Jo Stanko and her husband Jim owe their high country ranching lifestyle to his great grandfather who emigrated to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800's. He found his way to the center of this vast American continent and began building a new life for himself. At first, he worked in a coal mine while he accumulated enough money to buy a bar and a few rental houses. Selling it all, he decided to homestead some land near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, then a very rural community a hard days ride west of Ft. Collins.
The ranch was founded in 1907. "I don't know why he decided on ranching," said Jo, one of the newest Cattlemen's Beef Board members, "but today we have 640 acres and lease some additional pasture."
They started out ranching life as a grain, hay, cow-calf and yearling operation. It took just a few years for them to make a decision to convert to a hay and cow-calf business.
Today, Steamboat Springs is a very upscale skiing town, thanks to an annual snowfall that reaches 400 inches. The weather adds some interesting challenges to raising cattle. "We have just 90 days to prepare for feeding cattle," said Stanko, "and then we have to feed them for about 180 days.
"Cattle are universal animals," she said, "but they have to adapt to the climate. Around here, it's all about supplying them with grass and water."
Spring calving is complicated by the deep snow although Jo sees a certain advantage. "We can pull that calf out into some clean snow to process and tag it. It takes the mother cow a while to plow her way to her baby so we can do what needs to be done without a lot of interference. We also feed calves at night when calories are most needed."
Jim and Jo are the third generation ranchers, taking over the place in 1975. "We've worked the ranch the longest of the generations," said Jo. "Our son, Pat, and his family just came back - we encouraged him to do something else first, to make sure he wanted to do this for a living. We're working on a way to transfer ownership to him. We have a partnership now, but we'll form a corporation to take advantage of the business benefits. We've already prepared the way with Conservation easements."
Sometime in the near future, Pat and his wife Jan will take over the reins of that Centennial Ranch as the fourth generation of family ownership. Standing in the background as a possible fifth generation of Stanko's to become high country cattle ranchers are Jim and Jo's grandchildren, Taylor and Justin.
Jo has always been active in animal agriculture. She's served as co-chair of the Yampa Valley Agriculture Foundation and President of Colorado CattleWomen and she's the current secretary of American National CattleWomen. She's also a member of the Colorado Ag Commission, the U.S. Farmers and Rancher's Alliance and the Farmer's Union. Rolling up her sleeves for even more volunteer work, she works with the 4-H Scholarship Foundation.
All that work is driven by what Jo says is a "passion for the people and this industry."
"I appreciate the opportunity to be one more voice; a chance to talk with others and teach them about what we do," she said. "It's important to tell the truth about what we have and what we do. Too many people, especially in the general media, just jump on research and never really analyze the data."
Teaching has been her avocation of sorts, although vocation might be a better description. "I did it for 30 years, teaching everything from kindergarten to grad school. I'm really a retired school teacher, it's what I did to support our ranching habit."
Jo, who was appointed by USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack to the Board in March, will begin her two-year term as a member of the Nutrition and Health subcommittee. It's an appointment for a woman who describes herself as a self-educated nutritionist. An avid reader, she's well-versed in the subject and should be able to use her teaching credentials to help explain the nutritional benefits of beef to the public as well as people within the cattle industry.