DTN/Progressive Farmer's America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers program profiles Travis and Sarajane Snowden, Toponas, Colorado.
Travis and Sarajane Snowden unload a pair of saddled quarter horses. The fourth-generation Colorado ranchers are checking late-summer pasture at 9,000 feet -- hay meadows of the Egeria Valley spread out below, the snow-bare Flat Tops Mountains framing their horizon. Blue grama, wild rye and highly palatable mountain brome produce rich forage packing 2 pounds per day onto their Angus-cross calves. Now, as early-season snows dust the summits of Colorado's towering mountains, it's time to move the Snowden Cattle LLC herd to greener meadows and, soon, several hundred miles east to Holyoke to winter on cornstalks. One season flows into another.
"This lease pasture is paramount for cattle operation," Travis says. "The pasture fits directly into our rotation, bringing the cattle home from cornstalks, [April] calving, summer grazing and prep to ship in the fall."
The Snowdens manage 500 cow/calf pairs and replacement heifers a few miles outside Toponas, a no-stoplight town in the Yampa Valley with a couple dozen souls, a post office and general store. There is change here. Coal mining, once an economic driver, is a dying industry. A similar story is being written about logging. Wealthy urban refugees are new arrivals, staking out land for ranchettes with homeowner associations. The influx drives up land prices. Property with a good mix of pasture and hay brings as much as $3,000 per acre. The average value of pasture in Colorado is $875 per acre.
Travis and Sarajane lend their talents to nearby King Creek Ranch, where they manage a private accumulation of land owned by investors. King Creek is their "nine-to-five job," they explain, providing income to expand their own herd. Sarajane runs a bookkeeping and tax-preparation business.
BUILDING THEIR RANCH
"I think our long-term dream," Sarajane says, "is to be 100 percent [ranching]. God brought us together and has given us opportunities. We're praying for the next step. When it comes, we'll know it."
These highlands sustain beef and elk hunts. A single cutting of hay is all that can be harvested in the short growing season. "We have about four months of growing season and eight months where it's muddy or winter," Travis says. "We have a whole lot going on in those four months."
Water is key to everything. The Snowdens' cattle and pasture drink from a water resource built by earlier generations. So great was the value of spring snowmelt the couple spent their short summers "ditching," building miles and miles of irrigation ditches with old plows and homemade ditchers to bring snowmelt down from the mountains to pastures and meadows.
"Water in northwest Colorado is the heartbeat for what we do -- for producing hay and cattle," Travis explains. He knows water law and carefully monitors its flow to his cattle. "It's a battle keeping data points on water rights, making sure they are up to date, that our adjudications (settled claims for water rights) are where they need to be. Without good, clean water, the cattle won't gain or even survive."
It takes a sturdy animal to live in a high elevation. "If you brought cattle up here straight from Texas, many would not survive," Travis says. Cattle from lower elevations risk brisket disease, a thickening of the heart's arterial walls, causing the heart to work harder. Cattlemen use a pulmonary arterial pressure test (PAP) to understand the propensity of a bull to encounter brisket disease. The lower the PAP score, the less risk of the disease and higher the elevation the animal can live. "Bulls walk up and down these mountains breeding cows. They have to stay sound to do their jobs," he says.
"We focus our bull power on many genotypes, but the PAP score is one of the key areas we look at when selecting bulls." The Snowdens have made the investment in bulls with low PAP scores. "We have put better bulls onto our cows, and we've improved the quality of our calves. We hope the buyers see that," he says.
The Snowdens are beginning to retain their own replacement heifers. They send weaned calves out to Torrington, Wyoming, where Sarajane's sister and her husband manage them during the winter.
Sarajane and Travis were happy with the result. "They've just bloomed, and I'm really excited to see how they do as mothers," Sarajane says. "As we fine-tune our herd, this is going to be a good test to see if we're on the right track, for good carcass trait and good maternal traits."
DIRECT TO CONSUMER
The Snowdens are directing some of their sparse spare time to their newly founded Snowden Meats. Along with Travis' father, Bob Snowden, they are finishing beef for direct sales to consumers. There has been quick demand. Sarajane believes COVID-19 put early legs under the business as consumers faced beef shortages. Plus, she has found a general fondness among consumer for buying local.
"We think consumers want to know where their meat comes from," says Sarajane, who has quickly dug into marketing strategies and consumer preferences. Snowden Meats is currently selling in Steamboat Springs and in Vail, and at nearby Antlers Cafe and Bar, a Yampa restaurant highly popular among locals and tourists. "It was exciting to have a local restaurant feature our meat during their fall burger nights," she says. "[Customers] were posting pictures of their tasty burgers, exploding Snowden Meats' social media presence."
The Snowdens are a busy crew -- cattle, land management, new meat business and raising two children. Katelyn is 5 and Wyatt, 3. "There's always something we can do with the kiddos out here," Sarajane says. "Checking cows, taking out salt mineral, fixing fence -- they pretend that they can really drive a staple into wood. They can't," she says, smiling at the thought of their young effort.
The Snowdens say they are blessed by their extended families as they raise their own family and build a business. "We all have been able to create a win-win scenario that keeps each party happy and our business relationships expanding," Sarajane says.
"This [cattle operation] wouldn't work without family," Travis says. "Agreed," Sarajane adds. "Uncle Mark [Logan] has just been huge in helping us." Logan holds a large land lease and subleases land to Travis and Sarajane. "He is also huge in helping us calve and execute the management plan for our personal herd. We calve on great, great grounds because of him," Travis explains.
His father works at another ranch where they lease land, and he runs more Snowden cows. "My father, Mark Rossi" Sarajane says, "has been huge in advising us on our financial decisions and has shared his contacts with us for cattle reps, hay reps and truckers." The mothers and grandmas will watch the kids at the drop of a hat.
Travis looks to a day when he might pass the cattle business to Katelyn and Wyatt to build their own legacy and grow the family's footprint on Snowden land. "It's important for them to know how to work with family, Uncle Mark, my mom and dad," he says. "And, they should know we ride in the same valley as my grandfather, hunting elk as he did, running cattle on some of the same exact dirt that he did. For them, I think ranching in Colorado will be magical."
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