The Role of a Rancher:
Ranchers today find themselves needing to do more than ranching to be successful. Ranchers often take on extra roles as stewards of the land, business people, and advocates. Dr. Kathryn Bedell finds herself taking on all of these roles and then some to make her operation work and to better the lives of other ranchers.
“I'm a large animal veterinarian by training, but I haven't done that as employment since I left Boulder in 1999,” said Dr. Kathryn Bedell. Behind her, her herd of British Park White and Angus Cross cattle grazed in the early afternoon sun.
In 1999, Kathryn and her family moved to Western Colorado to ranch outside of the town of De Beque.
“We started ranching full time on 400 acres and with a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease permit, and we ran up to about 120 head,” Kathryn said. “That's how I got into the grass-fed beef business.”
Steward of the Land
Kathryn has a deep respect and admiration for the natural cycles of the land that make ranching possible. Only through healthy soil, clean water, and natural grasslands is ranching possible and sustainable.
Kathryn is a big believer in the principles behind grass-fed beef. For Kathryn, grass-fed reflects her values of a healthy animal, healthy consumer, and healthy planet.
“I've always been a grass-fed beef advocate for multiple reasons,” Kathryn said. “Grass-fed beef is a healthier option for the consumer because of the makeup of the fat profile of the meat from eating grass. To grass feed, you have to provide cattle access to good, healthy pasture, and the only way to do that is to rotational graze — really manage the land properly... it just makes sense, for the planet, the animal, the consumer, and the land.”
Properly managing the land through mimicking native ruminant grazing promotes biodiversity, healthy and deep root systems, nutrient-dense, water-retentive, and drought-resistant soil. Practicing stewardship that regenerates the land is a step further than sustainable, it’s bettering the land for future generations.
As Kathryn sees it, ranchers need to have a long term outlook on the ways they raise cattle. Issues like overgrazing can hurt the land, the rancher and the animal in the long run.
“Matching the cattle to the land is really important,” Kathryn said.
Through a regenerative, grass-fed approach, cattle could be a solution to a lot of the problems associated with agriculture.
In veterinary school, Kathryn rotated through large animal production medicine courses in Nevada and Manhattan learning the ways to make raising livestock efficient as possible as a way to make the operator money.
“What we were trying to do was to help the producers put more pounds on their cattle. And so at that point, I thought it was cool to see what you could do in addition to feed, like implants and feed mixes for them to gain weight in a feedlot,” Kathryn said.
Her feelings changed when she became a mother. Although she still respected the science aspect of her past education, she started caring more about what she was feeding her family. She started to question what that model added to the land, the health of the animal and the health of the consumer.
Ranchers in Western Colorado often take advantage of BLM leases. The geographical features in Western Colorado are unlike those of central Colorado and eastern Colorado. Lot sizes and properties are smaller and harder to graze and utilize because of elevation gain, canyons, plateaus, and high desert. BLM leases are cheaper options for access to grass that can sustain cattle while home pastures grow back. The BLM sees this set up as a management tool that helps cut back on brush and overcrowding, which can lessen the likelihood of a wildfire. Kathryn said there’s a common misconception that ranchers don’t manage the BLM land well and it often falls victim to the tragedy of the commons. Kathryn wants to debunk that. She said ranchers are dependent on that land to feed their cattle, and should have a long term interest in grazing that land properly. She said in the past, there have been bad actors and therefore the government should hold ranchers and BLM land users accountable.
“We need to educate the public and explain what grazing on BLM land does for their additional uses on it like keeping the trails open, keeping the understory controlled, brush fire management, keeping it more open is really a function of the animals that are on it. So you can have lots of benefits that the public should know about and an opportunity to keep ranchers accountable through legislation,” Kathryn said.
Water is another facet that Kathryn wants ranchers to protect.
“The agricultural community has a huge interest in the waters and waters of the state. Without water, agriculture does not exist. So when you try and have a conversation about monitoring water quality everyone gets really nervous about it, because they don't want it to impact their activities at all,” Kathryn said. “Our water serves a huge population, and all of our agricultural runoff goes right back into the river, we need to pay attention to what we're putting back in the river. We can do simple yet effective planning to limit the impacts agriculture has on the water in this area, such as widening drainage ditches and not trimming vegetation in runoff zones.”
In addition to being a steward of the land, ranchers must be business savvy.
Kathryn first started raising grass-fed beef in 2004 and sold at farmers’ markets in 2005. It was then and there she realized the plethora of hoops ranchers must jump through to make a living.
“I was doing all the farmers’ markets in the area since I started,” Kathryn said, “I ended up doing six farmers’ markets a week and was getting exhausted.”
Kathryn’s children helped out at the markets since they were young but as they got older and were away from the ranch more, Kathryn realized she needed to do something more sustainable. Her path led her to take matters into her own hands. She decided to set up a grocery store near her ranch where she could sell her products directly to consumers without having to travel from farmers’ market to farmers’ market.
Kathryn was able to utilize local resources at the Business Incubator in Grand Junction to learn about all of the financials of getting a business started.
“For anybody who's looking at starting up any sort of business, I really recommend the incubator just to get experience at looking at the problems you will likely face. They have tons of resources, and I still use them for livestock marketing I've done, for bookkeeping and financial advisors and CPA, and as fiscal agents to grants,” Kathryn said.
Kathryn set up Roan Creek Ranch grocery store five and a half years ago. The 900 square foot grocery store has served the community of Fruita, Colorado well, providing select, local meat from Kathryn’s ranch and a few other local producers in the area. The grocery store sits on Aspen Avenue next to Circle Park, where a weekly farmers’ market takes place. The store has been a favorite among the community for the last half-decade, gaining numerous mentions in best of magazines like Thrillist.
Despite the popularity of Roan Creek Ranch grocery, the store has served its purpose and Kathryn needs to move on to focus on her next project. Today, she is in the process of handing the store off to a like-minded individual.
Getting Political and Being and Advocate
“I'm busy, that's why something has gotta go,” Kathryn said, “I figure I can do more good for more people by not just having the store, but getting out there a little bit more and getting a little more political.”
Kathryn has also cut back on her own ranching operation to fulfill those goals.
“I have 20 something cows out on pasture over there right now, and then I also buy cattle on the hoof from other grass-fed growers to feed into my process,” Kathryn said.
She runs her herd today on the 27 acres she has at home, some leased land around the valley, and in the high country for summer grazing.
With more time on her hands, Kathryn is able to work on a project that is very important to her and other ranchers in the area. Currently, there is one processing option for ranchers in Western Colorado. Kinikin Processing in Montrose, Colorado, is an hour and a half drive. The processing plant has to prioritize when to process whose product, leaving ranchers at the mercy of the processing plant. Further, ranchers lose a significant amount of profit having a third party process their product. Kathryn’s passion project aims to alleviate a lot of these issues.
“I am in the process of forming a rancher cooperative called Mountain West Livestock Cooperative. It is going to be a moderate-sized processing plant here on the western slope, which will be rancher owned,” Kathryn said. “The reason I'm doing that is to increase rancher profitability and have them take a larger piece of the pie before it goes into retail sales.”
Kathryn said getting this cooperative planned has been a long-time running.
“I've been working on the cooperative for about three years now, starting out with the USDA Rural Development Grant to do a feasibility study,” Kathryn said. “Hopefully, we'll be selling shares here in the next couple of weeks.”
All of Kathryn’s experience and time in ranching the past two decades have led her to want to better the lives of other ranchers and future ranchers. She has witnessed the problems people in ag face first hand and she wants to do something about it.
“I've been interested in politics as it pertains to food for a while,” Kathryn said. “The evening Governor Jared Polis won the election, I was on his website, and saw he was putting together a transition team. So I polished off my resume and submitted it. Much to my delight, three days later I heard from him and he said that I was chosen to be on the transition team to hire a Commissioner of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources, and Parks, and Wildlife.”
Kathryn had been involved at the local level for years, but she saw Polis’ transition team as a real way to make change across the state and advocate for ranchers on the western slope. Kathryn and the transition team interviewed and brought her to the attention of Governor elect Polis Kate Greenberg as the Ag Commissioner for her views on soil health, water, transitioning young people into agriculture, and regenerative agriculture.
Kathryn cares about securing the longevity of ranching for future generations.
“A lot of the older farmers and ranchers are transitioning off the land and wanting to retire and right now, the most profitable thing to do with your land is to subdivide it and then develop it, Kathryn said, “So in this task force, we’re focused on getting young farmers on this very expensive land to farm and ranch and we’re focused on giving this new generation of farmers the tools to fix the soil and feed communities.”
Getting involved is the first step to making a change.
“If you want to see change on issues you care about –– get involved,” Kathryn said.