PHOTOS: Feeding long-held ranching tradition
TOPONAS — Whit Gates looks right at home as he drives a team of snow-white Percheron draft horses through a pasture on his ranch near Toponas.
The air around him is filled with a steady beat of hooves, the jingle of the horses’ tack and the sound of the rails on his sled sliding across the wind-blown surface of snow that seems to stretch from one horizon to the other.
The truth is he doesn’t need to use the reins to guide his horses, Ed and Emmy. With a single word, he can stop the powerful team of horses, and with another word, he can get them to return to pulling a sled that provides food for the nearly 200 cattle that live on the South Routt ranch in the winter. It’s easy to see that this isn’t the horse’s first rodeo.
“I like ranching because of the change,” said Gates, who lives on the ranch with his wife, Tiffany, and their two sons Koy and Kace. “I can’t wait for that first snow of winter, I can’t wait for that green grass of summer, and I like it when the leaves change color. I can’t imagine doing the same old thing every day.”
Gates, who graduated from Soroco High School in 2004, makes feeding cattle seem easy. He does it with a sled, not because it conjures up a romantic vision of life on the ranch, but because he said he finds it easier than using a tractor.
The Gates have been feeding cattle this way for decades, and the family’s ranching roots stretch back five generations.
Gates said his uncle still runs the family-owned ranch near Burns. His dad Doug Gates leased property and ran a ranch near Yampa, and left for several years to operate a ranch in Wyoming. But when his son decided to make a go on his own, Doug Gates returned and now the father and son operate the cattle ranch just outside of Toponas, which grows to nearly 700 head in the summer months.
Gates said he prefers the winter despite the cold temperatures.
“In the winner about all you got to do is feed the cows and plow some snow,” Gates said. “You kind of know what to expect every day. I mean there are little challenges, like maybe tipping off the load or something like that, but for the most part, you know what every day is gonna bring.”
In the next few weeks, Gates said the ground will start to thaw, and he will abandon the sled and start using a wagon to deliver loads of hay to the cows on his ranch.
“Calving (in the spring) may be my most favorite time of the year, just because you get to see the new little babies hitting the ground,” Gates said. ”And you know you made it through the winter.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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