Tales from the Tread: There’s 4 seasons of ranching in Routt County

Krista Monger
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Monger Ranch in the lower Elk River Valley. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This week, we celebrate Agriculture Appreciation Week. Most cattle operations in Routt County are cow-calf operations, which means the cow herd is maintained year-round, and a calf crop is sold in the fall. But, there is so much more to it. Let’s look at the yearly cycle.

In December, the ranch has only cows and bulls on its land, on hay meadows down by the corrals. The bulls are separated from the cows since they are already pregnant, in fact are already in their second trimester. Their gestation period is identical to humans.

The ranch is feeding hay they put up during the summer. Most ranches feed big round rolls since they feed easier in mechanical bale feeders hooked up to four-wheel drive tractors. There are still some traditionalists in the Routt County who feed with horses, but the number is low since this method is labor intensive and slow.

March rolls around, and ranches start calving season. Ranches in our county strategically choose this time of year. Hayden areas might choose February, while South Routt may choose April, and it has to do with snow level.

Calving for older cows is simple. They do their thing on their own in the field, but heifers — first-time calvers — might need some help. Sometimes, the calf needs just a bit of a pull. Rarely is a vet called, usually only if a C-section is needed. A calf is licked clean, stimulating the calf to stand, and it will stand within minutes. The calf seeks milk, and then the bond is made.

May sees the meadows lose their snow. The hay crop will start to grow as soon as the daily temperatures rise, and this means cows need to come off. Cows and calves are taken to summer pastures in the hills.

June comes and romance starts. Bulls are turned out with cows, one bull per 20 cows. They all co-mingle in a common pasture. There is a batch of replacement heifers, too. They are last year’s female calves and will be the new cows for the herd. All the bulls will be taken out in late summer.

While out in the pasture, ranches turn their sites on the hay crop. Meadows with brome, timothy and clover grasses are irrigated by flooding ditches — dry-land hay and alfalfa must rely on the rain. Alfalfa is harvested first in mid-June since it matures earliest. Next comes dry-land hay, and last is the irrigated hay meadows, which usually is not ready to go until August. But, hay season is not done yet — the alfalfa will yield a second cutting.

September is weaning time, where calves are pulled off their moms. Steers — cut males — and heifers — females — are separated. The ranch will look through its heifer calves, pick the best to keep as bred stock and sell the rest with the steers. The calves will be taken to a grow yard or more pasture to adjust from being weaned. From there to a feed yard or wheat-grass pasture in the Midwest to grow to be 1,450 pounds then to a meat-packing plant, to your grocery store and finally, to your plate.

Tread of Pioneers Museum Board member Krista Monger is a fifth generation Steamboat Springs native who ranches with her husband and parents in the lower Elk River Valley on the same ground as her ancestors. Her great, great grandparents raised their family at the confluence of the Elk and Yampa rivers. When she turned 18, Adeline Johnson left her home, homesteaded at the base of Sleeping Giant and later married John Monger. 

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