Steve and Rachel Allen's place is surrounded on three sides by deep canyons and the one road to the ranch requires driving on miles of dirt, but, when you're there, it feels like you're at the center of everything. Look north and down, and the North Fork valley from Austin to Paonia spreads before you like a map, with the foothills of Grand Mesa providing backdrop.
Turn west and there is the rim of the Gunnison Gorge, emphasized by the dead trees of a recent burn. Keep turning and to the south you see pastures and the rim of Red Canyon. Turn east and you'll stop turning and just exclaim. There the afternoon sun highlights the West Elks, framed by the Ragged Mountains on the left and Castle Rock on the right. East was the direction we all faced whenever we stopped to talk.
It is spring and there is snow on the mountains and the grass is green. Steve is showing us his sideroll sprinklers. "When I bought this place in 1977," he says, "most of the ground was just dirt. It was a dry year, and it was furrow irrigated when there was water, which wasn't often. Some of the ditches ran straight down the hill and cut deep." Steve didn't know much about irrigation then, but he learned fast and asked for help from places like the NRCS, and before long he had nine long side-roll sprinklers to help make his irrigation more efficient. He got some cows, and, after one hard summer, invested in a grazing permit in the West Elks. He'd spend his summers herding cows from horseback and his winters in meetings with the Forest Service, working with other ranchers to develop a Holistic Range Management plan. The ranchers all agreed to move their cows together and often to minimize impact on, and even restore, the natural habitat. Steve says, "We stumbled our way through it all. Some of what we tried worked. Some didn't, but relationships between the ranchers and the Forest Service definitely improved." Steve eventually sold his West Elk permits, but he continues to use HRM approaches on his Fruitland Mesa ranch. He moves the cows on his place to a new small pasture every three to seven days, depending on how fast the grass is growing, and he likes the results. The grass is healthy and thriving, even though he hasn't reseeded much of it in over 15 years. He no longer sees it as necessary to plow. He doesn't use herbicides or pesticides. The beef is grass fed and organic. The result is less labor, less cost, healthy soil and healthy cows. "These days," says Steve, "almost all of our hay stays on our ranch and there is more litter and organics on the ground."
Talk with Steve for very long though, and you'll notice that the conversation keeps switching from cows to goats. "I raise goats for meat," he says, "and I use them to control noxious weeds like leafy spurge and knapweed. They love spurge! And they can be trained to like knapweed. I run the goats through the pasture first to eat all the forbs and then the cows come in and eat the grass. It works well."
We help Steve lay out a contour ditch, and he keeps sharing things he's learned. He talks about a place west of the ranch where the grass is still thicker in the sage in the spots he used ten years ago to feed his cows. He talks about his increased water efficiency with sprinklers. He talks about what kinds of electric fences work best for goats. He tells stories about when he and others in the area used to seed clouds. He talks about the positive value of prairie dogs and predators. He shares strategies for keeping the nutrition in the grass high. It's obvious that he loves this life and loves to learn. "My operating principle is to make the best decision I can, assume I'm wrong, watch and learn," Steve says.
It's not until the end of the day though that we get to see Steve's biggest passion, training stock dogs. We visit his herd of sheep and goats and the three big white dogs that guard them, and he talks about how these guard dogs are trained and managed. While he's talking, he whistles to his border collie, who immediately loops wide to get to the other side of the goats and sheep and bring them to us, slowly, so as to keep them calm. About 50 goats and 50 sheep huddle together in a tight group. Steve turns to us and asks if we want to see what his dog can do. We nod. "Okay," says Steve, "I'll have him separate the goats from the sheep." He begins a series of whistles, and not more than three minutes later, all the sheep stand in one group to our left and the goats stand in another to our right. The dog stands in between and looks to Steve for the next challenge. Behind them, the shadow of a cloud races across the top of Mt. Guero.