Donna Deakins, left, and two ranch hands bring up the rear of the cattle drive Thursday. After more than four hours, they are almost to the meadow where the cattle will stay until being separated for sale the following day.

Photo by Collin Smith

Donna Deakins, left, and two ranch hands bring up the rear of the cattle drive Thursday. After more than four hours, they are almost to the meadow where the cattle will stay until being separated for sale the following day.

Times at the ranch

Business changes as land, technology prices rise

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Cody Deakins watches the drive's flanks to make sure none of the cattle wandered astray after they were herded through a small fence opening.

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Tom Deakins patrols the cattle as they make their way along the road during the drive's last stretch.

— It was a normal part of the schedule at the Ex Corporation Ranch when mother, father and son worked with friends and hired hands to herd cattle more than a mile across their land on Thursday.

The end of this week was a year in the making for the Deakins family, which owns the Ex Corporation and K Diamond ranches west of Craig.

Friday marks their big sell time.

This is what the 12-hour workdays have been for.

Each year, at about this time, they herd cattle into a corral close to the front of their property. There, they separate the cows they will keep from ones they sold a few weeks ago to an order-buyer, a cattle middleman, who purchased them for other businesses.

Tom and Donna Deakins live mostly off these once-a-year proceeds. The money made in the next two weeks will cover most of next year.

"Things do get kind of short toward the end of the year because you're running on last year's money," Tom said.

Whatever financial or labor-intensive hardships there might be pale in comparison to the work ethic. Something about the lifestyle compels "these ranchers," Donna said.

"These guys start to ranch and that's all they want to do," Donna said. "Once you're here, you're here forever, it seems. If you told Tom you were taking him to Hawaii for a week, he'd be mad at you."

Tom and Donna's son, Cody, 28, has tipped his hat into the ranching arena. He's been ranching fulltime since he graduated from Moffat County High School 10 years ago.

Donna told her son he had to move away for one year before he could come back and work on their ranch, if that's what Cody wanted to do.

"There's a big world out there, and these kids sometimes don't get to see a whole lot of it," Donna said. "I guess I just wanted him to stretch his wings."

While in high school, Cody worked in a Craig welding shop in high school - a trade he still uses on his ranch - and raced in snowmobile competitions from New York to Canada - a hobby he now looks fondly back on as young kids and their "good ideas."

Ranching "is what I grew up doing," Cody said. "It's what I like to do."

After high school, he moved to a ranch outside Lay. After about one year, Donna and Tom let him open his own ranch on their land by the Yampa River, which he calls the K Diamond.

Cody might not have moved anywhere else, but it's hard to deny him a life he wants that much, Donna said.

"I figured he knew what it's like to work for someone else," she said. "When he was in high school, we didn't think he'd have any interest in it at all.

"But here he is," Donna said, laughing.

Like Cody, Tom and Donna grew up on ranches. Tom has never lived outside of Northwest Colorado, and there isn't much out there pulling him to leave, either, he said.

"I went to college two or three years, wasn't real crazy about that, and came back to the ranch," Tom said. "I usually came back home every weekend and in the summers, too."

Donna went to college, also, but five years after getting married, she decided to work with the family.

"Who doesn't like trees, sagebrush and wide-open spaces?" Donna said. "There's a certain love of the land that we have. There's some pride in taking care of the land and raising good cattle."

But the business of keeping the land natural has not gone as unchanging as the rolling hills on the Ex Corporation Ranch.

Land prices have appreciated so much that people can make far more money selling their land than they can raising beef, Donna said. It wouldn't surprise her if, one day, Moffat County loses as many ranchers as Routt County has during the past 20 years.

Modernization has already changed the operation, Tom said. A rancher now needs to have enough cattle to offset costs for new technology, which has replaced horse teams with hay machines and forced irrigation with sprinkler systems.

"When you get to buying machinery, it's like you buying a car. It's not cheap," Tom said. "The cattle market hasn't grown near what housing has or new pickups or what it costs to put a sprinkler in here. It's harder to make ends meet now, in a way."

After the cattle drive, Donna sat in a little house by the corral, just a warm place to be and catch a breath, she said. She passed out brownies made by Alice, the wife of friend Leo Snowden, who helped bring in the cows that afternoon.

Donna has done this about 30 times. Her family is not special or different from many of the families here, she said.

If anything is special, it's the land.

"I always did like the Craig area," she said. "I always liked the mountains."

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