely grazing pressure. The protection of our watershed is paramount for clean water, a healthy environment, and vigorous trout.
July is courting time! About one bull per twenty-five cows is released into the herd to, hopefully, pasture breed our cows. Our cattle are bred specifically for high altitude conditions. They are predominately Black Angus with a mixture of Limousine and Hereford. Over the years we have developed a line of cattle that are moderately framed and hearty for our high altitude ranches, which lie at an average of 8,700 ft in elevation. After 45 days, the bulls are gathered up and brought back to their bachelor pads to rest until the following summer, ensuring the cows drop their calves in the appropriate time frame for healthy calf growth during our limited summer days. On average, the calves weigh about 500 pounds by shipping time in October. No growth hormones are administered. These are all-natural, free-range calves at shipping time!
Hay harvest occurs once annually in North Park. Weather dependent and somewhat variable, the end of July usually marks the beginning of haying season which can last, especially on rainy years, through the month of September. Baling hay, in theory, is a relatively easy and straightforward task: you cut the hay with a machine (windrower) that removes a 14’ wide swath and lays it in a row behind; you let the hay dry/cure in the sun until it has a moisture content below 14%; a tractor pulling a rake comes along and merges two of the rows into one; another tractor pulls a baler that compacts the hay into a bale (different types of balers make different types of bales); then you come along with another machine that picks the bales up and transports them to a central area where they are stacked. Easy in theory but equipment breakdowns and Mother Nature constantly throw a wrench in the works. The proper production of this precious commodity requires teamwork (the cattle and maintenance chores don’t stop just because haying begins), patience (with weather and equipment), a bit of luck (a bum knee helps in predicting the rains, hay can’t get wet once it’s cut) and long hours in the tractors. We live the idiom, “make hay when the sun shines.” All hands are on board for up to 16 hours a day.
Since there is only one cutting, due to slow growth in high altitude conditions (cold nights, warm days), more nutrients and minerals are absorbed into the mountain meadow hay, making it a highly valuable commodity world-wide. Our all-natural North Park hay is some of the finest horse hay money can buy and our ranches take its care and harvest quite seriously. Professional horse farms and dedicated horse owners nationally seek it out for its curative health benefits.
Our premium hay is baled in small squares weighing about 65-75 pounds for our horses’ use and for sale. The majority of our hay is baled in either large round bales (weighing about 1,200lbs) or 3’x3’x8’ square bales (averaging 750lbs) and is primarily used in feeding our livestock. Depending on the productivity of the year, we also have some of the big square bales available for sale. On average, we produce roughly 3,500-4,000 tons yearly between our three ranches. If it weren’t for the healthy resident elk herds using the fields as an all-you-can-eat buffet during the early growing season when the grasses are tender, there would be more. We welcome serious inquiries seeking pricing and availability: 970.723.4045.
And so October brings fall colors and the shipping trucks. Cattle are gathered into a central location and the weaning and bawling begins again. After a few days they are acclimated to their new independence. The steer (castrated bulls) calves and some of the heifer (female) calves will be sold and shipped elsewhere. A portion of the heifers will be retained and kept for our herd—they are our future mother cows. Sometime in or around November the local veterinarian is called upon to pregnancy- check our cows. Cows that are not bred (“open” in ranching terms) and those mothers that are showing multiple signs of age (missing teeth, bad udders, partially crippled) are culled from the herd and sent to market. It is not uncommon for some cows to reach the age of 15 or older.
Fall ranch work gears toward getting ready for the winter and possibly accomplishing a couple projects such as building a new stretch of fence or repairing an irrigation ditch while, of course, still caring for the cattle, the horses, the water and land. There is also constant timber management. As other sections of this website attest, we welcome hunters in the month of October and November. Agriculture alone is not always a profitable venture in the harsh Western areas where inputs are high, and so other aspects of ranching often entail recreation: horseback riding, fly-fishing and hunting.
Ranching means long days of hard work. It is a 24-hour a day, seven days a week venture. It is also a disappearing western heritage, as well as a means to maintain the vast tracts of land healthfully, because our very existence depends on it. It is, in a nutshell, done out of love of the lifestyle that blends with the land and seasons around us, and a love for the land itself. It is the feeling of pride when premium hay is stacked neatly and dry, a calf takes its first wobbly step, your horse knows to turn the cow before you do, your dog jumps onto the back of your ATV, or you come home to a to a loved one and a warm meal when you’re bone tired, knowing you’re going to start all over again the next day. It is ranching.
As winter closes in, the cattle are brought in close to the barns and homes to prepare for winter feeding. And so it begins again.