While Colorado is known for its world-class ski areas, ﬂy-ﬁshing, elk hunting, mountain biking, and music festivals, it’s also home to hundreds of producing cattle ranches that contribute mightily to the state’s economy.
While states at lower elevations may have self-contained cattle operations, where all ranching operations occur on the same property, Colorado is a different story, with multiple properties necessary to form a “balanced” ranch. The ideal combination is a productive home ranch at a lower elevation that has ample sunshine, excellent water rights, a good set of working corrals, adequate housing and shop buildings, and, most of all, productive hayﬁelds that are capable of producing high-quality mountain hay. Secondly, the ranch needs transitional grazing lands for spring and fall pasture, as summer pastures are often not ready for grazing until mid- to late-June. Finally, as spring pastures are grazed off, a balanced ranch needs high-country grazing land. This can be in one of several forms—either in the form of a grazing permit on either Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands or on deeded private ground.
Let’s start the cycle of a Colorado ranch on January 1, for lack of a better date. It is cold and wintry. Cows are heavy with calves and struggle to ﬁnd good feed and water. The ranchers are feeding hay and breaking ice. Only a month later, in mid-February, many ranchers start calving. Truly, it seems brutal to drop a wet newborn calf in a frozen snowbank, and losses sometimes occur if a ranch hand doesn’t detect a birthing cow in the middle of the night. But there’s a reason for this. The calves need to be strong enough to go up on the mountain.
The mountain? Oh, yes. The mountain. Colorado ranches have a seasonal cycle. Beginning in the spring, when snows melt and shoots of grass start to poke through the ground, the goal is to keep mother cows and their newborn calves off of producing hayﬁelds so that the rancher can grow hay during the summer. The best solution is to bring the cows up to high-country pastures with lush grass.
A bred cow can require up to three tons of hay to feed her through the winter. A few Colorado ranches produce up to ﬁve tons of hay per acre, but most ranches are lucky to get two to three tons. Consequently, it can require up to two acres of irrigated hay ground to feed one bred cow through the winter. Beginning in early to mid-April, ranchers start to move their herds away from their producing hayﬁelds and onto transitional mountain pastures.
Keep in mind that the lowest elevations in Colorado are above 4,000 feet, and few year-round cattle ranches are located above 7,800 feet. While there are 53 peaks above 14,000 feet in Colorado, most ranches are located in that sweet spot between 4,800 and 7,500 feet in elevation. As the snowpack slowly recedes up the mountain valleys, ranchers get ready to move their herds off the home place to spring pasture on deeded mountain land or grazing leases. They brand their calves and castrate the bull calves before the herd goes onto the mountain. Most often, these pastures are in zones of shrub oak, sage, and open meadows at elevations between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Sometimes the ground is deeded land owned or leased by the rancher, and other times it is BLM grazing leases.
Of all the lands in Colorado, grazing leases and USFS or BLM permits are often the hardest to ﬁnd. Many private properties at these elevations have been subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes, and competition is ﬁerce for public land grazing permits. The goal is to ﬁnd emerging green pastures for hungry cows, keeping them off the hayﬁelds at home while waiting for higher mountain pastures to emerge from snowﬁelds and grow lush mountain grasses. While lush, well-irrigated lowland hayﬁelds can sometimes bring $7,000 to even $10,000 an acre, these middle pastures can command between $1,500 and $3,000 an acre in today’s market. Grazing permits themselves can command a hefty price tag as well. The government says that the permit cannot technically be bought and sold; the value, they say, is in the herd of cows that go with the permit. They can say that all they want, but nobody in their right mind would pay $3,500 for a broke-down old cow unless it came as part of a grazing permit, and many permits trade at high prices.
While many ranchers commence their calving seasons in February, others wait until March or even April. However, the majority of ranchers know that their calves need to be big and strong enough to make an arduous trip upcountry to their summer grazing pastures. It’s one thing to ease the cows and their new calves off the back side of the ranch for a month or two, onto private or BLM spring grazing leases. It’s quite another to push a bunch of cows and baby calves high up onto National Forest grazing permits at elevations of 10,000 feet or higher. Those cattle might be struggling through half-melted snowbanks in mid-June. They will encounter bears, mountain lions, and coyotes; bogs and poisonous larkspur; downed timber and deadfalls. While there are certainly losses, it’s surprising how many make it home.
Some ranchers are fortunate enough to literally open the back gate and turn their cows onto transitional BLM lands and then up to summer National Forest grazing leases. Others are not so fortunate and have to either truck the cows to the mountain or herd them on long, exhausting cattle drives. For this venture, calves born in February or March, having recovered from castration and branding, often weigh 400 pounds or more and are robust and strong enough for an arduous transition. A two-week-old calf weighing less than 100 pounds, however, will have a tough time of it.
Over the summer, the feed at high elevations can be fantastic. It’s common for calves to gain two or even three pounds a day as cattle graze on grasses and forbs that are often up to their bellies—while the rancher is busy growing hay on the home place.
Who watches over the cows on those summer grazing leases? Often, it’s the job of the “pool rider.” Often grazing permit holders are “pooled” with several other outﬁts, who together hire one or two cowboys (and sometimes cowgirls) to watch over the herds. The pool riders are equipped with a remuda of surefooted strong cow horses, and their job may be to mend range fence, doctor calves, chop down poisonous larkspur, pack salt, and move cows and calves to new pastures. They get a lot of saddle time, and horses that have spent a summer on the mountain are prized among savvy horse buyers.
Back at the ranch, the rancher and his haying crew are busy irrigating and haying, irrigating and haying, and stacking the hay in the barn in preparation for the coming winter. From time to time, ranchers might jump their horses in the stock trailer and pull them up to the mountain to check on their herds, but often the riding is done by the pool riders and sometimes “day riders” who are for hire on a daily basis—have horse, have saddle, can ride, want to work.
Of course, every ranch has to have a balanced herd as well. Cows need bulls, at a ratio of approximately 20:1. Older cows must be replaced with new heifers. Bulls go to the mountain with the cows and calves, but often bulls older than ﬁve years are not welcome in the herd, because they tend to sull-up, become loners, and refuse to come down from the mountain, even as snow piles up chest deep. Many is the time that a stubborn old bull has died in a deep snowdrift.
As the days grow shorter, the mountain grasses dry up, and the aspens begin to turn yellow, the older, experienced lead cows know that it’s time to come home. Of course, every day on the mountain is a savings of pasture and hay on the home place, so sometimes the cows are left standing at the gate for a while. Usually, sometime between early October and November, the ranchers bring the herds down from the mountain and back to the home-place for the winter. Calves are sorted off, sold, and shipped to feedlots, usually weighing between 550 and 850 pounds. As the snows begin to accumulate, the rancher starts feeding hay, and the cycle begins again.
This cow-calf cycle of Colorado ranching has been going on well over 100 years. It’s commonly known that in order to run a proﬁtable cattle ranch, a rancher can’t afford to pay much more than $8,000 per animal unit that the ranch is capable of running. Many productive cattle ranches were more treasured as “cocktail ranches” and subdivision developments because of their proximity to ski areas and beautiful mountain vistas. Other ranches still survive as working ranches, but owners have paid unsustainable prices per animal unit— sometimes $20,000 per Animal Unit Month (AUM) or more—simply because the owner is wealthy and wants to own a Colorado cattle ranch. Other operations are subsidized by private land elk and mule deer hunts, tourism, guided ﬂy ﬁshing, and growing other crops like hemp. On occasion, some ranchers prefer to run yearlings on those rich mountain grasses, backgrounding those beef cattle and putting on weight before they’re sent to the feedlot for fattening.
As you can see, a balanced equation is very important for the success of a Colorado cattle ranch. If one of the ingredients is missing—adequate hay ground, irrigation water, spring and fall pasture, and summer pasture—it can make ranching operations far more difﬁcult and costly. Ranches that have all the key pieces in place can rest assured that their operations will run much more efﬁciently.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 Edition of RLI’s Terra Firma magazine.