The story of ranching in the American West is not just about settlement — it’s also about how a profession and industry drove a country from shore to shore. The prairies of the vast interiors of what would be the United States were suitable for ‘open range’ ranching, where cattle and sheep descended from European livestock cultivated by settlers were driven on long hauls.
Ranchers at Colorado Cattle Company say they maintain this centuries-old tradition today using tourism as a means of retelling history. While ranching faces its share of struggles in 2014, some companies refuse to abandon the proud history of ranching, leveraging tradition as a way to keep business booming.
Offering visitors a chance to experience the West the way ranchers from generations earlier did, Colorado Cattle Company says they stay true to authentic ranching whenever possible.
“Staying true to what made cattle ranching successful since the United States was founded is what makes us successful, and what our gusts come to us for. Its a unique experience for our guests, who get to see almost exactly what life was like over a hundred years ago,” a representative from Colorado Cattle Company says.
Founded by John Illif in the mid-1800s, the Colorado Cattle Company original ranch was situated directly on the route of the Goodnight/Loving Trail. Since the early 20th century, the ranch has been in the hospitality trade, adding to its main priorities in ranching.The ranch was featured in the 1991 film City Slickers.
Colorado Cattle Company, along with many other ranching organizations, faces problems that their predecessors may not have seen coming.
Environmental concerns brought about by climate change are already taking their toll on the American West. Wildfires are increasingly common.
In the Northwest, many ranchers have been contending with scorched hellscapes with no grass or fencing, causing many herds to disperse or become lost or injured.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association’s vice president, a rancher himself, described the situation as dire. He said that several ranchers have lost more than a hundred animals within the past summer. He added that what worries ranchers is the apparent increase in the length of fire seasons in recent years. In areas of the West, the fire season has been observed as lasting more than two months, leaving the forecast for future ranching seasons uncertain.
“[Ranchers are] going to have to find an entire grazing season to replace,” he said. “Not just two and a half months or three months.”
In Texas, the commercial and cultural hub of the ranching trade, cattle prices are at all-time highs while livestock numbers remain at all-time lows. Environmental issues affecting America’s plains and grasslands, such as worsening droughts and wind conditions contributing to wildfires, are making livestock survival a prime concern. Ranchers in the area report spending “up to three years” rebuilding herds after fires.
Structurally, despite record highs in cattle prices, the industry has struggled to expand.
In Montana, livestock production accounts for 40 percent of all agricultural sales. That means 1.5 million cows and 1.2 million calves statewide. Accordingly, the price of beef is experiencing an upswing. But with this added revenue, ranchers state that operational costs still make expansion difficult.
Despite these concerns, companies like Colorado Cattle Company are committed to preserving and maintaining a way of life not enjoyed by many in the modern world, sharing the historic lifestyle with its visitors.
“Our guests work as ranchers did in the 1800s: wake with the sun, run cattle for dozens of mile in a day, branding the new cattle. It’s really an incredible experience for anyone who is looking to do something a little different with a vacation,” a rep for the company says. The company even welcomes guests by way of stagecoach.
From the lifestyle challenges faced by ranchers of the last century, like isolation and the development of a hardy sense of resilience, to the food that guests are served, Colorado Cattle Company stands for authenticity.
“We strive to keep everything as authentic as possible. Especially the food. Sure, we serve margaritas, too, but steak, potatoes, and beans are a staple here. Bacon and eggs in the morning. We think the food is one of the most important aspects of our business and is important to our guest experience,” the company says.
The company acknowledges the diverse issues facing modern ranchers: “We run into the same struggles all ranchers are running into. Droughts are a big problem and so are all the wolves that are making such a huge comeback in this part of the world. But those issues come along with the lifestyle. We still believe it’s a lifestyle worth preserving and celebrating.”
Ultimately, while ranchers face undeniable challenges in cultivating their livelihood, organizations like Colorado Cattle Company defend the history and pride of the profession, prepared to face and overcome obstacles of all sorts in the years to come.