DTN/Progressive Farmer's America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers program profiles Megan and Tyler Knott, Knott Land and Livestock/Trout Creek Meats, Oak Creek, Colorado.
Mama cows and their Hereford-Angus cross calves have already risen from the deep grass, their peaceful lowing echoes down the Upper Trout Creek Valley.
Morning's first light uncovers green native meadows bordered by oak brush and scattered sagebrush. Aspen groves and lodgepole pines look down into the turns and bends of Trout Creek, its headwaters in the snows of the 12,000-foot Flat Tops a few miles up the valley. Cottonwoods and box elder, alders and willows shade the creek, its quick riffles and cold pools habitat for wildlife and livestock, and for a rare aquatic quadfecta of brook, brown, rainbow and Colorado River cutthroat trout.
Two-hundred cows and calves were pushed down a steep dirt lane the day before to this fresh strip of timothy, orchardgrass and smooth brome. A couple of riders on horseback and their dogs, border collie and McNab crosses, rotated the herd to this place from well-grazed mountain pasture and snow-fed ponds. This will be home for two or three weeks, and then the herd will move again.
"We try to manage pasture by a different rotation system," says Tyler Knott, who manages Knott Land and Livestock, along with his wife, Megan, and his parents, Bernard and Debra. "I call it adaptive grazing management because sometimes topography, weather or certain climatic conditions don't allow us to have a perfectly structured rotation."
This is semiarid country -- 17 inches of rain on average, 120 inches of snow. Pastures vary from 100 to 1,200 acres at elevations of up to 9,000 feet. They're grazed by the needs of the ranch's cattle and sheep, to create grazed firebreaks or because Tyler and Megan defer grazing on a pasture to let native grasses go to seed and regenerate.
Their goal is to keep their livestock on fresh forage and fresh water from June through November, leaving enough vegetation to sustain wildlife and hold the moisture from melting snowpacks. Over winter, the cattle and sheep are fed with hay baled from irrigated meadows of timothy, meadow brome and orchardgrass, among others.
Sustainability and stewardship are foundational tenants of Knott Land and Livestock. The ranch's resiliency rests on income diversification. The Knotts sell fresh beef and lamb through their direct-to-consumer Trout Creek Meats, replacement sheep to commercial producers and high-quality wool for blankets from their purebred Rambouillet sheep. Tyler works with outfitters who offer archery and gun elk hunts, and fly fisherman who work the technical challenges of Trout Creek.
Knott Land and Livestock lies four miles up a blacktop road from Oak Creek, in northwest Colorado, then left on gravel for seven miles (cross three cattle guards, a visitor is told) to the Home Place. It's the 87-year-old headquarters for the sheep ranch founded by Courtney Ives and Emma (Gaskill) Ives (related to the Knotts by marriage) in 1936.
Tyler and Megan Knott are the fourth generation here, their two young children are the fifth. Ella is 7 and a sheep whisperer. Collin, 5, is by reputation able to deconstruct machinery but is less able to put it back together.
The Knotts' operation is a spread of 2,400 deeded acres backing up to the Routt-White River National Forest. With additional private and federal leases, Knott Land and Livestock totals 17,000 acres. The operation sustains 250 cows, 700 yearlings and 200 ewes, plus the purebred Rambouillet ewes and rams.
Ninety-eight percent of the ranch has been placed into a conservation easement held by the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, in nearby Steamboat Springs. Megan, in fact, has worked for the trust since 2008, serving as its director of stewardship. "It meant a lot to our family to make sure that this amazing property was protected," Megan says. "It's important," she adds, "to make sure that the agricultural base here in Colorado is preserved and available for the future. If we lose our ag land, we won't get it back."
Posting to Facebook about the ranch's most recent conservation easement agreement, signed on Oct. 4 this year, the Knotts wrote: "Today was an important day. We signed the documents to officially protect the last part of the ranch in a conservation easement. The decision feels peaceful. The wild will stay, coexisting with agriculture, free from development. Our children will know our land ethic and hopefully inherit it."
Tyler is adamant about protecting the ranch. "If it wasn't for our stewardship, the land wouldn't look like it is now. What it is today is not how it's always been," he adds.
The Ag Land Trust currently holds 750,000 acres in conservation easements. "I love the stories of this land," Megan says. "That old rancher who knows the exact time the elk start to come out on the ridge, or the time another rancher and his cousin shot the biggest bear they've ever seen. You see the passion these people have for the landscape, the wilds and their heritage."
Trout Creek Meats rose from COVID-era demand for fresh meat and gained marketing fuel from Colorado Governor Jared Polis.
In March 2021, Polis declared a "Meat Out Day," his intention to educate people on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
That riled just a few ranchers in a state proud of their life's work. "It means so much to us to be able to produce this healthy protein that can feed the world, while at the same time serving as a tool to manage this landscape, to reduce fire danger, to control weeds and manage riparian areas," Megan stresses. "To have this attack on producers, we thought that we needed to go into this kind of full steam."
"The biggest challenge agriculture faces is the disconnect between the consumer and the production [of food]. It's a failure on agriculture, and we need to tell our story better," Tyler says. "Trout Creek Meats is us telling our story."
Bringing school classes, the Girl Scouts and the like to the ranch is one way Megan and Tyler are telling their story. "We give tours. We share our management practices and tell them how important it is for these landscapes to be managed," Tyler says. "It amazes me how many times, like the Girl Scout troops, come out, and they're holding a little baby lamb. The moms want to go home with lamb chops. That's not something I ever expected."
Except for time spent at the University of Wyoming, where he earned a degree in rangeland ecology and watershed management, Tyler has always lived and worked the ranch. "Working with my grandparents truly instilled a love for the property," he says. "If I'm not out of the house by 5:30 in the morning and still not coming in until 9 o'clock at night, I don't think I've put in a full day."
Megan grew up in New Jersey. Her parents took vacations to Maine, where the family owned forestland. "That instilled in me a love for nature," she says. Megan has a master's degree in environmental management and forestry from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. Upon graduation, she worked in land conservation. Then, she hired on with the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, met Tyler, married and set about building a life and a family on a ranch in the Colorado mountains. Her mom and dad still don't quite understand it.
"There is so much history here," Megan says. Both sets of great-grandparents are buried on the ranch. "It's a rare thing today for people to grow up with such a deep sense of place. And, our kids are getting the opportunity to be steeped in history in a place that's still wild."
Tyler tells the story of a conversation with his dad about the day coming in 2036 when the ranch celebrates its 100th year. "My dad said, 'I want this to be a 100-year ranch.' I had never heard him say that, there was never a conversation like that. I always thought we could sell the place tomorrow," Tyler says. "But, at that moment, it brought it all into focus. Yeah, this legitimately could be a 100-year operation. And, the thing I can take pride in, it's a 100-year operation that is still a working ranch. It's not just that we've owned it for 100 years; it's been 100 years of working a sustainable, productive ranch."
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