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PUEBLO COUNTY— Anja Stokes has a load of salt blocks on the flatbed of her pickup truck as it bounces across a prairie dotted with silvery sandsage and cholla cactus blooming in hot pink.
The cattle see her coming and bellow, though some refuse to move out of the dirt road until the truck bumper is only inches from their rumps.
The 25-year-old, who grew up in Portland and studied international political economy in college, slides out of the truck to chuck blocks of minerals and salt near a water trough. Then she rolls up her sleeves to tinker with a water pump so she can fill the metal trough, plus a mud-bottomed, natural one that has dried up. At sunrise, Stokes was on horseback with a handful of other workers at Chico Basin Ranch, moving cattle to this pasture where the prairie grasses are higher and greener.
She is an apprentice, training to one day run a cattle ranch.
The apprenticeship program at Chico Basin, one of five cattle ranches across the West operated by the for-profit Ranchlands company, is a key to the future as the decades-old story of handing down family ranches to the next generation fades away. The path forward is visible, too, in the ranch’s leather belts and bags advertised on Instagram, the freezer of hamburger awaiting customer pickup, the guest quarters for vacationers who want to experience ranch life, and even the kiosk at the front gate where the public can sign in and visit anytime for $15.
It’s the opposite of the old-timey ranch welcome: a no-trespassing sign riddled with bullet holes.
The whole operation — with two ranches in Colorado and one each in Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas — represents a new model, one where survival does not depend solely on the unpredictable commodity price of beef.
Ranchlands, which leases the Chico Basin Ranch southeast of Colorado Springs from the state land board, is finding other ways to make money. Guests from across the globe pay about $2,000 per week to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to help mend fences and move cattle, then sit by the campfire at sunset, the Spanish Peaks to the south and Pikes Peak to the north. A handful of employees cut and stamp leather into belts, bracelets, hat bands and bags, rustic yet stylish products now popping up on Instagram and Facebook ads for Ranchlands Mercantile, which expanded in 2020.
This month, Ranchlands began selling 1-pound hamburger packages directly to customers, who can either pick them up at the ranch or receive them frozen through the mail. The direct sales skip the middleman, and the unpredictability of selling cows on the traditional market for whatever is the going price of the day. Ranchlands intends to slaughter 80 to 100 head of cattle for the new meat sales, in hopes of growing the business over time by marketing to people willing to pay more — about double, at $10 per pound — for beef raised without hormones or vaccines, and straight from the ranch where they grazed.
“We are trying to figure out how to propel ranching into the future,” said Duke Phillips, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Mexico, worked on cattle ranches as far away as Australia and is now the CEO of Ranchlands. “Ranching is a very thin-margin business. In order to keep young people in ranching, there has to be some way of generating enough income to live.”
The answer, he said, is in viewing the land multidimensionally, as more than a place to raise cattle. Horses, hospitality, hiking, fishing, birds, leather works, photography and art. Those interests tie in naturally to conservation and land stewardship, and into educating the public about where their food comes from and what it takes to raise a cow.
“It’s a package that’s already there,” Phillips said. “All we have to do is recognize ourselves as conservationists.”
Ranchlands’ leather business started with Phillips, who made space for a small leather workshop on all the ranches he worked and then got requests for orders from friends who had seen the bags he made for his daughters. Now Ranchlands partners with the state Department of Corrections, where inmates in a Sterling prison are helping produce the company’s leather products. The e-commerce shop also sells scarves, straw hats, blankets and Western shirts, products purchased wholesale from other suppliers.
Phillips, 66 and living on Ranchlands’ Wyoming operation, called Paintrock Canyon Ranch, gets his inspiration from the ranch in rural Mexico where he grew up, five hours from town. The ranch run by his father was self-sustaining, with its own welder and bootmaker and an on-site store to sell products to the local community.
Phillips’ son, also Duke, runs Ranchlands’ agricultural operations, and his daughter, Tess Leach, is in charge of the company’s business development. Both live at Chico with their kids, where family homes, guest quarters and staff bunkhouses are miles apart, connected by rough, dirt roads.
Land conservation is tied to economic sustainability
The number of cattle ranches across Colorado and the West is shrinking as ranchers sell to developers or consolidate. And it takes far more cattle to turn a profit today than it did a couple decades ago. So as drought, low profit margins and the exhaustive sunup-to-sundown work push the next generations to cities, cattle ranches are looking for new ways to stay alive. Most ranches nowadays, according to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, are developing other revenue streams, often through hunting access.
Ranchlands, which leases its Chico Basin ranch from the state and its Zapata Ranch in the San Luis Valley from the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, is far from the only one pursuing a future tied to conservation and diversification. The May Ranch, raising cattle near Lamar, has become an ecological sanctuary, preserving habitat for black-footed ferrets, ducks and birds, earning a lucrative conservation easement and a seal of approval from the Audubon Society that makes the ranch’s beef more valuable. Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico-based group of ranchers and environmentalists, sends apprentices to ranches across the West, including Colorado.
“The things that have worked in ranching for the last 50 or 100 years need to be refreshed for people to succeed for the next 50 or 100 years,” said William Burnidge, deputy director of the Nature Conservancy’s North American sustainable grazing lands program.
The Nature Conservancy now owns about 60 ranches in the West with a goal of helping ranchers not only raise healthy livestock and protect their livelihoods, but preserve natural habitat for wildlife and fish instead of seeing ranchland subdivided into neighborhoods. The organization owns five ranches in Colorado, including the Zapata.
“Ranchers really value conservation of natural resources, plants, animals, water resources and open space, and it is an economic diversification strategy,” Burnidge said. Ranchers can earn tax benefits and other financial incentives through conservation easements, another way to diversify their incomes, he said. And the economic security, coupled with the appeal of “being in nature and watching each day transpire,” is what entices the next generation to return — or to begin a new career in agriculture, Burnidge said.
“That’s part of the appeal and the passion.”
Flying Diamond Cattle Ranch in Kit Carson has a hunting business and direct meat sales, but has focused its economic diversification on cattle. The family-owned ranch, founded in 1907, is not only a calf-cow operation, selling cows to the beef market, but sells pregnant cows and bulls for breeding. The ranch also gets grant funding from the Audubon Society for protecting bird habitat. “You can’t outsmart or outspend nature,” ranch owner Jen Livsey said. “Nature always wins in the end. If you can figure out how to match your practices to the environment, your bottomline will benefit.”
For Ranchlands, which took over the lease for 87,000-acre Chico Basin in 1999, what started as a plan to make the lease payment and eventually turn a profit is now what defines the company. “We really want to engage people from all walks of life and ranching so that people can understand what it is that we’re doing,” said Leach, who lives with her husband and three young sons at Chico.
School kids from Denver, the San Luis Valley and beyond visit for field trips, learning about beef production, leather crafts, and prairie and pond ecology. Guests who want to spend their vacation as ranch hands can rent a room in a guest house at Chico, a simple, one-story home with a screened front porch facing miles and miles of rolling prairie. For those looking for relaxation, Ranchlands has guest rooms at its Zapata Ranch tailored to people’s wishes, as in, “I want to ride with the bison, I want to go for a hike, I’d love to have a massage and I don’t eat chicken,” Leach said.
Ranchlands also takes people fishing and hunting for antelope, elk and deer. The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies comes to Chico Basin twice each year to band songbirds, and so far has counted 365 species, a distinction that draws birders to the property. Recently, Ranchlands began selling memberships, which come with access to a new company podcast about ranching and conservation, plus discounts on meat and store goods.
When it doesn’t rain, Ranchlands can sell off cattle instead of pushing the land beyond what’s healthy, and fall back on its other streams of income, Leach said.
Ranchlands raises Beefmaster cattle, a breed that fits with its “from the land, for the land” motto, animals that are “harmonious with their natural environment.” A cow that gets sick or gets a parasite is removed from the herd, not just given a vaccine or medicine. When a calf is eaten by a coyote, the ranch doesn’t kill the coyote but sells off the mother cow for not protecting her baby.
“We see ranching as the most compelling solution to large-scale conservation,” Leach said. “A rancher is dependent on the land. If we don’t have a healthy landscape, then we don’t have a business. So figuring out how to communicate that reality to the public is really the guiding light behind everything that we’re doing.”
Connecting with the land, and the public
Stokes, a childhood friend of Duke Phillips’ youngest daughter, first visited the ranch when she was 11. She was awed by the vastness of it. After college, she found her way back there and applied for a Ranchlands’ internship in 2021, then moved into the apprenticeship program.
About 15 people live at Chico Basin, including a handful of 20-somethings from cities, including Washington, D.C., who didn’t know much about riding a horse or laying a water pipeline when they arrived. Each has their own string of three horses — so they don’t wear them out with all the miles it takes to cover the ranch. They also use dirt bikes and pickups to traverse the landscape, and a helicopter to herd cattle and get from Chico Basin to Zapata Ranch.
When she started, Stokes didn’t know a screw from a bolt, she said. When she was out on her own, she called the ranch manager regularly to ask questions about water pumps. Now, she figures it out.
“I knew how to ride a horse, which we definitely don’t require coming into an internship,” she said. Others had mechanical skills, useful in repairing the dirt bikes. Some are better at building fences.
“Over time, you start to be able to do problem-solving, like with the water systems,” she said, before driving to the middle of an empty pasture where a water line leak was creating a giant mud puddle.
“Do you see where it’s bubbling right there?” she asked, before jumping from the pickup and dislodging caked mud from a water meter key so she could shut off a section of pipeline. “It’s huge, oh my gosh.”
In the past year as an apprentice, Stokes has seen all four seasons on the sandsage prairie — the coldest she’s ever been was tearing across the flatlands on a dirt bike in the dead of winter. Summers are the best, when she and other ranch hands swim in the five spring-fed lakes on the property or hike in the Spanish Peaks near La Veta. At some point, she hopes to manage one of Ranchlands’ livestock operations, or at least have a career in land management.
The public connection, including the nights when she makes tacos or grills steaks for tourists staying in the guest quarters, is one of the most important aspects of her job, Stokes said.
“A lot of people have no idea where their food comes from,” she said. “Not everyone has the opportunity to come visit one of these ranches and get to experience firsthand what we’re doing, but they can read about it, they can watch videos about it and consume the products that we’re raising, which is really cool.”
This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members.
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