Harnessing tradition | SteamboatToday.com

Harnessing tradition

A day in the life

Matt Belton secures the bridle on Bits before heading out to use his team to feed cattle on the ranch he leases north of Steamboat Springs. Belton is among a rare breed of ranchers who still use draft horses (Kibbles and Bits) to feed his cattle in the winter. Many ranchers prefer to use tractors in the winter, but Belton said he enjoys being with the horses and, of course, they always start.
John F. Russell

It’s just after 7 a.m. and the sun has just climbed above the mountain peaks in North Routt County, casting a warm glow on the snow-covered fields that surround the ranch Matt Belton leases.

Dressed in traditional ranch wear, including a well-worn work coat and a pair of leather chaps topped off with a Stormy Kromer cap, Belton slowly pushes open the large door of the main barn, which is located about 20 minutes north of downtown Steamboat Springs. 

The sun continues to climb on the horizon, but the clothing serves its purpose as temperatures outside are still well below freezing.

“The great thing about feeding with horses is the temperature really doesn’t matter,” Matt says with a grin. “It can be 40 below, and I always know that these guys are going to start.”

By now, Matt has made his way through the barn and opened a smaller door at the far end of the building.

“Kibbles, Bits,” he shouts out the door.

Soon, two muscular Percheron horses walk from a large corral toward the barn. Eventually, the work horses trot into the barn through a door that seems barely big enough to accommodate their massive bodies. 

The horses don’t seem to crave the warmth of the barn but are eager to fill their stomachs with grain and get back outside.

Kibbles and Bits will provide all the power the rancher needs to pull a sled filled with 60 to 80 bales of hay across a frozen pasture to feed nearly 200 mother cows, which spend the winter in the Elk River Valley. In the summer, the herd grows by about 800 to 1,000 yearlings in addition to the cows that are kept year-round. The Beltons own about half of those cattle and run the other half for a rancher they work with in Texas.

These days, many ranchers prefer to use tractors to deliver the hay, but Matt prefers to work with horses. He says it’s easier and more fun than working with a piece of equipment.

Matt will tell you winter and feeding can be demanding because it’s something that has to be done every day, without exception. It doesn’t matter if it’s freezing cold outside or if it’s snowing sideways or if he’s faced with some other challenge — this is a job that can’t be put off. 

“You have to feed every day,” Matt said. “But that’s the most demanding part of winter. The rest of the time, I’m pushing snow around or fixing the equipment I’m going to need this spring or summer.”

Once Kibbles and Bits have eaten their grain, Matt leads them to the front of the barn, where the empty sled is waiting. It only takes a few minutes to hook up the horses and make sure the straps and buckles are cinched just right before Matt jumps on the sled and begins the daily trek.

“It’s a lot more peaceful,” Matt said over the thumping of the hooves and jingling of the bells attached to the horses’ harnesses. “These horses love to work. You can tell by the way they carry themselves, They have been bred to work and to pull. They look forward to feeding (the cattle) almost as much as I do.”

The sled and the team travel down a short road before making a stop to begin loading the sled with bales at the first of two stacks.

Most days, Matt is joined by his wife, Christy. Together, they load the sled, counting the bales and arranging them on the large wooden platform in a manner that resembles ritual. This is a part-time gig for Christy, who spends her days working as a real estate agent for Ranch Marketing Associates.

“I don’t have to go to the gym,” she jokes as she uses metal grappling hooks to lift a 60-pound bale of hay and place it on the sled. She repeats the task dozens off times as Matt takes a position high on the hay stack, pulling the next bale off and tossing it on the  wooden deck below.

When it comes to feeding, the ranchers are not just husband and wife, but partners in a dance that is key to completing the job.

The Beltons plow through the physical work, and before the sun has had time to begin shining down on the surrounding peaks, the sled is loaded and on its way to feed the cattle. Christy rides in back with the family’s dogs at her side, and Matt drives the well-trained team, which could most likely make this journey without his hands on the reins.

There is a brief stop as Christy jumps off the sled to open a gate before Matt guides the team and sled into the pasture. Christy quickly closes the gate behind them and jumps on the sled, and the work begins.

The horses know the route, but Matt is there to remind them this task is not a race.

Kibbles and Bits pull a fully-loaded hay sled along with Matt, Pearl and Christy. across a meadow toward a herd of hungry cattle. It’s a scene that plays out everyday from late November until mid-May on the working ranch just north of Steamboat Springs.John F. Russell

“Walk, walk,” Matt yells out as he uses a pitchfork to slide loose hay from the deck of the sled to the snow-covered ground below. “Walk.”

By the time the team reaches plowed rows of snow in the middle of the pasture, the cattle have already begun to gather. Matt stops the team briefly and secures the reins. He uses a small hatchet to sever the plastic straps that hold the bales together, then helps Christy finish pulling the straps off the bales. The straps are bound together and thrown onto a post at the front of the sled for safe keeping.

Matt then grabs a pitchfork and shouts to Kibbles and Bits to begin walking. Together, Christy and Matt slide the hay off the back of the sled as the cattle form a long line in its wake.

The team and the ranchers make their way across the frozen pasture to the other side, where another stack of hay is kept. There, the sled will be reloaded, so the cattle can be fed on the return trip.

It’s a process that takes about two and a half hours and plays out every day from late November until late April, when the pastures can provide the food the cattle need.  When the snow melts, Matt will trade in the runners of the sled for wheels on a wagon.

The unknowns are one of the reasons Matt prefers to feed with horses. 

He knows the animals and has trained them to help out when he needs an extra hand. He says the horses know the route for feeding, and that allows Matt to grab a pitchfork and feed when he needs to. The animals also understand what it takes to load the hay, and with a one-word command, Matt can move the horses forward to make the loading process easier. 

Matt says he likes to get an early start most days, but he admits things get rolling, or sliding, a little later on weekends. For the Beltons, feeding is about more than taking care of the animals’ needs. It’s about family and traditions.

“This is our chance to catch up on what’s happen in our lives,” Christy said of spending the mornings feeding with Matt. “It’s the time we need before life gets too busy.”

When the feeding is done each day, the two go their separate ways. Matt stays on the ranch and takes care of more chores while Christy heads to the office.

Ranching is a family tradition for Matt, who was born and raised in Steamboat Springs. His father had cattle and leased the land to run them on, but his full-time job was with the U.S. Forest Service. 

And though Matt grew up around ranching, his family didn’t have a cattle operation to take over when he became an adult.

So, Matt and Christy built and sold a house on Willow Creek Pass to raise the money to purchase about 50 head of cattle and lease about 1,000 acres. It was a modest start to an operation that now stretches across more than 30,000 acres.

The Beltons own some of the land outright but are quick to point out the main chunk of land — including the main part of the ranch — is leased. The have about 200 cows they keep year round, but in the summer, the herd grows by about 800 to 1,000 yearlings. The Beltons own about half cattle and run the other half for a rancher they work with in Texas. Those steers arrive in April and will spend most of the summer in the Elk River basin. 

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