In many ways, life on the San Isabel Ranch, in southern Colorado at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, remains as it was over 100 years ago. Owners Sara Shields and her husband Mike use cell phones and computerized records, but they still rise before the sun, saddle their horses and spend the day caring for their cattle and the land that sustains them.
Shields’ great-grandfather started the ranch in 1872, initially focusing on securing water resources in the Wet Mountain Valley and growing hay for the horses and mules that accompanied the influx of miners to the area. Eventually, her grandfather began raising sheep to utilize unsold forage, and later switched to cattle.
Her father, veterinarian Ben Kettle, shifted the ranch to purebred Hereford breeding, and today the operation has evolved to specialize in bred replacement heifers along with commercial feeder calves and commercial hay production.
For generations, the family has viewed land stewardship, water conservation and community involvement as critical priorities and totally compatible with their cattle business. In 2007, the family received the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award, presented by the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation. The award is named for conservationist Aldo Leopold, whose book A Sand County Almanac pioneered concepts of land stewardship.
Shields says the ranch needs about 12 acres of land per head to maintain good forage productivity. To maintain that productivity, the family has focused on range management and timed, rotational grazing.
The family has shifted part of the herd to a fall-calving system as a means of diversifying its marketing opportunities for bred replacement heifers and feeder steers, and to optimize forage utilization.
The spring-calving cow herd is primarily straight-bred Hereford, with some Hereford-Red Angus crossbred cows. The family breeds first-calf heifers back to Red Angus bulls. The spring-calving herd is bred beginning in July for a 53-day calving season in April and May.
The fall-calving cow herd is primarily Angus-Red Angus crossbred cows, which they mostly breed back to Red Angus bulls, although some customers request heifers bred to Hereford bulls. The fall-calving herd calves around Sept. 1.
The goal for both herds, Shields says, is to produce replacement females with excellent calving ease, maternal traits and efficiency in mountain rangeland conditions. “We use the same replacement heifers in our herd as the ones we sell,” Shields says. Most customers are working to improve the genetic makeup of their cow herds while avoiding the labor and expense of raising all their own replacement heifers. Many, she says, retain the heifer calves from the replacements they purchase, which Shields says is a gratifying sign of their confidence in their genetic merit.
Focusing on fertility and nutrition, the ranch has achieved excellent results, with 70 percent of the cow herd calving within the first 21 days and 90 percent within the first 45 days of the calving season over the past 10 years. The tight calving season reduces labor at calving time and provides value to customers who purchase replacement heifers.
During the final trimester of gestation, the spring-calving cows begin receiving some supplemental hay in addition to protein tubs, which are available through the winter. After weaning, the cows are on their own, unless heavy snowfall prevents grazing, in which case the ranchers deliver hay. In the fall-calving herd, the cows receive no pre-calving supplements other than mineral tubs, and good availability of fall forage keeps them and the calves in good condition heading into winter. Shields says they will feed hay to the cows and fall-born calves to help them through the coldest part of the winter.
The family uses individual identification and maintains individual records and full traceability on all cattle, using generations of records for genetic-selection, marketing and management decisions.
They sometimes retain ownership of their steer calves through finishing, and sometimes sell them, depending on grain prices and market conditions. In either case, they precondition and bunkbreak the calves for 30 days after weaning and work with a feedlot that provides individual performance data, which they use to ensure genetic selection on the ranch produces desirable feeder steers as well as replacement heifers.
Illustrating her sense of responsibility to the ranching community, Shields has become a prominent spokesperson for the beef industry, speaking to nonagricultural groups around the country. She recently presented at an event in Denver hosted by the Colorado State University and the Colorado Beef Council. The conference, titled “Beef + Transparency = Trust,” targeted influencers such as consumer media, food writers, nutritionists and food-business executives, intending to provide objective, honest and factual information about modern beef-production practices and the reasons behind them.
“You need to understand the heart of the rancher to understand the industry,” she told the audience. Using photographs of ranch activities, Shields described how the family cares for cattle, trading all-night shifts during calving season, using a tractor to plow paths through the snow to deliver feed during blizzards and provide stewardship seven days per week, 12 months of the year.
Recently, the couple launched a new enterprise, renting a restored ranchhand cabin to vacationers. The rental provides income to the ranch while offering urban guests a chance to see and learn about ranch life.
While many aspects of beef production and land management continue to change with the times, Shields tells visitors and non-agricultural audiences that ranchers preserve a long-standing tradition of caring for their animals, the land, the water and native wildlife. The future of ranching, she says, “will still be about wise use of resources and will still be about family. Ranching families represent a vanishing breed. Families living on the land for centuries, in the same home, providing leadership and commitment to the communities they affectionately call home now represent just a fraction of our population.”