From The Durango Herald (Emily Hayes):
Persistent dry conditions, rising land prices force change
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.”
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.
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…
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…
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…
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.)
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…
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…
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…
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 shears the sheep to make yarn for weaving and knitting, supporting a local textile industry as well…
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…
“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.