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Southwest Colorado ranchers battle drought, development

Persistent dry conditions, rising land prices force change
Andrew and Kendra Schafer look over their herd of goats and Navajo-Churro sheep near Cortez. Exceptional drought and development pressure are driving up land prices, making it harder to be a rancher in Southwest Colorado.

Matt Barnes grew up in Pennsylvania, where forests enjoy consistent rain and most farmers grow corn. But from a young age, he was drawn to the Western landscape of places like Southwest Colorado, where sagebrush and scrub oak abound.

After living out his dream of running 400 head of cattle on a ranch straddling Montrose and Gunnison counties, Barnes now works with ranchers in Montezuma County and beyond to help manage their rangeland and cattle with the new challenges and pressures ranchers face.

Cattle is Colorado’s top agricultural product, bringing in $4 billion per year. But with exceptional drought conditions and development driving up land prices, it is harder to be a rancher in this corner of the state.

In September, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite disaster aid payments to farmers and ranchers.

“We need to regard drought as the new normal,” Barnes said, but the “ranching community as a whole doesn’t accept climate change.”

The traditions and culture of the ranching community in Southwest Colorado are something Barnes and other new ranchers want to preserve, but it “keeps us blind to the future in some ways,” he said.

In the bigger picture, subdivision development is increasing in Western Colorado.

Demographics are shifting, and agriculture has fallen behind the tourism and service industries as the leading employer.

The red indicates areas that have been converted from farmland and rangeland to residential land uses in Colorado. The bold green and yellow indicate good farm and rangeland for production, while the lighter green and yellow indicate land that is not productive. According to the American Farmland Trust, development “often claims the most productive, versatile and resilient land.”

And in Southwest Colorado, rent is high – it is difficult to rent a place for less than $1,000 per month. So sprawling ranches have been subdivided into smaller parcels that can be developed to increase the housing stock and lower prices of rentals and single-family homes.

There are still ranches, but they are often “hobby ranches – they’re not really ranches,” Barnes said, because people can’t rely on them as a sole source of income.

New generations not taking over

The changing landscape of the West is “one of the elephants in the room” for most ranchers, Barnes said.

Children are less likely to take over a ranch now.

By the time their parents retire and hand the ranch over, the children have developed a career and are making more money than they would in ranching, he said.

“You see the same thing in La Plata County,” Barnes said, and the pattern “changed what this landscape looks like.”

There are four times as many producers older than 65 in Colorado as there are younger than 35, according to a report from the American Farmland Trust.

In the ranching industry, the work doesn’t pay by the hour, and there isn’t much room for vacations. A century ago, this lifestyle worked because there “wasn’t much to compete with,” Barnes said.

Now, young Coloradans can get a construction job that pays more and is “less complicated,” he said.

Pressure for development

Some ranchers might sell land to consolidate patchwork parcels that are scattered and worth more money as a development, Barnes said.

Chuck McAfee, who was born and raised in the area, said the outside pressure for development has increased.

“People want to come for the quality of life, but they are folks of means that drive up prices,” McAfee said.

Farmers and ranchers chose to cash out because the soil is dry and degraded on the land, lowering yields, McAfee said.

Between 2001 and 2016, 112,400 acres of Colorado’s best land for farming and ranching was converted for development uses, according to a report from the American Farmland Trust. And the number of farms and ranches in Colorado in 2019 totaled 38,700, down 200 from 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (The data are not available for more localized regions such as Southwest Colorado.)

“Usually the best farmland gets developed,” said Tom Lipetzky with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Cattle on James Ranch lazily graze on grass north of Durango in the Animas Valley. The Jameses have adapted their grazing system to account for persistent drought conditions.

But McAfee is working to replenish the land on his family’s ranch through regenerative grazing. With a combination of native and introduced grasses, there is little wind erosion and water runoff, he said.

Cattle graze the same paddock for a year and then move on to the next one, he said. The number of cattle ranges from 200 to 400 head on 100 acres at a time.

McAfee said ranchers in the area are hesitant to change their grazing system because there is a risk that it might not work. But old systems like summer fallow cause erosion and are hard on the soil, he said.

The transition for McAfee was “weird and scary,” but with the drought there wasn’t an alternative.

Adapting instead of succumbing

Most ranchers in Southwest Colorado do it because they enjoy it, which is partly why more outsiders are becoming involved, Barnes said.

“They are well-educated 20-somethings with a laptop in one hand and a shovel in the other,” he said.

Cachuma Ranch in Dolores raises Criollo cattle, which Barnes describes as the closest thing to wild cattle you can get in Southwest Colorado.

Criollo are descended from Spanish stock imported to the Americas. They weigh less, and calves are smaller than commercial Angus breeds, but they’re suited to the area.

They survive part of the year in Disappointment Valley, browsing for greasewood instead of depending on grass year-round, said Kathryn Wilder, mother of the family operation.

Drought also affects small desert shrubs, but Wilder said the Criollo cattle can forage a larger range of shrubs and grasses than commercial cattle, and they eat less of it.

“Water has been a huge problem this year,” Wilder said, but Criollo cattle drink less water than larger stock. When she fills water troughs, the Angus cows are there “drinking forever,” but the 800-pound Criollo cows take a drink and leave, she said.

The ranch also runs commercial cattle, which helps the paycheck, she said. However, it doesn’t need to run as many of them.

Criollo calves take longer to put weight on than commercial calves, which means a longer wait for payment. The ranch sells Criollo beef to places like The Farm Bistro in Cortez and a number of direct customers in Dolores.

“If everyone started turning over to these calves, it would be much better for the land,” Wilder said.

Possible solutions

Kay and David James with the James Ranch north of Durango saw their children migrate back to the ranch to rear their families here and improve the land, according to their website.

Their direct-to-customer model and a demand for local food creates support for the ranch and positions it as a tourist attraction.

David James with James Ranch watches as John Neely rakes hay on the ranch in the Animas Valley. Over the past five or six years, prices for hay have increased because of the continued drought.

James Ranch has 400 irrigated acres along the Animas River, with early water rights. The James’ cattle are scattered in different parts of the Four Corners, but they run cattle on irrigated pastures in the summer when there is enough water. They finish about 175 head of cattle for slaughter per year.

But the drought still affects the ranch through higher hay prices, said Joe Wheeling, son-in-law of David James.

Less water means lower hay production, and the price for hay goes up. In the past five or six years, Wheeling said hay prices have escalated primarily because of the drought.

Land prices have gone up as well, especially near Durango, Wheeling said. The direct-to-customer model has been important to the family’s ranching legacy because it means more customers, he said.

“In what was not supposed to be a tourist season, we’ve seen record numbers of people buying products,” Wheeling said.

When supplies were low in supermarkets and big packing plants saw COVID-19 outbreaks, people wanted to buy directly from a local farmer and rancher, Wheeling said.

“It’s a really important thing – a piece of the future,” Wheeling said.

A couple of goats play at Cedar Mesa Ranch near Cortez.
Keeping it small and local

Andrew and Kendra Schafer shifted the focus of Cedar Mesa Ranch in Montezuma County from cattle to sheep in 2009. They also run goats because they eat things like weeds, shrubs, knapweeds and invasive Russian olive plants.

“Imports lost their ability to harvest from this land,” Andrew Schafer said. But his Navajo-Churro sheep, originally obtained by Native American nations during the Spanish conquest, are known for their hardiness and adaptability to extreme climates.

Kendra Schafer holds natural dyed yarn from her sheep and Navajo Angora goat near Cortez. Weaving and using the whole animal is a major focus for Cedar Mesa Ranch, and the yarn has proved to be popular on Etsy.

Kendra Schafer shears the sheep to make yarn for weaving and knitting, supporting a local textile industry as well.

“We sell a lot of that,” Andrew Schafer said.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is mapping an increase in smaller farm plots in La Plata and Montezuma counties, with 30- or 35-acre plots dedicated to a variety of fruits, vegetables and animals. A push for local food systems can lead to smaller plots.

For the Schafers, a localized market is in the same frame of mind as their holistic grazing management. They are constantly moving their sheep and goats between quarter-acre sections of pasture. About 150 animals graze 1% of the land per day while the rest grows back.

Andrew Schafer holds cuts of lamb at his ranch near Cortez.

“Think about it this way: If you’re out there with a lawnmower every day, it’s never going to grow back,” Schafer said.

There has to be animals on the land, he said, but the grazing system has to be viable for both the land and the animals in a time of drought.


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