Chico Basin Ranch—
Conservation Ranching in Colorado BY HEATHER SMITH THOMAS
fficient grazing has improved the land and pasture on the Chico Basin Ranch, an 87,000-acre ranch near Colorado Springs, owned by the state of Colorado and managed under a unique lease by Ranchlands—an agriculture-based business that specializes in the management of large ranches. Duke Phillips has a 25-year lease to run cattle on this ranch. “I am 15 years into this lease; I moved my family here in November of 1999. This part of the country has been in a serious drought for many years. I went to Allan Savory’s school in the early 1980’s when he was still with Stan Parsons and Allan is one of my heroes. I have been using his philosophy in my work ever since—for more than 30 years,” says Phillips. “Allan Savory has always been a big inspiration to me, since he has been a person who has always looked outside the box, and beyond the common, standard way of doing things. I learned about grazing from him, and also learned how to look at the land in a completely different way,” says Phillips. It has been this influence that has helped Duke build a profitable ranch in challenging times.
Cattle as Tool & Profit
Improved rangeland health is part of the necessary outcomes for the Chico Basin Ranch as cattle are used both for profit and as a land reclamation tool.
“I was raised in Mexico and have been ranching all my life, in Florida, Texas, New Mexico and Oregon, and worked in Australia for a year. Cattle are the backbone of this operation. Everything that we do here is paid for by the work that we do with grazing; we have a fairly diversified business, but the cattle are the backbone of the whole. They are the economic providers and the main tool that we use for achieving major conservation goals and values,” he says. “We do that by putting as many as 2,000 to 3,000 head of yearlings/cows together and moving them in a pattern that I call a migration around the entire ranch. We try not to return to a pasture until all the plants have recovered, so we try to rest every plant during the grazing season for the full cycle. It is important to provide enough rest so the plants that are grazed will regenerate enough root matter during the recovery period to go beyond what they had before they were grazed,” he explains. “Rest is a primary tool that we use, along with portable fencing to divide up the pastures to enable us to increase herd densities, especially in areas that need more herd impact to create more organic material on the ground. We have systems where we can put up 5 miles of fence in half a day. We have all our cattle trained to respect a single strand of electric fence,” he says. “During drought we try to put all the cattle together into one herd. At other times we may not do that because we might have 2-year-old heifers that need to be separate from the main herd. But the more severe the drought, the more we focus on putting every single animal into one herd and move that herd around the pastures,” says Phillips. “We no longer wean our calves. We just leave the heifer calves on the cows and they self-wean—usually when the weather gets really cold. The steers stay on the cows until January/February when we wean and sell them,” he says. “The heifers are growthier on this program and have higher conception rates, and also calve easier. They are more efficient grazers, learning from their mothers. This is a wonderful change that we’ve made 12
Land & Livestock
January / February 2015
in our cattle management, even though it’s contrary to standard practices,” he says. This last year, even though it was dry, he stopped feeding a high protein supplement, and the cows did very well on just mineral and a 5% protein supplement tub. “We’ll see what our conception rates are. We expect them to be normal, and if that’s the case, this will be a major change in our bottom line,” he says.
Duke uses Beefmaster bulls. “I worked for Lasaters for 10 years and brought a small herd of Beefmaster cattle with me when I started leasing this ranch. That herd has grown now, and all the bulls we use are our own. We use a lot of the Lasater philosophy of cattle breeding—basically survival of the fittest. For example, if a cow loses a calf to a coyote, we ship the cow; we don’t shoot the coyote. Or if a cow becomes anemic or does poorly because of lice infestation or some other pest, we ship the cow; we don’t spray the entire herd, or any of the cattle,” he says. “When it comes to grazing practices we are very progressive, and we also look at land as a multi-dimensional resource to leverage and provide more flexibility. Multiple enterprises help with flexibility. Conservation is only as good as your business is. If you get a dry time of year or a dry phase, you are then able to destock before you stress the land, because you have other revenue,” he says. This ranch has a guest operation for people who want a working ranch vacation. “We have 2 guest rooms in our home. People stay here and come to the headquarters in the mornings to work with us. It’s not a dude ranch. People judge the success of their experience here by how much they contribute toward the work that was accomplished that day. In our program, we don’t shepherd people around but create opportunities for them to participate and learn about ranching,” he explains. “We have a very strong education program, with about 2,000 kids that come through it every year. We have a full-time educator and we don’t charge any of the kids for this experience, except for the groups that come to spend the night and need more attention. Most of the kids come out here for about 6 hours and we have programs that revolve around grazing, nature, natural history, human history, etc. We also have workshops for adults and for kids on livestock grazing, plant identification,