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Making it work

Ranchers adjust to survive in Routt County

Christine Metz

By 8 o’clock on a quickly warming July morning, a group of out-of-towners, regular cowhands and horses started gathering at the Saddleback Ranch.

Ranch owner Wayne Iacovetto helped a girl in jeans, a tank top and tennis shoes climb onto her mount. He introduced the two.

“Her name is Maybe,” he told her. “Maybe she’ll buck you, maybe she won’t.”

It’s a joke that has been used before; in fact, it was used already that morning.

The Iacovettos are old hands at the ranching recreation business.

After Wayne Iacovetto put the girl and her family on horses — in total, a group of seven novice cowboys and cowgirls — he took them out to the pastures.

It was no trail ride.

The paying customers were given a job: to round up 250 head of cattle for branding.

They climbed up hills, trailed over sagebrush and loped after wandering calves. A father took breaks to videotape. A college-aged girl made awkward arm motions, hoping a cry of “get along little cowie” would encourage a young calf to move in the right direction.

With the help of some experienced hired hands, they managed to herd the cattle down to the meadow, along the Trout Creek and up the dirt county road to the corrals.

Providing a stage for tourists to play cowboys is an easy task when the heart and soul of the business is a 7,200-acre ranch with 350 head of cattle that has been in Luanna’s family for four generations. To support three families — Wayne and wife, Luanna, and the families of their two grown sons, Jerad and Justin — the Iacovettos added the recreational component.

“It’s a working cattle ranch,” said Wayne Iacovetto, a rancher since 1974 who’s family roots are imbedded in turn-of-the-century Routt County. “That’s why it’s so popular. It isn’t a dude ranch. The guests come out and do the same thing we have to do.”

But the guests don’t have to work quite so many hours. It’s not rare for the Iacovettos to wake at 4:30 a.m. and not stop until 10 p.m.

While guests rested once the cattle were corralled, the Iacovettos went to work branding that afternoon.

Inspired by the movie “City Slickers,” Luanna started the horseback riding business about 10 years ago, taking guests with her as she checked cattle and fences.

Since then, the family has added horseback dinner rides, Jerad has started snowmobile tours in the winter and Justin runs hunting trips.

The recreational activities account for about half of their business and allowed them to cut back their herd by a third during the recent drought years.

“You couldn’t have three families without it,” Wayne said. “Maybe you could, but you’d struggle.”

Diversify and conquer

From guiding horseback rides to granting fishermen access to rivers to winter sleigh rides, recreational uses are becoming a viable way to maintain ranches.

“You see more and more of those,” Routt County Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said.

The 2002 U.S. Agriculture Census shows that 54 ranches in Routt County supplement their incomes through recreational services, which generated $939,000.

Routt County ranks third in the state for income generated by recreation on ranches. Moffat County tops the list with 59 ranches having recreational services and generating $1.3 million. Rio Blanco is second.

Mucklow said many ranchers in Routt County are reluctant to add recreation as an income generator.

“They don’t like to be in the people business,” he said. “They like to be in the livestock business.”

But the Iacovettos are in the majority of ranchers when it comes to using other sources besides agricultural production to help supplement their incomes.

As the economics of agriculture force ranches to expand in order to maintain their profit margins, many ranchers find they can no longer support a family on what they previously could. And, with the ever-increasing costs of land and machinery, expansion is not feasible for many.

The solution: finding other sources of income.

“I can tell you the number of ranches that make it solely on livestock or hay production, without outside sources of income or other sources of income, are almost none,” Mucklow said.

The 2002 U.S. Agricultural Census showed that, of the 593 ranches in Routt County, more than 70 percent of all principal operators had worked one or more days off the ranch. And 52 percent of all principal operators had worked 200 or more days off the ranch.

Ten and even five years ago, just 40 percent of all primary operators worked 200 or more days off of the ranch.

Dawn Thilmany, associate professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University, said three trends are driving ranchers to work full-time jobs.

First, an outside job provides benefits such as health insurance that are expensive for the individual rancher to carry.

Outside jobs also supplement the family income and provide a stable paycheck during the up and down cycles of the agricultural commodities.

“To have work softens the blow in the downturns,” Thilmany said.

The third trend, she said, is that some people don’t want to ranch full time. They love their other jobs, but still enjoy the lifestyle working a ranch provides.

Necessity, not choice

A second source of income is a must for most ranchers in Routt County. At the end of 2002, 78 percent of all ranches in Routt County never made it out of the red. The average net loss for those ranches was $13,244, the 2002 U.S. Census shows.

The 131 ranches that did make money did well, with an average of $59,000 in net gains each. And 32 percent of ranchers reported net gains averaging $37,586.

Despite the losses, more people continue to own ranches. The number of ranches increased by 35 percent from 1992 to 2002.

“A lot of people want to do it. They are willing to break their backs working another job to do it,” Thilmany said. “It speaks to how rich the culture is. It is unfortunate we can’t find ways to make it pay better.”

Dave and Kathy Smith

The sun is rarely up before Dave and Kathy Smith start working — and it usually has long since set by the time they finish. The two operate a 1,600-acre ranch with 350 head of cattle and 12 horses outside of Hayden.

The ranch is Dave Smith’s second full-time job. He is also a motorgrader driver at Seneca Coal Mine.

During the summer, Dave wakes at 4 a.m. to start baling hay. He works on the ranch until his 4 p.m. to midnight swing shift at the coal mine. During the summer, the two typically put up 1,000 tons of hay.

“December, January, February, we take a lot of naps,” he said.

It’s a hectic life, but the rewards of being able to look out on green pastures and the rocky cliffs that are home to two nests of eagles are worth it.

“It’s just the life,” Dave said. “You’ve got to love it or you can’t do it.

Husband and wife both came from agricultural backgrounds.

Dave worked on a ranch with his uncles in Cedaredge. They always had old equipment that broke down and hampered their production, Dave recalled.

“They were working on junk machinery the whole time, daylight or dark. They couldn’t stay ahead,” Dave said. “I said I would never be caught in that trap.”

Having the extra income from Dave’s job allows them to buy new tractors, steers and their toys, the couple said. Dave, who worked as a mechanic for most of the 33 years he has been at the coal mines, said they buy new machinery, keep good care of it and then sell it every four years.

“Every minute you are working on machinery, you aren’t making any money,” he said.

From the smooth-running tractors to the calving room in the barn, the ranch is equipped so Kathy can run it on her own while Dave is at the mine.

“I can get in and go, I can do everything,” she said.

This summer, they have two hired hands to help with fencing and irrigation.

There are occasions when Dave, who carries a cell phone, has to be called from the mines to help. The coal mine has been a very obliging and good neighbor, he said, but it can be hard to leave the ranch behind.

“There are days that you hate to quit in the middle of the day and go to work,” he said. “But you know you have to do it, go in make your bucks and do it.”

He has the full-time job because he could make more money, Kathy said, but in the fall she cooks for hunting groups. For

2 1/2 months, she makes fried chicken, lasagna, meatloaf, pies and bread — and the when the hunting season is over, she refuses to cook for about four weeks.

Hunters are a major part of the Smiths’ operation. For four weeks, they allow an outfitting company to use their land. The hunters, who come from as far away as California and Wisconsin, stay in the bunkhouses, and the guides set up tents.

Kathy cooks for about 14 men every day, and in the morning Dave wakes up to help make 30 sandwiches that go in the hunters’ packed lunches.

The hunting operation generates about one-third of their ranching revenue, he said — “It’s money to make the payment.”

Kathy, whose father was a grain farmer outside of Hayden, married Dave 13 years ago. At the time, Dave had just 190 acres, but the two gradually bought the land around them, ensuring they wouldn’t have to look out onto any neighbors.

The first few years, they lived in a three-room cabin with seven children. They have since added a house and barns.

When Dave retires, they plan to open a feedlot in Delta where they can winter the herd and escape Routt County’s snowy winters. And although they have the second income, Dave said, they are in it for profit.

“We started this thing without anyone else. Partners, her and I,” Dave said. “We haven’t inherited anything. We built this thing together.”

Steve Stranahan, Doug Carlson

When Steve Stranahan bought the Home Ranch, guest ranch in Clark, in the 1970s, he realized part of his customers’ enjoyment was the agricultural production across the road.

So he bought a second ranch about 20 years ago.

Stranahan, a venture capitalist from Ohio, admitted he didn’t know much about the cattle business. Even if he did, he couldn’t run the ranch from 1,200 miles away.

So he hired Doug Carlson and handed the reins over to him.

Carlson grew up in Illinois where he worked on neighboring farms in the summer and took agricultural classes in high school and in college. He was introduced to the ranching way of life when he went to work at a summer camp near Colorado Springs in 1976.

The camp had 100 head of horses and cattle, and he enjoyed working with them. It led to a job working as a ranch hand at what is now Round Mountain Ranch.

In 1984, Stranahan hired him to manage his land, which has now become a 3,200-acre cattle ranch with 250 head of cattle.

As more land sells from traditional ranching families to those who buy the land for its amenity values, the need for ranch managers has increased.

“You don’t have to own the land to be in the ranching business in this county,” Mucklow said.

And the opportunity to become a ranch manager allows people to stay in ranching who are unable to afford or inherit land, equipment and livestock, Mucklow said.

“You can’t build equity, but it beats what the alternative is,” Mucklow said. “You either do this or not be in ranching.”

The 2002 U.S. census showed that 13 percent of all ranches hired labor for 150 days or more and employed 190 workers.

In the past 10 years, the number of ranches hiring farm labor for more than 150 days a year, which would include ranch managers, has increased by 23 percent.

While hiring long-term workers, such as yearly ranch managers, has increased, the number of farms that hire some kind of labor has dropped in the past 10 years.

Part of the reason for the drop in part-time labor is the advancing technology has made machinery more efficient, allowing fewer people to do the same work.

By the numbers

The 2002 U.S. census showed that about 18 percent of all ranches had hired some ranch labor in Routt County. Those 108 ranches employed almost 300 workers and had a payroll of $2.1 million.

In the past five years, the number of reported hired workers has dropped by 42 percent.

In 1992, 118 ranches in Routt County had 418 paid employees, and in 1997, 154 ranches had 504 paid employees.

The U.S. census did not indicate what the average wage was per worker, but Thilmany said it is generally low.

“There is not any pressure to push wages up,” she said. “It is just not that high paying of an industry.”

Employers can counteract that with in-kind concessions such as allowing the workers their own herd to graze on the land.

Mucklow said there are arrangements in Routt County where workers own part of the cow herd, a piece of land or equipment.

“Some of them are great relationships, some of them are not,” he said.

Carlson, who has help on the ranch from his wife, Adele, and his two teenage sons, Kelly and Dave, shares an interest in the ranch and has been able to build equity through cow herds and equipment.

The Carlsons also will have a piece of land to retire on, a kind of pension, Stranahan said.

Sure, Carlson said, he would like to own his land, but that was never a feasible option.

“Most people dream of owning their own ranch,” he said. “But, it’s certainly not all-consuming. We now we are in a good situation.”

Carlson has a salary, which helps ease the ups and downs of the cattle market, but each year he aims to make a profit.

“In this ranch, you can comfortably run 250 mother cows, is that enough to meet operating expenses and family expenses? Some years yes and some years no,” he said.

Carlson runs the ranch as a cattle operation, but visitors from the Home Ranch also can enjoy its amenities. In exchange, Carlson can borrow pieces of equipment or a few cowhands from the Home Ranch, but they are two separate businesses.

The largest benefit for the Home Ranch, Stranahan said is that his guests can sit off the back deck of the main lodge, look across the valley and see open space with a real working ranch.

Because much of the land is placed under a conservation easement, Stranahan’s guests will enjoy the view for years to come.

And for Carlson, there is the comfort of knowing his sons could the ranching business there, he said.

“We do what we really like to do,” Carlson said. “We never thought about doing anything else.”

Rod Wille

Raising 200 sheep and haying fields is a hobby for Rod Wille — a hobby, granted, that is more demanding than most.

During lambing season, it can keep him up all night, and during the summer, he rushes between his full-time job at BMC West and the hayfields in the South Valley.

“It’s a bad habit, but it’s the habit that I like the most,” he said.

Wille grew up on the same ranch along Colorado Highway 131 that he helps operate today.

Wille never anticipated making a living from ranching. It wasn’t a full-time job for his father, Pete Wille, either. But he knew it was something he couldn’t stop doing.

“It is in my blood, something I don’t think I’ll ever get away from. I don’t think I would be happy if I did,” he said.

As the manager of BMC West, Wille puts in eight-hour days at the lumberyard. His ranching time comes in the mornings and evenings, when he usually puts in another four to five hours of work.

He has a flock of about 85 ewes, which translates in the spring to about 200 sheep.

With birthing and shearing, spring is the busiest time of year. In the summer, he helps his father-in-law put up hay, which is used for his flock and also sold locally.

Wille breeds sheep in a genetic line that goes back to the first ewe he owned in 1982, as a 9-year-old 4-H member.

That line of Rambouillet sheep has gathered national recognition, and Wille shows them all over the country.

“A lot of people go to Disney World, I go to sheep shows,” Wille said.

He also raises a flock of Suffolk sheep, which he sells to 4-Hers.

Even Wille’s form of community service is tied to agriculture. He is the coach for the 4-H junior livestock judging team. He and a band of 4-H members 13 and younger travel across the state, judging cattle, sheep and pigs.

“It is my community service. I enjoy the heck out of that,” he said.

As a 4-H member, Wille participated in the livestock judging team growing up. The experience not only gave him a good eye for quality livestock, but he also picked up communication skills and statewide connections.

Wille came back to Steamboat after graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural business and worked up to manager at BMC West.

When sheep get out and emergencies arise, Wille can make the 15-minute drive to the ranch. But there are still times when he wishes he could spend all day on the ranch.

” If it could pay, I would do this all the time,” he said.

— To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com


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