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Ranchers see boon in beef

Steve BensonAspen Times Staff Writer

With the combination of a wet summer, a ban on Canadian livestock and a renewed love affair with beef in America, ranchers are rebounding after years of hardship.”It’s the best time for ranchers I can remember in 40 years,” said Ernie Davis, an economist at Texas A&M University, in an article in The Wall Street Journal last week.In the past month, cattle prices have hit record highs, reaching 90 cents a pound in some areas, up from 65 cents at this time last year. The United States halted imports of Canadian cattle in May, after the remains of one cow from Alberta tested positive for Mad Cow disease. The import ban has helped boost the American beef market. A rainy summer in the Roaring Fork Valley has left grazing lands full of thick, lush grass. As a result, cattle are stockier and healthier than in years past, and ranchers have been able to avoid purchasing hay at boosted market prices. Furthermore, with a reprieve in the drought, cow reproduction will be on the rise.But the boon in beef means different things to different regions. Roaring Fork Valley ranches are subject to a different set of variables than spreads in Texas and the Great Plains.”They’re not landlocked,” said Francesca Fender, of ranchers in the Great Plains. Fender operates a ranch with her husband, Willie, near Sopris Creek. “If we wanted to stay here we would have to increase our herd, and we can’t: We don’t have the capacity.”With development encroaching on adjacent land, valley ranches exist on isolated landlocked parcels. Expansion for most is virtually impossible. As a result, they have as many cows grazing on their land as possible.And the high cost of living in the valley doesn’t help, either.”The price of insurance, doctors, gas, is [high],” said Fender. “As our beef goes up, so do the prices around us.”You can’t viably ranch in this county economically anymore.”Even with the favorable conditions, many valley ranchers are happy to just break even.”It’s all relative, that’s sort of how everything goes up around here,” Fender said. “It doesn’t really average out. If ranchers break even, they’re lucky.”Marj Perry and her husband, Bill Fales, own and operate a ranch in the Crystal River Valley.”The last few years have probably been the toughest. The market has gone up and down,” Perry said. “Even though it’s up now, it won’t compare with the [inflated] prices.”And while it appears this was a comparatively great year for local ranchers, final numbers remain unknown. The gathering of the herds is still a few weeks away.”We’ll know more when we start gathering them. We’ve barely seen them,” Perry said. “I think it’s going to be better. We’ve got a lot of hay, and that’s a big plus – we’ve got pretty good water rights.”Water rights are key. Ranchers with limited access to water struggled through the past seven years of drought. Unable to grow their own hay, and with limited natural grass growth, those ranchers who couldn’t afford inflated hay prices were forced to sell off some of their cattle.The Fenders, who also benefit from advantageous water rights, were able to grow their own hay. But she doesn’t think anyone, including those with limited access to water, suffered too terribly.”I think the people that are still ranching in this valley know what they’re doing,” Fender said. “I haven’t heard of any devastation.”You need to try to live frugally, plan for the bad times, for drought,” she added. “You managed, you got it done. It doesn’t mean it was easy.”Fender said the toughest aspect of ranching in the valley is the increasing sense of being trapped, with no way out. The Fenders have been trying to sell their property for several years, but to no avail.She said current Pitkin County land-use codes prevent ranches from being largely developed, and she believes that has made her property a hard sell. “Who in this day and age is going to buy just a ranch?” she asked.The county, she said, is forcing her and her husband to bear the cost of preserving the land as undeveloped open space.”So not only do we take it in the shorts with the cows, but we take it in the shorts from the county for staying here,” Fender said. “We don’t get weekly paychecks, we get a yearly paycheck,” she said. She said the county is saying, in effect, “We’re asking you to give up all your paycheck so we can have something to look at.”I don’t blame them for wanting open space, but they should have thought about it beforehand,” she added. “We’re kind of of stuck – that’s exactly how we feel. I don’t think they understand the ramifications.”I don’t think any [of the county commissioners] has ever ranched, and they’re living from it. It’s kind of ironic.”[Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com]


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