Rounding up another season

Family discusses the challenges and the joys of the ranching industry

Bill Green's work week spans the entire year. And right now it's Friday.

In two weeks, he'll load 300 of this year's calves onto several trucks and the buyer will cut him a check for six figures.

The second-generation rancher traditionally celebrates over a steak dinner with the friends and neighbors who helped him roundup the calves for shipping.

But the celebration doesn't last long. Soon it's Monday, and with it comes a year full of obstacles, from calving and haying to vaccinating and feeding the livestock every day through the winter.

The Greens managed to persevere and see the 80-pound newborns grow into 550-pound steers and heifers in six or seven months.

There were casualties along the way.

Two cows died this year from eating Larkspur, a poisonous, flowering weed that grows in the forest where the Greens and other ranchers run their cattle in the summer.

"If you go up there when it's purple, you'll lose cattle. We lost 12 right there in just a few days," he said, recalling a recent year when he took his cattle to their summer forest grazing range before the weeds had died off.

But there's a lot of food in the forest and ranchers who graze their cattle on public land can irrigate their vacant meadows and grow a crop of hay while the cows are away. Under the rules of the grazing permits, the ranchers have to have their cows off the leased land on Sept. 31.

Green spent five days rounding up his cattle this fall. Two are still missing. The cows weren't as anxious to be found as they are when chilly fall weather has them lined up by the fence, waiting to go home.

"The old cows know where home is, so they'll be standing along the fence or the gate," said Bill's wife, Ramona Green.

Bill Green and his help drive the cattle overland from the forest to their ranch. Many of the hay meadows along highways and at remote ranches throughout northwest Colorado are filled with cattle that have been brought down from their summer ranges.

Cattleman T. Wright Dickinson said ranchers in northwest Colorado follow the "natural rotation" from the high country to the lower meadows, like the big game migrations.

Soon, the snow will fall and cover the slim forage that still grows in the post-harvest hay fields. Then, ranchers begin to feed the hay they put up during the summer.

"One of the biggest expenses is getting the mother cow through the winter," Bill Green said.

That cost is especially burdensome when the hay harvest is low. Last winter, with 300 hungry mouths to feed and not enough hay, Bill Green said he had to buy hay from Wyoming for twice what it would cost him to grow it. It paid off, keeping alive the cows that gave birth to the calves he'll ship Nov. 10.

"As long as a cow has good feed, she can pretty near survive anything," Bill Green said.

To help them bear the sub-zero temperatures, Bill Green gives the cattle more food. It won't cost him as much this year because the "better-than-average" hay crop yielded plenty.

"We don't have to buy hay this year and that's a good thing," Ramona Green said.

Bill Green estimates a cow requires two tons of hay during the winter. His son, Chad, puts it differently, saying a cow requires 2 percent of her body weight in hay each day. Either way, it's a substantial investment, at $60 to $120 a ton. But it's necessary, and it's the reason he has calves to ship this fall.

It's a commercial cow-calf operation, but it's a family operation, too. Now that he's back from college, Chad Green helps Bill and Ramona run the ranch they've lived on for 23 years. Chad Green has degrees in animal science and in the business of agriculture. He knows today's ranchers have to be more aware of the business aspects of the industry.

When Bill Green's parents raised cattle, it was all about the animals. Now, he said, ranchers have to consider marketing and business, ever-changing regulations, along with new technologies.

Chad Green now manages the herds and their lineage with computer software. He's considering DNA testing to link calves to the bulls that sired them. He say's artificial insemination may one day replace natural breeding.

When he talks about being a third-generation cattle rancher, Chad Green seems to know he has his work cut out for him as he looks across the pasture and says, "I'm gonna give it a try."

"The only way you can get into ranching is through family," Bill Green said, noting the price of land and the difficulties involved in the business.

That same price of land could bring Bill Green a lot of money if he was interested in selling the ranch. But he's not.

"Someone could offer me $10 million. I don't want the money. I want the ranch," Bill Green said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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