Community Agriculture Alliance: Social distancing — ranch style |

Community Agriculture Alliance: Social distancing — ranch style

Erik S. Taylor
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

I had to laugh when I saw “Wilson the border collie is struggling with the new work from home policy” on the internet. As I adapt to my job as a U.S. Forest Service rangeland manager, while tele-working from home, it made me wonder how the novel coronavirus is affecting the ranchers in our area. 

Recently we received the following memo from our Washington office, “Grazing on National Forest system lands is part of the nation’s food supply and will continue in 2020.” Good news for ranching operations which rely on Forest Service land to produce some of nation’s beef and lamb.

If ever there was, and is, a business which practices social distancing, it’s ranching. Ranching, by nature, is often a remote and challenging existence. Self-reliance has been and continues to be a rancher’s key to survival.

There is no tele-working for ranchers. Their livelihoods depend on someone being in the calving barn or lambing shed and for feeding and watering their stock. Husbands, wives, children and an extended family of ranch hands, cowboys and herders are the cornerstone of the day to day operations. This can be 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s just to get their calves and lambs on the ground and keep them healthy in preparation for the summer season. For cattle and sheep ranchers in Northwest Colorado it’s business as usual.

Summer pasture for some ranchers is on the national forest. The focus of labor changes but is no less critical. Fences must be repaired and water sources maintained prior to livestock entering the forest. Ranchers and their hands may spend weeks on fence repair. There is no need to comply with 6 feet of personal space here; one person might be responsible for working miles of fence.

Sheep herders typically come from Peru. The ranchers who rely on this critical labor force have grave concerns this pandemic may cut off their ability to bring them into this country. Herders provide a special skill, managing and protecting thousands of sheep. Although they are resupplied periodically by camp tenders, these herders are alone for days on end with only their herding and livestock protection dogs as companions.

While restaurants are limited to takeout service, they still rely on products from ranchers to provide items on the menu. So rest assured while toilet paper, hand sanitizer and soap is in short supply, ranchers continue to work in their own self-imposed social distance to bring us their products.  

One of the ranchers who grazes on the Routt National Forest said it best, “I’m 40 years ahead of my time, I’ve been practicing social distancing for at least that long.” Keep up the good work ranchers, your city brethren are counting on you!

Erik S. Taylor is the rangeland management specialist for Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District.

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