Best of the best in our own back yard |

Best of the best in our own back yard

Routt County ag producers take top honors at Western Stock Show

Autumn Phillips

The 99th National Western Stock Show, Rodeo and Horse Show held in Denver earlier this month reported record attendance with 633,544 people. Competitors came from across the United States and Canada, representing the best of the best in agriculture. Among those, Routt County’s own fared well, proving that some of the best ranchers and agricultural producers are right here in our back yard.

River Ranches/

Strawberry Park Highlands

n 2005 American Highland Cattle Association National Show Grand Champion Highland Carcass

Scottish Highland cattle, with their long fur and friendly manner, seem more like pets than one of the best tasting beef cows grazing in America.

Beef from River Ranches, on Routt County Road 44, is raised organically — without pesticides, chemicals or confinement — and is sold locally at Healthy Solutions. Doug Matthews, owner of River Ranches Beef/Strawberry Park Highlands, grew up on a farm in the Midwest, got his degree in agriculture from Ohio State University and spent most of his adult life working on industrial farms in Ohio.

Doug Matthews started raising Highland cattle in Routt County six years ago. From years of working on industrial farms with feed lots, implanted steers and confined cattle, Matthews knew about chemicals and hormones that are in the beef sold at grocery stores.

“We were buying grass-fed beef that had no chemicals, but they also had no flavor,” Matthews said. “Which is how I ended up raising these fuzzy animals.” They started with a dozen Scottish Highland cattle, raised just for family and friends’ consumption, but the numbers grew as their customer list grew. Strawberry Park Highlands now has 1,000 head of cattle and shipping orders for steak from as far away as Chicago and the East Coast.

Highland cows are one of the oldest beef breed, originally from Scotland, Matthews said, and they haven’t been changed much genetically during all those years.

Because of their thick coat of fur, Highland cattle are heartier and better suited for cold climates. They also store their fat differently, which is what makes them so tasty, Matthews said. Warmed by their fur, Highlands do not need a layer of fat on their backs. Instead, they store their fat inside the meat, giving it a marbled effect.

For the carcass competition at the National Western Stock Show, the animal is slaughtered, and the carcass is measured, weighed and examined for the amount and quality of meat compared with the amount of waste. The goal is to have the minimum amount of waste fat and the maximum amount of marbling.

“To win this competition is a pretty big deal,” Matthews said. “This is the national show, and you are competing against people from all over the country, and this is the largest Highland cattle show in the world.

“On some level, this is validation that our program is accomplishing its goals.”

River Ranches/Strawberry Park Highlands meat is available at Healthy Solutions or by calling 734-7069.

Wille Ranch

n 2005 Supreme Champion Natural Colored Ewe

n 2005 Champion Rambouillet flock

n 2005 Champion Rambouillet Ewe

n 2005 Reserve Champion Rambouillet Lamb

n 2005 Best Overall Pair (one ram and one ewe)

The Wille Ranch, on Colorado Highway 131, is a perfect example of the modern family ranch. Rod and Kristi Wille do chores alongside Rod’s parents, Pete and Charnel Wille conduct much of their business on the Internet. (

Rod Wille does ranch chores before and after his full-time job as a manager at BMC West.

The Wille Ranch supports 100 ewes and 40 rams.

The Willes sell fleeces each year for $7 to $8 a pound for unprocessed greased wool on the Internet to fiber artists and hand spinners as far away as Maryland, Rod Wille said. There isn’t much of a market for raw wool in Routt County, so adding the Web site has increased the viability of an operation that once relied on meat sales and sales of animals to 4-H children. The ranch’s Web site received 1,500 hits last year, Rod Wille said.

The Wille Rambouillets competed against about 50 other sheep at the Western Stock Show.

“I’m very competitive,” Rod Wille said. “I love to win no matter what I do.” But more than the awards he and his family brought home, Wille said the most important part of the Western Stock Show is that it educates people about agriculture.

“People need to realize how important agriculture is,” Wille said. “Agriculture is where their clothes come from and where their food comes from.”

Rod Wille grew up on the ranch where he now lives with his family.

“I’ve seen a lot of change for ag producers,” he said. “Growth is necessary, but you can’t make a living here anymore. It’s just not feasible.”

Sweetwater Clydesdales

n 2005 First place and Grand Champion stallion in the three and older class

n 2005 First place 2-year-old stallion

n 2005 Second place yearling

n 2005 Reserve Grand Champion mare

n 2005 First and Second place mare in the 3- and 4-year-old category

In direct contrast to the Wille ranch, Barry Castagnasso does not have a Web site, which is a calculated decision. As a fourth-generation breeder of Clydesdales, Castagnasso knows that poor decisions will come back to haunt you.

Selling draft horses on the Internet probably would be lucrative, but his concern is for the welfare of the horses, he said. “It’s hard to qualify a buyer in cyberspace, and sending a horse to a bad home will come back to you when you do see the grandchildren of the animals you’ve raised.”

Weighing in at almost a ton each, the Clydesdale originally was developed for hauling heavy loads on the granite streets of Scotland’s cities.

As the child of Clydesdale breeders, Castagnasso’s parents gave him advice that still plays through his head: “Soundness and motion more than fad and fashion.”

Castagnasso brought five Clydesdales to the National Western Stock Show, competing against owners from Canada and across the United States. This is his 17th straight year competing at the stock show in Denver.

The show comes at a time of year when there aren’t many other shows, he said, and it gives people from far-flung areas a chance to see and compare horses.

Castagnasso’s farm, two miles west of Hayden, is home to eight horses. He breeds, imports and develops horses.

“I really enjoy this work, and I know the market,” he said.

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