“The original idea was to have four shareholders who owned the ranch equally but ideally have it so that people had different interests or different ways of using the land,” said rancher and outfitter Tony Prendergast at his home in Crawford, Colorado.
Today, 20 years after that initial idea, XK Bar Ranch is cooperatively owned by Tony and four friends.
It was always Tony’s dream to make a living on the ranch. “I wasn't able to make a living on the place for a long time. I had to go off and get other work as an outfitter, and it'd take me away for long periods of time,” said Tony.
Tony and his wife Sally ended up leasing much of their acreage at the ranch to neighboring ranchers. “It was college money for my kids,” said Tony, “And many years went by where we were just kind of enjoying this place, but not doing much with it.”
The average cost to start a new farm or ranch equates to roughly $3 million in just land and equipment. The average U.S. farm operates at a net loss, and has so for years. Most farms and ranches require someone in the family to bring home off-farm income to keep the operation afloat, as well as provide health insurance for the family.
Seven years ago, that changed for Tony. “I just always wanted to try to make a living here. And so seven years ago, we had enough savings at that time I could buy two weaned calves. I grew them out and just started to experiment with grass feeding. We kept some of them but sold probably one and a half of those and made enough money I was able to buy some more calves and just built it up from that, literally.”
Tony kept growing his herd while learning the market. “I went from seven to nine animals for a few years and just learned the market. That was a big thing, learning how to sell these animals. You know, it's easy to sell one cow, but when you start selling nine, all of a sudden you need a market out there and you need to have a strategy. A lot goes into it — how you handle that meat and the processing, it’s a lot to learn.”
Tony kept his operation manageable while he learned the markets. “I just kept it at a level where I could learn and not sink myself for a few years,” he said.
While learning the ropes of selling grass-fed cattle, Tony started a new outfitting business that ran through fall and summer. “The outfitting business is where the bulk of my cash flow comes from, but the cattle are able to cover their own costs.”
As more and more people expressed interest in purchasing Tony’s beef, he realized there was something special about the environment he raised his herd in. “As I started having a lot more people eating this stuff I realized that we have phenomenal grass here. It's just some combination of the soils, the elevation, types of grasses we have here.”
Tony said there are significant differences between grain-fed cattle and grass-fed cattle. “There’s a difference in taste when it comes to grass-fed beef. Grass-fed cattle tastes different and there's a real differences in quality. Grain-fed cattle all eat pretty much the same grain coming out of the feedlots, and they all taste pretty much the same.”
There are many differences in raising grass-fed cattle compared to grain-fed cattle. “I learned you have to keep grass-fed cattle a little longer than when you would butcher your typical grain-fed animal. I carry my herd through two winters, which is an expense. You have to figure out how that all works, and then start setting your price point on the carcasses you sell or the beef. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on that. I realized I have a superior grass-fed flavor and finish coming off this grasslands right here and I have a good market.”
Tony said that cows get a bad rap in our society for destroying the environment. He said in reality, cattle are not at fault — humans are. “Cattle get maligned for destroying everything from the climate, to the earth, to wilderness areas, etcetera,” said Tony. “It's not the cow that’s the problem, they're just a large grazing animal. It's the management of cattle that is where the negative impacts come from. The whole system of shipping cattle off hundreds or thousand miles away and then feeding them corn, and all of the additives that go into that system — fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs. All of those things are just, in my mind, probably not the answer to a sustainable planet or sustaining life.”
Tony said his grass-fed method is the way cattle were intended to be sustained. “For cattle to be born and grow up and eat grass in areas where you really can't grow any other food, in this pastoral land, is a natural endeavor. Cattle make use of that resource. Cattle can live in a natural setting where they are not harming the environment.”
Federal agriculture policy is starting to follow the lead of ranchers like Tony. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), for example, is beginning to allow more opportunities for sustainable grazing. The CRP, a 20-year-old program written into the Farm Bill, pays farmers to take some farmland out of production in order to plant things like cover crops, native grasses, and windbreak or shade trees. Those conserved acres provide habitat for local wildlife and native ecosystems for pollinators. Traditionally, grazing has not been an acceptable purpose on those lands, but Senators like South Dakota’s John Thune, have championed the issue at the request of the Western Organization of Resource Councils. Now, the same ecosystems that supported bison for centuries, are being reintroduced to non-intensive cattle grazing.
Tony explains that there is a huge connection between the food that we eat and the health of the land. Tony’s cattle play right into that system.
“You are what you eat. I think that what we eat is a very powerful connection to a place and also to healthy foods and a healthy environment. That's one of the most fundamental things humans do that affects the environment is eat.” Tony asks that consumers be informed in their purchasing of food, to support local, sustainable food sources.