The value of water

Rancher uses benefits of irrigation ditches

Nobody wanted to be a rancher more than Ron Lawton.

His dad had a place when he was a kid, but Ron left as a teen, off to school and work and the military.

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In 1972, he realized if his ranch was going to happen, it was time to find some land and get some cattle. Lawton worked 25 years at Colowyo mine to make the ranch he owns today a reality. He purchased the last piece of land in 1998, acquiring the ranch in "spurts," he said.

"I was kind of green when I got into the business," Lawton said smiling. "When you start ranching, it's a pretty good education."

Part of that education was learning the absolute value of water, and the best ways to maintain and use it.

He quickly learned the railroad tie and plank headgate controlling his irrigation was not a long-term structure, so he began working on a concrete diversion dam.

One hundred yards of cement later, he had a spillway and a 36-inch pipe leading to his irrigation ditch, and a headgate that wasn't likely to wash away.

Little Bear Creek supplies water to the ditches on the Lawton's W Diamond Bar Ranch north of Craig.

He has two irrigation sprinkler systems on the ranch, but he prefers irrigating from the ditches.

"Sprinklers are less labor and not as time consuming as ditches, and they cover a lot of ground," he said. "But the sprinklers lose water into the clouds by evaporation. Ditch water goes back into the aquifer when it leaves the fields."

Which could be important, as a continuing drought has affected Lawton and other Northwest Colorado ranchers for about nine years. Production and yields are down, and it takes more land to run cows. Lawton currently is grazing one cow per 25 acres of land.

He has gone from selling hay to purchasing hay to feed his herd of 160 cattle, a portion of which belongs to his son, Chad.

Every drop of water is precious to the ranch, and even though it was raining Thursday, Lawton and his wife Shirley were out irrigating the hay meadows.

"You've got to keep (the irrigation) moving. You put in dams to raise the water level and kick it out of the ditch," he said. "Some years, you can irrigate into July. One year, it was the 10th of June when they shut the water off."

The state water commission regulates the irrigation ditches, and oversees the water diversions to the ranches.

Ditch riders check for compliance on ranches during the irrigation months, and Lawton has a gauge box measuring water flow on his creek.

Each ranch with water rights is allowed so many feet of water per minute until the ditch runs dry in the fall.

Ron has help from his son, Chad, and his wife Shirley, with running the ranch.

Shirley Lawton also is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, a title she has held for two years.

"She helps me irrigate and helps with the cows," Ron said. "We're out at 7 in the morning checking on the livestock."

The couple estimates they walk about three or four miles a day irrigating, and holding fairly senior water rights helps them keep the hay growing.

"The Wisconsin Ditch has senior rights on Fortification Creek. If there's only enough water for them, then they get it," Lawton said. "Back east, they don't know what water rights are."

When the water does run out later in the summer, it's time to fix fence at the four water gaps on the ranch. Something Lawton has a lot of experience with.

Fencing on the ranch is an ongoing project throughout the year, every year.

Elk migrating through the ranch number more than 15,000, and although hunting supplements the ranch income, the damage the herds do to fences takes hours and funds to repair.

"An elk herd will go through and take out 30 feet of fence," Lawton said. "It doesn't sound like a lot, but that's $150 in fence posts alone. I've been fencing since March and I'm still not done."

He said the State Highway Department is good about fixing the sections of fence near the highway each spring, but he would like to see more help from the Colorado Division of Wildlife when it comes to fence repair.

For 34 years, Lawton has been building up his ranch, making payments and fixing fence. He was 51 years old before he bought his first new pick-up truck, and he lived in a trailer for 27 of those years.

He worries young people today have no chance to become ranchers.

"The capital it takes to get into ranching, you almost need a government program to get them into it," he said. "You can buy a $2 million ranch and it won't support a herd."

Lawton has had one profitable year -- about four years ago -- in his 34 years of ranching. He wishes beef prices would climb like the prices of other commodities.

"A new pick-up has increased eight times what it sold for," he said. "In 40 years, beef prices haven't doubled for the rancher."

He doesn't know if he would go through it all again if he had the chance to do things over, but he said he feels good and he does what he wants to do.

"Once you get into ranching, it's hard to get off the merry-go-round." he said.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

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