Tony Vagneur: Grazing for some ranch land a tall task |

Tony Vagneur: Grazing for some ranch land a tall task

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It’s that time of year again – the dandelions are blooming, cottonwoods are leafing out, grass is throwing off its winter doldrums and with a little help from the weather, is coming up green. If we can keep it that way, most people will be happier.

Which means, yep, it’s irrigating season in the valley, as well. Personally, it’s a beautiful way to start off the summer, running ice cold water down ditches, spreading it out over hayfields and pastures, and keeping an optimistic outlook for the hay crop and green grazing ahead. The smell of the awakening earth is somehow transfixing and makes one pause.

Slipping into that arctic water before the sun has had a chance to come up, maybe staring down a cow or sometimes a deer who has labeled you a trespasser, can be a bit exhilarating. On one occasion, I thought the splashing I heard around the bend was a big fish, turns out it was a big bear playing with a big fish. That can be invigorating. Or doing an out-of-control slide down a watery, mud-slick ditch bank, doing outrageous contortions in a poor imitation of a Cirque de Soleil performance, all in an attempt to avoid ignominiously splashing down and drowning your cell phone.

You ski hard, damned near every day, hitting those bumps like Bob Snyder puttin’ a zipper on ‘em, and you think you’re in shape. Those thighs of steel don’t mean much when the seasons change. Every spring, it’s the same thing: You have to get in shape for ranch work, dragging wet, 40-pound tarps around from here to there, climbing through barbed wire fences all bent over, and picking up and moving rocks that push upward of 75 pounds each from the icy cold depths. Of course, it’s the opposite when ski season rolls around — you need to regain “skiing shape.” The continuum of living around here.

Then, in between irrigating rounds, you need to saddle up those broncs that haven’t been doing much except burning hay all winter — sometimes they have a different attitude about protocols and the game plan. You’re not exactly in shape for that in the spring, either, if you’ve been skiing a lot, but you gotta love those horses, no matter.

People are moving here, paying outrageous prices for real estate, some of it decent agricultural land. Probably most of them have no idea what they’ve bitten off, probably don’t care, and the land will suffer. On the other hand, some of them will take it seriously and try to make a go of a gentleman’s ranch or some iteration thereof. But there’s no way any of them are going to buy enough land to seriously get into the ranching business.

The lesson is this: If you’re in the ranching concern in Pitkin County, you know what it takes. If you’re not already on the inside track, you’ll never get there, not on your own pocketbook. There isn’t a piece of ranch land that has sold in the past 20 years that didn’t require re-zoning of some sort, just so the new owner could afford it, with perhaps one exception. That includes high-priced conservation easements or attractive tax savings for people with big money.

Just by coincidence, I know some local ranchers and just like everywhere else, they work damned hard for what they get out of it, and money isn’t the driving force. But they know one thing that a lot of fresh-faced kids out of ag school don’t: if you want to be a rancher, especially in this valley, you have to have a way of paying for it that isn’t ranching. Keeping land irrigated, fertilized, re-seeded and productive costs a lot more than many people are willing to pay. Taking care of livestock is a defining responsibility.

Yeah, but look at what land is worth, you say? That’s a real estate agent’s conceit. If you’re in the real estate business, you’re not in ranching. That kind of talk is antipathy. Agricultural land is worth its carrying capacity in cows and/or crops, not much more.

So, if you’re thinking about getting into the ranching business, maybe to give the kids something to do while on school break, start combing the real estate ads. But you better hurry – most suitable listings are under contract by the time you can find your cell phone.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at