Colorado grazier finds 50 steers a year is a good living

by Allan Nation

DURANGO, Colorado: David and Kay James invited me to sit and watch a late afternoon thunderstorm build over their ranch. Their patio overlooks a beautiful pastoral landscape. Blocks of cherry red cattle graze the dark green irrigated pastures in their proscribed paddocks. All around tall mountains soar in the renown "purple majesties" and the Animas River tumbles and gurgles along its boulder-strewn course.

In the near distance, a steam locomotive blows a long sad song for a highway crossing that echoes over and over as the sound bounces through the valley. David James cocks his head toward the sound, listens and then smiles. For the James family, life is good. Urban runaways from California more than 40 years ago, David and Kay have been able to turn a small (by Western standards) 550 acre ranch into a living not only for themselves but for four of their five grown children. They have done this by allowing others to "buy into" their pastoral vision by purchasing the ranch's beef, chickens and vegetables.

This "vision" was detailed in a newsletter to their customers. "50 years ago family farms lined the Animas Valley, cultivating the rich soil of the river valley to provide necessary food for the miners in Silverton and the town of Durango. People knew who grew their potatoes and asparagus and raised their beef; there was a relationship between the family sitting down to eat a meal and the family who grew the meal. We at James Ranch want that back, not only for the health of our family, but for the health of our community. We hope you will join in this vision."

The James Ranch currently forms a green roadblock that has effectively stopped the northward suburban sprawl of booming Durango and thanks to a conservation easement, always will. However, this required that they accept the reality facing many Western ranchers. In order to save the ranch, part of it would have to be sold for development.


To avoid the tax consequences of a one-time sale and to control how the development would look, the James family decided to slowly develop the town-side, southernmost 100 acres of their ranch themselves. They decided this development must be carefully landscaped so that it would not detract from the rest of the ranch.

David said he realized early on that if he stayed in commodity cattle production with a small ranch he would get trapped into losing the rest of the ranch to development. "We knew we had to get into high-value production to make a living once the development was completed."

He said Virginia grazier, Joel Salatin, provided a prototype that they have found workable and to which they have added a few wrinkles of their own. They have 150 beef cows, the progeny of which David sells locally as grass fed beef. "We don't put one drop of grain or purchased feed into our cattle. This makes the margins really great when they are sold direct. 50 steers a year produced and sold this way can make an excellent living for a family."

The majority of the beef is "harvested" in September and October although the ranch has started over-wintering some steers on winter range to provide an early summer kill as well. He said these older steers explode on the high quality spring pastures and are ready to slaughter after as little as 30 days of grazing. Steers weigh 900 to 1150 lbs at slaughter.

The ranch's production is marketed through an on-ranch marketing shed that is open one day a week and through the Durango farmer's market on Saturdays. Hamburger, which is the hardest product to sell at a premium price, is sold to local restaurants who tell the ranch's "story" on their menus. This menu story resulted in the sale of several hundred dollars worth of beef to a tourist from Connecticut while I was there.

The beef is quick frozen after slaughter and double wrapped in white paper for reliable freezer storage. It is sold as pre-cut split halves, halves and as a mostly steak "Premium Grill Package."


Durango has a permanent population of around 15,000. In addition, some 200,000 tourists annually ride the steam-powered, narrow-gauge railroad from Durango to Silverton through the incredibly beautiful Animas River Canyon. This railroad runs through the James Ranch albeit in a wooded portion that blocks the passengers' view of the ranch. At peak season, eight trains a day puff through the ranch providing great sound effects as they climb the steep mountain grade.

While David loves to hear the trains' daily whistling and chugging, the ranch's marketing efforts are wholly directed to the full-time residents of the town. "The name of the game in direct marketing is repeat business. We largely ignore the tourist trade," he said.

Much more important than tourism to the James' meat sales, Durango is a popular spot for wealthy, early-retirees in their 50s. These people are sophisticated, well-educated and very discriminating about the food they eat. It is this group that forms the core of the James Ranch clientele.


The cows are a mixture of Red Angus, Red and white Holstein, and Hereford. These cows are bred to Barzona bulls. "I am trying to get the body phenotype size down to make the cows more range-friendly," David said. As you can tell by the genetics he uses, he likes the look of a red cow on green grass.

"I feel like an artist," David James said. "I like to paint the valley with my cattle. I'm always conscious of how the ranch looks from the highway. We actually get phone calls from people who drive by every day on their way to work who tell us how much they enjoy the view we have created."

The cows are wintered as part of a herded, range co-op on a 46,000 acre dryland ranch. They are shipped back to the home ranch in May. David plans for the cows to live on the range year-round and the irrigated pastures will be used to grow and finish the calves and feed a seasonal grass dairy. "Our pastures have gotten too good to waste on beef cows," he said.

Two major breakthroughs on increasing his pasture quality have been cutting back on the amount of irrigation water he was putting on the pastures and fertilizing with phosphate and humates. (Humates are a near-coal organic matter that many believe release tied-up trace minerals and micro-nutrients in alkaline soil.)

"We just couldn't get clover to grow here and didn't know why. Allan Savory showed me that what I was doing was drowning my plants with too much irrigation water. Once we stopped flood-irrigating and started spraying the water on, the white clover just took off." The James Ranch uses no nitrogen fertilizer on its pastures.

Because the ranch is heavily used by elk in the winter, the James have been able to get most of their fertilizer and clover seed paid for by the state's wildlife habitat improvement program. All paddock subdivisions use temporary fence to prevent elk damage.


David is a strong believer in the division of labor and self-management. Every member of the family has their own "holon" or self-managed business that operates within the context of the overall ranch goal. The cattle are David's "holon."

Kay produces 1200 pastured chickens using Salatin-style movable pens and a rolling "bear-proof" hen house produces 70 brown eggs a day. She said egg demand is so great that they have to be rationed to their customers and she could easily sell three times her current number of chickens.

Daughter Jennifer and her husband Joe raise vegetables and flowers on a "subscription" basis whereby the customer pays for half of a season's production up front. Their division is known as Meadowbrook Farm at James Ranch. Jennifer has an internship program for college students who want to learn organic production techniques.

Jennifer and Joe are responsible for running the market stand and the farmer's market booth and plan to add a lodge to the ranch product mix.

"Kay and I want all of our children to live on the ranch, but they understand they will have to create an enterprise that will support them. I read that in England one farm had 1100 different enterprises utilizing different resources of the farm," David said.

On the market day I visited, the on-ranch market stand sold $2200 worth of product. This broke down into $900 worth of chicken, $200 of eggs, $800 of beef, $300 of vegetables and $80 worth of fresh-cut flowers. "Not a bad day," Kay said, "but we've had better ones."

In an unusual non-food related enterprise, daughter Julie and her husband Johnny raise landscape trees with an inventory of around 4000 salable-size trees. "A 20-year- old Spruce tree sells for $3000 for landscaping purposes," David said.

He said the ranch got into the tree growing and tree moving business for their own development and then spun it out into a separate business. The land between the rows of trees is used by Kay for chicken grazing.

Son Justin is in the land reclamation business. This has allowed them to leverage both their grass growing expertise and get part of their cattle wintered at a profit. "People will pay you big bucks to hay your cows on their mine spoils today," David said.

Son Danny and his wife Rebecca have developed the dairy and cheese business and thereby make a full-time "holon" for themselves. "We are producing a non-pasteurized, farmstead cheese. We want a product we can make during the summer, store and sell year- round," David said.


David said that good community public relations were the most cost-effective method of advertising. "You need to know your town. Who are the opinion makers? Who are the spheres of influence?"

David said the ranch has given away hamburger and eggs at the local garden clubs and is a member of the Chamber of Commerce. "Do the easy stuff first. I would exhaust all my public relations avenues before I started advertising." They concentrate their public relations efforts in the Christmas party season as that is when people are naturally interacting with each other.

The ranch is open for free customer tours in May each year and only then. Kay said they prized their privacy and did not want to live in a zoo constantly open to outsiders. The ranch has a slide show that they show to local civic clubs and organizations throughout the year.

"Our unfair advantage," David explained. "is that we have a beautiful ranch with highway frontage near a town of sophisticated people. What we have here may not work for everyone, everywhere, but it sure works for us."


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