Ranches preserve local heritage | SteamboatToday.com

Ranches preserve local heritage

Tours offer visitors a chance to see elk, learn about Steamboat

Tricia Dyer-Kerr came face to face with a bull elk on Sunday during the Heritage Ranch Tour.

“To be that close to a male and for him to be that gentle — that’s phenomenal,” Dyer-Kerr said.

Dyer-Kerr, a Steamboat Springs local, came on the ranch tour to learn more about the surrounding ranching communities.

“It is really important to Steamboat, and it is important to know a lot about it,” Dyer-Kerr said.

The three and a half hour tour was lead by Marsha Daughenbaugh, the executive director for the Community Agriculture Alliance Inc., and CJ Mucklow, an agriculture extension agent for Routt County. Locals and visitors from Colorado, Florida and Illinois took advantage of the opportunity to visit two working sheep and elk ranches.

“It’s fascinating. You don’t get to do this everyday,” said Sherree Funk from Pennsylvania, who has been visiting Steamboat Springs for 15 years. “It is really cool to be able to get out on private land and see how hard it is to make a living.”

There are only two elk ranches left in Routt County.

“Chronic wasting disease ruined the industry,” Mucklow said. “Now they make their money on antlers and meat.”

Tom Cox, who manages M & M Ranch, oversees 100 head of elk. One of the biggest challenges to elk farmers is that New Zealand imports 300 metric tons of red deer a year into the United States. Red deer meat is often served in restaurants to mimic elk meat.

“Our biggest market is selling trophy racks. It’s a very renewable resource,” Cox said.

The bulls grow new antlers every year because they fight with them and break them. Antlers grow at a rate of one inch a day for 60 to 70 days and fall off every spring.

The sheep industry has also been on the decline since the 1900s. Mucklow said there are less than 2,000 sheep in Routt County that are there year round, but the Routt National Forest has the most sheep in the country.

Sheep require more labor than cattle and during lambing season, Greg Brown, owner of Highland Meadow Ranch, does not sleep regularly for a month.

“I sleep on the couch, set my alarm clock and go out every two hours to check on the sheep,” Brown said.

He has been raising sheep for 22 years and built his entire ranch from scratch. Brown has 165 ewes and he buys and sells wool and makes blankets for Routt County Woolens.

“Ram fleece has a very distinct odor,” Brown said. “But nothing smells worse than a billy goat.”

The majority of livestock in the county is cattle.

“There are 30,000 head of cattle in Routt County,” Mucklow said. “Seventy-five to eighty-five percent of income from agriculture is cows. Next is grass or hay.”

Although there is still a strong ranching community in the Yampa Valley, the purpose of these ranch tours is to educate the public about the valley’s heritage and to maintain its important traditions.

“There are a number of organizations concerned that agriculture won’t be here in the near future,” Daughenbaugh said. “Sometimes I get emotional when I talk about it because I was born and raised here, and in agriculture. I appreciate the opportunities it has given me and my family. I hope everyone takes something back with them and realizes how important agriculture is, as well as recreation and coal mining, to make this valley so special.”

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