Survival of the fittest: Garfield’s cattle industry continues to play crucial economic role
Despite droughts and long-standing concerns over access to public land and an aging cattlemen population, agriculture continues to serve as part of the economic groundwork in Garfield County.
Along with energy development and tourism, the agriculture business, which primarily consists of ranching and raising hay for cattle, is still thought of as one of the county’s top industries.
But unlike the volatile energy development industry, local ranchers say their business has been more static, providing some stability in the county’s economy.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference today in terms of when I got started 35 years ago,” said Frank Daley, a rancher in New Castle and president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the state’s largest industry advocacy organization. “We’re still here.”
That fact might be hard to believe for some. The region experienced several serious droughts in the past 15 years, with possibly the worst coming in 2002. Between 1997 and 2002, Garfield County’s cattle population fell by more than 14,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2002 agriculture census. It was one of the worst events to happen in the industry in recent years, recalled Pat McCarty, longtime extension agent with the Colorado State Extension in Garfield County.
“We lost a lot of numbers in 2002, and a lot of the older guys cut back their operations,” he said.
The water shortage, like most issues in the cattle industry, is neither new nor unique to Garfield County. Cattlemen across the state and the country have had to reduce the size of their herd and in some cases leave the business entirely, as it becomes harder and harder to grow hay needed to feed the cattle in the winter months. Since 1997, the number of cattle in Colorado has dropped from 3.2 million to 2.6 million.
But for the cattlemen who survived, the times are as good financially as they have been in years. The nationwide beef shortage caused by droughts has brought the price of beef above $2 per pound. While the number of heads has plummeted, the profits per cow have grown. Between 1997 and 2002 the market value of cattle and calves sold in Garfield County actually increased from $10.7 million to $12.9 million in 2002.
Gary Erpestad, operator of the Spring Creek Ranch just outside of Silt and former Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association president, said his income has doubled in the past year alone, which is good news for the local economy.
“It’s not just one time income,” Erpestad said. “You use that to buy tucks, fertilizer, feed … it really drives the economy. If you make money you spend it.”
The industry continues to feel the pain of continued dryness, but economically speaking ranching remains stable. The Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census pegs the number of cattle and calves in Garfield at 18,433, giving the county the 31st largest cattle population out of the state’s 63 counties. Cattle and calves constituted $12 million of the $22.7 million — up more than $400,000 from 2007 — in total market value of agriculture products sold in Garfield County, according to the 2012 census. Hay, primarily used to feed cattle in winter months, and other crops was the second largest value at $3.3 million.
Ranchers are quick to point out that those numbers cannot compare to the “make and break” economic impact of industries like energy development. In terms of land alone the total assessed value for oil and gas is $2.3 billion, compared to $23.8 million for agriculture — a number that trails both residential and commercial property assessments, according to the Garfield County Assessor’s office. With one or possibly several people operating an average cattle operation, the industry also will never likely stimulate the level of job creation supported by the energy sector, and since most if not all of the profits go back into the operation, the ranchers are not getting rich.
Still, Garfield cattlemen and people with knowledge of the industry point to the longevity of the cattle business as evidence of its importance. A passage from “Rifle Shots” states that in December 1904 the Rifle Reveille published a story with “conservative estimates” of livestock and produce shipments leaving Rifle by rail, including 22,800 head of cattle,.
“Certainly the anchor here has been cattle, but at many times there’s been very little profit,” McCarty said. “If you could keep the ship together you were doing very well.”
While the beef cattle industry might be doing well, concerns over an aging population and future access to public lands persist in the minds of many ranchers.
“The average producer is not a kid, and it’s really, really hard for a young person to get in the business unless they have a family in the business or a mentor,” McCarty said. “The cost is so inhibiting.”
For so long the ranching occupation was inherited, passing from one generation to the next, said Paul Bernklau, a rifle native who bought and sold cattle for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2010. Bernklau’s grandfather originally came to the area to help dig a ditch for sugar beets, but the project went bust. He turned to ranching, which was passed to Bernklau’s father and eventually to Bernklau himself. That seemingly natural progression has run into trouble in the past 50 years, with the younger generations pursuing more profitable and less demanding work.
“I understand why a lot of younger people didn’t want to stay with ranching,” Bernklau said. “It’s never positive, it’s work, work, work, do, do, do.”
Additionally, uncertainty over access to public lands, which many ranchers depend on for summer grazing during hay growing season, remains a large and crucial question in the West.
However, Daley and others believe Garfield County might be better poised than other Colorado counties to handle both concerns.
Unlike other areas of Colorado where conflicts arise between cattlemen and the federal agencies that oversee public lands, the two parties have had a long and healthy relationship in Garfield County, according to local ranchers. And in recent years around a dozen younger ranchers have started to establish themselves in the region.
Brackett Pollard is one of those ranchers, and he is one of the reasons Daley is optimistic about the future of ranching in Garfield County.
Like Bernklau and others before him, Pollard, a 31-year-old native of Silt, grew up with a cattleman’s mentality. After serving for four years in the Air Force, he went to school eventually earning a master’s degree in entrepreneurship from Oklahoma State University. He discovered after school that all the large investment banks he interviewed with were interested in his agriculture background.
“And I thought if some of the smartest people in business are interested in my background in agriculture maybe I should just use that to my own advantage,” he said.
Now in his fourth year of operation just north of Harvey Gap State Park, Pollard said he could not imagine doing anything else.
“I just got lucky enough to have an opportunity to do what I love to do.”
He, like Daley, is optimistic about the future of the cattle industry in Garfield County.
“I think the heyday of the cattle industry is yet to come,” he said.
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Five newly elected Rifle City Council members were sworn in Wednesday.