Duke Phillips could have been a “normal” rancher. Raised in northern Mexico in a second-generation ranching family, he came of age in a world where cowboys shot coyotes to protect their calves, ranches were grazed in their entirety year-round, and cattlemen were just that–men who raised cattle. The rancher-conservationist had yet to emerge. While the tide has been changing in recent years with more and more farmers and ranchers embracing their role as land stewards, perhaps Phillips’ most radical act has been not just to join this growing group of agricultural conservationists, but, since the very beginning, to throw the doors open and invite others to observe and participate in the project for sustainable ranching.
I showed up to Phillips’ Chico Basin Ranch in 2014 an utter urbanite who thought all cattle were cows and had never taken so much as a peek under the hood of a vehicle. I’ll never forget the feeling of stepping out of the saddle after eight hours moving cattle my first week, seeing stars and not sure if my legs were going to catch me when they hit the ground, wondering if my half-baked desire to ride horses across the prairie for six months was really such a good idea after all. In the end, I know I got more out of my internship than the ranch did; from an operational standpoint, I was mildly helpful at best. But three years later, I’m still here.
This is what Ranchlands, Phillips’ ranch management company, does best–takes the uninitiated and gives them the opportunity to learn something about the impact ranching can have on the land. Between artist retreats, a hunting and fishing club, bird banding stations, art exhibits, a leathershop that makes bags and belts sold in Aspen and Seattle, an internship program, ranch vacations, a summer concert series, and a strong social media presence, there’s hardly a segment of the population that Ranchlands isn’t actively trying to reach and include. Besides diversifying our business, these enterprises grew out of an intention to redefine the conversation and build community around ranching. We sum up our approach with a three-pronged motto: Ranch. Conserve. Live.
Cattle and bison ranching has always been, and continues to be, the backbone of Ranchlands’ business. A diversified approach that includes seedstock, commercial cows, and yearlings provides the annual capital that allows us to pursue other goals and gives us a purpose on the land.
Phillips cut his teeth in ranch management during a decade of work at the Dale Lasater Ranch near Matheson, Colorado. Dale and his father Tom had long managed their land and cattle by the principle of “Mother Nature knows best” and were among the first to embrace Allan Savory when he arrived in the United States with his theories of Holistic Planned Grazing. Driven by a conviction that every aspect of the natural world had a role to play, even if we don’t understand it, the Lasaters didn’t treat their animals with pesticides, didn’t exterminate prairie dogs, didn’t shoot coyotes, and instead got rid of the cows that didn’t protect their calves. And they had seen the payoff–bare patches of ground on their ranch were recarpeted with a healthy community of grasses and plants, and their cattle and business were thriving. By the time Phillips won the lease on Chico Basin Ranch in 1999, he was a convert. He had grown up in a ranching industry where the natural world presented obstacles to be overcome, but on the Chico, nature was treated as a set of conditions with which to work in harmony.
Outside the saddle house, Jake, Sam, Wyatt, Anna, and I catch and tack up our horses in the first light of this brisk fall morning. The cadence of chirping crickets pulses in the background as gravel crunches beneath the soles of our boots. Swinging up into the saddle, we head west out of headquarters as the sun breaks over the horizon in the east. Trotting at the head of the group, Jake, a graduate of Ranchlands’ apprenticeship program and current manager-in-training at the Chico, lays out the plan for the day. We’ll be gathering our herd of commercial cattle in Double Tank pasture, sorting out a few heifers, and putting the rest through the gate into Tower pasture.
Twenty years ago, Double Tank and Tower were part of a massive 10,000-acre pasture called the North pasture. It was an impossible tract for a small crew to cover on horseback in one day, so the cowboys would ride to the tops of old sea vents and scan the pasture with binoculars, looking for groups of cattle. Shortly after arriving on the Chico, Duke Phillips divided the North pasture up with tens of miles of electric cross-fencing so that these smaller parcels could be grazed more effectively. He also put in a continuous electric wire along the west side of Chico Creek. Historically, homesteaders watered their livestock along the creek and from other natural springs on the ranch, and most of these riparian areas were therefore decimated by overgrazing.
Jake’s mare, Bone, splashes calmly through the creek, and the rest of our horses follow dutifully as we continue to make our way west towards Double Tank. As I weave through the low-hanging branches of the willow trees, a great-horned owl flushes from her perch and flies downstream. Today, the creek bottom is a lush and fertile area of the ranch where coyotes, mule deer, badgers, and tarantulas come to water. Arkansas darter fish, released by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), wriggle in shallow pools. Thanks in part to CPW’s repopulation efforts here, the fish species has been removed from the federal endangered species candidate list. Protecting their habitat is one of the many reasons we move cattle through the creek. When he fenced off the creek from the ranch’s larger pastures, Phillips also installed well-water troughs so the cows could drink without overusing the creek. While small groups of cattle in smaller pastures will sometimes water from the creek, especially delicate areas are protected by six-string electric fence exclosures.
We reach the back of Double Tank an hour after leaving headquarters. It’s warm enough now to shed a layer. Spreading out across the mile-long length of the north fence, we begin to move south, gathering up cows and calves and pushing them ahead of us as cowboys and cattlemen have been doing for centuries. These are the techniques and skills, the elegance with which our group can operate as a unit, even when we’re out of sight of each other, that I have been able to absorb during my time on the ranch. From brandings in pastures with wood-heated irons to moving cattle on horseback, Ranchlands staunchly maintains many of the traditions that forged the original mystique of the cowboy. At the same time, we are looking forward to the future. It seems likely that the years to come will see an even greater emphasis on environmental health, and the conservation services ranchers have been providing for years will be the most compelling reason for our presence on the land.
The healthy proteins we produce in the course of land management are merely a convenient byproduct that are valuable for their ability to feed our communities and provide the ongoing funding for our conservation work. We see our cattle as a means to the end of ecological health. Since the vast grasslands of the United States have been stripped of the migrating bison herds that historically played a large role in cycling nutrients back into the soil, it falls to today’s ranchers and their cattle to maintain the prairie landscape.
Out in Double Tank pasture, as we gather cattle and begin moving them south, we trot over stands of blue grama, galleta, alkali sacaton, and bottlebrush squirreltail. As we move the cattle away, we put these grasses to rest for the year. They’ll be left alone until the next growing season, when warm, wet weather will bring them back to levels ready for grazing.
We are lucky to work with a variety of conservation organizations who understand the role that ranching can play in our country’s grasslands. In the San Luis Valley, Ranchlands manages the Zapata Ranch for the Nature Conservancy (TNC). One of the largest wild bison herds in the United States roams freely across 50,000 acres of this 100,000-acre property, and each year, we round up the herd to collect data in order to help TNC meet their conservation goals for the herd. Over the course of fourteen years, we’ve been working to return the herd to genetic purity by removing any cows with bovine genes in their mitochondrial DNA. This year, there were only 5 remaining known cows with bovine DNA. The bison herd is also a consistently popular draw for tourists and media groups; we regularly book visitors for bison tours, and horseback rides through the 50,000-acre bison pasture are a large draw for guests at the ranch Lodge. Our annual bison roundup was the subject of a short film accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival and a mini-series on the History Channel.
We have also found unlikely allies in local birders who have long visited the Chico looking for rare species. Every year, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies operates a banding station that takes place in conjunction with field trips we offer to local school groups. This year, a Tropical Kingbird was spotted during migration season–the first sighting ever recorded in Colorado. Birders are important stakeholders in the ranching cause because they value the maintenance of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem compared with the meager biodiversity that would be found in a landscape such as a farming monoculture, subdivisions, or any other form of land use that destroys the native ecosystem. Birders also help us to quantify the ecological value of our landscape by providing counts and lists of species present. Every scientist, ornithologist, or mammalogist we work with gives us valuable information in better understanding our prairie home, a home we share with the migrating warblers, herds of pronghorn, and burrowing badgers.
Because our ranches really are our homes. Ranchlands has realized that the model for progressive ranching will never be successful without integrating people into the landscape. Luckily, there is no shortage of dedicated, impassioned people on our team who find satisfaction in the lifestyle ranching offers.
Traditionally, ranching has been a closed-door industry. The high costs of entering agriculture are significant enough to prevent young people from choosing it as a career, while families who do pass down an agricultural operation are threatened by the opportunity for higher wages in urban areas that are drawing the next generation away from the land. All in all, there is very little “new blood” entering the field, which does much to stifle innovation.
Ranchlands has addressed this issue by inviting inexperienced or amateur young people to work as interns. At the very least, these individuals will leave us with a better appreciation for the role that ranching plays in conserving natural landscapes, while those with a longer-term interest may be invited to join our apprenticeship program. Our apprentices spend between two and six years learning the ins and outs of holistic ranch management–skills such as horsemanship, stockmanship, and grazing planning, along with how to manage a team, work with conservation partners, and cater to ranch guests. Upon completion of the program, they are qualified to take over management of a diversified ranch operation within or outside of Ranchlands.
On the whole, the average age of our team is late 20s to early 30s. While ranching might not offer competitive salaries, there is a large contingent of young people, such as myself, who are looking for livelihoods that provide a sense of purpose, hard work that means something, and a chance to work with nature and play a vital role in its preservation.
As we trot back from our gather that afternoon, having successfully moved over 1000 pairs into fresh pasture, I look between Jake, the Colorado School of Mines graduate with an engineering degree, his girlfriend, Sam, from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, her friend, Anna, she met while working on stations in Australia, and Wyatt, a buckaroo cowboy from Nevada. None of these are people I would have met in the cities I grew up in, and yet the sense of community that grows among a group of people who care about the same things and are working towards a common goal on a beautiful, unforgiving piece of land is profound.
As Frankie, a wrangler this summer at Zapata, put it: “it was like working on a ship—leagues away and almost completely detached from everything else I knew. And it’s not that I couldn’t stay connected to the outside world, it’s that I ceased wanting to… This summer I was surrounded, supported, and motivated by people constantly. People who know the strange euphoria that accompanies a merciless job, and that when things go from bad to worse, they actually get funny. People who imbued me with courage and responsibility, and trusted me to succeed, and people who define success not by doing a job perfectly, but by still having the will to succeed after failing repeatedly. People that give new meaning to the words “hard work” and “long hours.” People that have taught me so much that I now reserve the word ‘teacher’ for only the most passionate and poised mentors in my life, nearly all of whom are employees of Ranchlands.”
The above article originally appeared in the journal In Practice.