All in the family
Outside of Durango, Colorado, the James Ranch is using holistic management, direct marketing, and community involvement to build a sustainable livelihood for all the members of the clan.

By Courtney White
Posted September 28, 2004

Farm at a Glance

James Ranch
Durango, CO

Land: 450-acres

• Holstically-managed beef cattle herd
• Organic dairy including cheese-making
• Tree farm
• Organic vegetable operation

Land and community goals:
• Lands that are covered with biodiverse vegetation
• Lands that boast functioning water, mineral and solar cycles
• Abundant and diverse wildlife
• A community benefiting from locally grown, healthy food
• A community aware of the importance of agriculture to the environment
• Open space for family and community

For more information

The James Ranch
33800 US Highway 550
Durango, CO 81301

American Grassfed Association
P.O. Box 400
Kiowa, CO 80117
tel: 877-77-GRASS (877-774-7277)

One of the first things you notice about the James Ranch is how busy the water is.

Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is water flowing, filling, spilling, irrigating, laughing, moving. Whether it is the big, fast-flowing community acequia, the noisy network of irrigation ditches, the deliberate spill of water on pasture, the stately fish ponds, or the low roar of the muscular Animas River, take a walk in any direction during the summer on this 450-acre ranch a dozen miles north of Durango, Colorado, and you are destined to intercept water at work.

All this energy is no coincidence, either: busy water is a good metaphor for the James family.

The purposefulness starts at the top, with David and Kay James, but it extends to their children too. This summer their son Danny opened an organic cheese-making business on the ranch. On a recent tour, Danny explained that he had done a ton of research, including a visit to New Zealand to study an innovative design for dairy structure and function. He had run the numbers, created a business plan, done the marketing analysis, bought two cows, and even made trial cheeses.

“To make sure I wasn’t going to poison anyone,” he says with a smile.

Years ago David and Kay told their kids that in order to return home each had to bring a business with them. Today, in addition to Danny’s dairy, son Justin owns a profitable local BBQ business, daughter Julie and her husband John own a successful tree farm on the property, and daughter Jennifer and her husband grow and sell organic vegetables and plan to open a guest lodge nearby. Only one child, Cynthia, has flown the coop, though, fittingly, she runs the charitable giving program at a major corporation.

In an era when farm and ranch kids are leaving home in large numbers, what the James clan has accomplished is significant. Not only are the kids staying close to home, they are diversifying the ranch into a network of sustainable modern businesses.

It may, in fact, be a sign of the times that while David, by his own admission, is a “cow man,” his children are not. Instead, their attention is focused on the ‘Next West’ represented by Durango’s booming affluence and dependence on tourism. Whether it is artisan cheese, organic produce, decorative trees for subdivisions, or a lodge for paying guests, the next generation of Jameses has their eyes firmly on new opportunities.

In fact, spend any time on the ranch and it becomes obvious that if any family can clear a path into the future for agriculture and conservation, the James family can. That’s because they’re succeeding – earning a living, protecting critical open space, producing healthy food for local consumption, stewarding public land sustainably, contributing to the community, and having a good time doing it.

Building community

“The key is community,” says Kay. “Sure, we’ve been blessed by a strong family and a special place, but our focus has always been on the larger community. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘what can we do to help?’”

David James’ sense of community developed in southern California, where his father, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, lived the American dream as a successful engineer and inventor. David attended the University of Redlands, where he majored in business, but cattle got into his blood, and he spent every summer on a ranch. David met Kay, a city girl, at Redlands, and after getting hitched they quickly agreed on a plan: raise a large family in a rural setting.

In 1961, they moved to their current home and got busy raising five children and hundreds of cows. Before long, David secured a permit on nearby public land and began to manage his animals in the manner in which he had been taught: uncontrolled, year-round continuous grazing.

“In the beginning, I ranched like everyone else,” says David, referring to his management style, “which means I lost money.”

“In the beginning, I ranched like everyone else,” says David, referring to his management style, “which means I lost money.”

David followed what is sometimes called the ‘Columbus school’ of ranching: turn the cows out in May, and go discover them in October. It can lead to overgrazing, especially along creeks and rivers, where animals like to linger. Plants, once bitten, need time to recover and grow before being bitten again. If they are bitten too frequently, especially in dry times, they can die. Since ranchers often work on a profit margin of 1 percent or less, it doesn’t take too many months of drought and overgrazing before the bottom line begins to wither too. Grass may be patient, waiting for rain, but most bankers are not.

Through the 1960s and 70s, David’s ranchlands, and his business, were on a downward spiral.

“I thought the answer was to work harder, he recalls, “but that was exactly the wrong thing to do.”

Eventually, David became aware that he was depleting the land, and himself, to the point of no return. In the late 1970s, the family decided to sell and subdivide a portion of their property, visible from the highway today as “The Ranch.”

“I never want to do that again,” says David, “so I began to look for another way.”

Learning the lessons of holistic resource management

In 1990, David and his son-in-law, John Ott, enrolled in a seminar taught by Kirk Gadzia, a certified instructor in holistic resource management. They learned about “planned grazing” – a method of cattle management that emphasizes tight control over the timing, intensity, and frequency of cattle impact on the land.

“Timing” means not only the time of year but how much time—often measured in days, not months—the cattle will spend in a particular paddock. “Intensity” means how many animals are in the herd for that period of time. “Frequency” means how much time the land is allowed to rest before the herd returns. And it’s all carefully mapped out on a chart, which is why it is called “planned grazing.”

It has other names – timed grazing, management intensive grazing, rapid rotational grazing, short duration grazing, cell grazing, and/or the ‘Savory system’ – after the Rhodesian biologist who came up with the idea. Observing the migratory behavior of wild grazers in Africa, Allan Savory noticed that nature kept animals on the move for a reason – to give plants time to recover.

Savory also noted that too much rest was as bad for the land as too much grazing. In dry climates one of the principal ways old and dead grass gets recycled is through the stomachs of grazing animals, including deer, antelope, bison, or cattle. Fire is another way to recycle grass, though that can be risky business in a drought. Either way, Savory’s insight was to manage animals in a manner that resembled nature’s model.

Today, in contrast to the ‘Columbus school’ of grazing, most “planned grazing” ranchers bunch their animals together into a single herd and move them to a fresh pasture every seven to ten days or so – often not returning them to any particular piece of ground more than once or twice a year. The method of control varies – some use electric fencing, some use a herder, some manipulate water and salt to move their cattle – but all aim at the same objective: to mimic the behavior of migratory ungulates.

For example, David moves his cattle every two days on his irrigated ground. “We do not want to bite a plant twice when it is trying to grow,” he says. “Our experience is that this orchard grass will try to start regrowing in three days. We want to keep the height down so we have clover and low lignin in the grass.”

As David and Kay James will tell you, however, the most important lesson they learned from Kirk was that their problem wasn’t with their knowledge, skills or energy. What was lacking was the proper goal for their business.

“We really didn’t have a goal in the early days,” notes David, “other than not going broke.”

The question of a proper goal wasn’t just about money either; it extended to their social and family lives as well.

“We learned,” says Kay, “that as a family we have a common desire to live in harmony with each other and to keep the land in our trust as open space as a home for our extended family.” This can be difficult and can require a great deal of unselfish courage, she says. “The reward is, however, that as we get better at expressing those positive living qualities, we are making a better ‘climate’ for our family, our community, and our world.”

Setting goals and priorities as a family

In other words, for the Jameses, as for nearly every ranch family, it comes down to quality-of-life issues. With that in mind, the entire James gang (David thinks he might be related to the famous outlaw) sat down to compose a goal statement. It reads:

“The integrity and distinction of the James Ranch is to be preserved for future generations by developing financially viable agricultural and related enterprises that sustain a profitable livelihood for the families directly involved while improving the land and encouraging the use of all resources, natural and human, to their highest and best potential.”

Apparently it worked. David started with a small lease on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and 100 cows; today he runs cattle on 220,000 acres of public land across two states. He has permits to run as many as 2700 AUMs (Animal Unit Months – or approximately how much forage a cow-calf pair can consume in a month) and is one of the largest permittees on the San Juan National Forest.

Using the diversity of the country to his advantage, David grazes his cattle in the low (dry) country only during the dormant (winter) season; then he moves them to the forests before “finishing” them on the 400 acres of irrigated pasture of the home ranch.

That’s enough to keep anybody incredibly busy, of course, but David complicates the job by managing the whole operation according to planned grazing principles. Maps and charts cover a wall in their house. But David doesn’t see it as more work.

“What’s harder,” he asks, “spending all day on horseback looking for cattle scattered all over the county, like we used to, or knowing exactly where the herd is every day and moving them simply by opening a gate?”

“What’s harder,” he asks, “spending all day on horseback looking for cattle scattered all over the county, like we used to, or knowing exactly where the herd is every day and moving them simply by opening a gate?”

Besides, David notes, it’s all about attitude. And goals. “It isn’t just about cattle,” he says, “it’s about the land. I feel like I’ve finally become the good steward that I kept telling everybody I was.”

And the goals keep coming. Recently, the family developed a vision for their land and community 100 years into the future. It looks like this:

  • Lands that are covered with biodiverse vegetation
  • Lands that boast functioning water, mineral and solar cycles
  • Abundant and diverse wildlife
  • A community benefiting from locally grown, healthy food
  • A community aware of the importance of agriculture to the environment
  • Open space for family and community

And they have written out the lessons they have learned over the past dozen years:

  • Imitating nature is healthy
  • People like to know the source of their food
  • Ranching with nature is socially responsible
  • Ranching with nature gives the rancher sustainability

Marketing grass-fed beef

But like the busy water at work on their home ground, David and Kay keep moving. Sensing an opportunity ten years ago, David and Kay decided to convert part of their cattle operation to the production of grassfed, or “grass-finished” as they call it, beef – meat from animals that have eaten nothing but grass and milk from birth to death.

This was a big step because nearly all cattle in America end their days being fattened on corn (and assorted agricultural byproducts) in a feedlot before being slaughtered. Corn enables cattle to put on weight quickly, thus increasing profits, while also adding more “marbling” to the meat – creating a taste that Americans have come to associate with quality beef.

The trouble is, cows are not designed by nature to eat corn, so they require a cornucopia of drugs to maintain their health. And as author and researcher Jo Robinson likes to remind people, “If it’s in the feed, it’s in the food.”

But why take a gamble on grass-finished food? David points to another quote from Robinson: “When grazing animals are raised on their natural diet of grass instead of grain, their products are lower in 'bad' fat and calories, but higher in potentially lifesaving 'good' fats. Grass farming is healthier for animals, for farm families, for consumers, and for the planet.”

And there’s a final reason: not only is grass-finished better for the animals, for the consumer, and for the land, it’s more consistently profitable than regular beef. That’s because ranchers can direct market their beef to local customers, thus commanding premium prices in health-conscious towns such as Durango. It also provides a direct link between the consumer and the producer – a link that puts a human face on eating and agriculture.

For David and Kay this link is crucial – it builds the bonds of community that hold things together. Before starting, however, they decided to take Jo Robinson’s advice and taste the product themselves.

“It’s the first thing you do,” says David, “because if you don’t have absolute confidence in the product, it won’t sell.”

They butchered a steer and served hamburgers and steaks to the family. This was important because grass-fed beef does taste different than grain-fed beef. It passed the family taste test with flying colors.

The James family then took a critical second step: they invited the community, including important Durango decision-makers, to their ranch for a big party and taste test. It worked. With a “thumbs up” from the community, David and Kay set to work on a business plan, doing market research and conducting focus group tests. They took out ads in the paper and began sponsoring the local public radio station in an effort to raise visibility.

That worked too. In fast-growing Durango, many residents quickly became aware that the James Ranch protected vital open space north of town. They were keen to see things stay that way – a fact that David and Kay turned to their financial advantage when they began marketing.

The next step was to begin selling the beef at the local farmers' market.

“Not only was it profitable,” says David, “but it was a great way to meet our customers and begin to build relationships.” David and Kay guarantee their beef – if a customer has a complaint, they address it immediately, even if it means taking meat back.

It hasn’t been necessary. “In ten years,” notes Kay, “we’ve only had to take back our meat from three customers.”

“When local people are supporting local agriculture,” says David, “you know you’re doing something right.”

Today, they sell their beef at three grocery stores and seven restaurants in town, at the weekly farmers' market, and over the Internet, enjoying sales from Maine to California. The margins turned out to be so good that David and Kay have shed their other businesses to concentrate their considerable energies on expanding the James Ranch Grass-Finished Beef operation. Best of all, they know they have helped maintain a sense of community in the region.

“When local people are supporting local agriculture,” says David, “you know you’re doing something right.”

Thumbing through a small stack of information gleaned from David and Kay, I found a quote that seemed to sum up not only their philosophy, but also that of the New Ranch movement in general, and the optimism it embodies. It came from a wall in an old church in Essex, England:

A vision without a task
Is but a dream.
A task without a vision
Is drudgery.
A vision and a task
Is the hope of the world.

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