Vagneur: Don’t fence in the ranchers

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It keeps rolling through my mind, a remark a supposed friend made after a tragic accident: “It’s amazing — he could work on the ranch all day and come to town in the evening for a meeting and actually contribute in a meaningful way.” I’ll be damned. I suppose such stupid statements shouldn’t get me all riled up, for most people don’t really understand ranching, particularly cattle ranching.

Right from the get-go we need to understand something: When I say cattle ranching, I’m talking about raising grass-fed cattle in the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado, not encompassing the myriad feed lots that fatten beef not raise it. By the way, we sell most of our beef to Whole Foods, a grocer you are likely familiar with.

With that said, it is important to note that many individual partisans solidly against cattle have accused the ranching way of life of being an extractive industry — some even say destructive. It takes more than a little imagination to see things from that viewpoint, as everything the cow eats and drinks is sustainable. Her cloven hooves break up the ground and allow moisture and grass seed to repopulate the soil. The science on this is indisputable.

If one needs to put a label on ranching, as it appears some people do, it might be more accurate to call the raising of animals, including cattle, a consumptive use of land. Scenery, of course, is consumed along with untrammeled vistas; the simplicity of rural life and aesthetic enjoyment of the lifestyle all are part of the consumptive way of living. Where else can you enjoy an existence of rugged individualism every day without having to check in with someon like a boss or punch a time clock? The enjoyment of cattle ranching, unrelated to its tenuous ability to show a profit, is clearly not something that is economically quantifiable.

Ranchers aren’t the only ones who consume the legacy of ranching. We have the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program that is continually buying up open land for preservation. Driving or riding down the road, we all enjoy the scenery but seldom take time to think that those emerald panoramas wouldn’t be what they are without the efforts of livestock producers. Ranchers lease those fields, care for them, irrigate fertile bottomlands, run cattle or raise hay on them. If left to the government to manage, such open space likely would soon become eyesores full of weeds and brown, burned patches of dead grass. Through its own admission, the Open Space and Trails organization acknowledges it knows very little about agriculture. So the next time you get stuck behind a couple hundred head of black or red cows being moved down the road, appreciate the advantages those bovines provide directly to you, vegan or not.

The other day my friend Allison asked me what it was like to be able to ride a horse to work every day. I wasn’t really clear on the answer, for it’s not something I’ve ever really thought too much about. Since my first horse, Stardust, at age 4 or 5, I’ve always had a trusty steed at my disposal, some of them more trustworthy than others, but nonetheless horses go with the lifestyle just like lunch boxes and steel thermos jugs go with construction workers. Ranching is not always idyllic, but riding horses and moving cows is about as close as you can get.

It might take a special person to enjoy trailing cows up a mountainside or across open grassland, their nostrils filling with the smell of fresh sage, dust, cow shit, leather and horse sweat all mixed together in one wondrous arc, shifting across a slow-moving page of life.

But better than that, maybe, is the pure joy of following an open irrigation ditch full of water from the spring runoff winding along a mountainside high above sprawling hayfields down below. Nothing but freshness in the air under a cloudless sky, an irrigating shovel over your shoulder, a good mount with a fast-moving, enthusiastic walk between your legs, his ears cocked forward with keen interest, and the newly leafed-out aspens providing a canopy over the entire scene. I’m not sure it can get any better than that.

In the end, whatever arguments have fueled the opposition of environmental groups to grazing of introduced herbivores on public land (strangely, wild horses and burros are left out of this conversation), and made them brand ranchers as adversaries, the Thompson Divide story tells us that environmentalists and ranchers have, at long last, come together to face a true enemy of public lands — oil companies that drill.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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