Legacy Ranch

Where Grass Comes Before Cattle

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Sandi Turecek (left) and her daughter-in-law, Page, tend to a portion of Stacked Lazy 3 Ranch's 500-head cow/calf herd. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Robert Lagerstrom)

As summer has begun, the weather is hot, the grass is green, and a cool breeze is more than welcomed. The work piles on in the heat of June, as does our growing need to conserve the way of life that we love. The distant chirp of the meadowlark and the soft humming of toads in the creek remind us of why we love what we do so much and the land that allows it." Twenty-two-year-old Page Turecek writes in her blog "The View From Under a Cowboy Hat" about the very heart of life on Stacked Lazy 3 Ranch: its native grasses.

Page is a native of Parker, Colorado, a Denver suburb, and is married to Tyler Turecek. Tyler is the son of Stacked Lazy 3 owners Keven and Sandi Turecek, and the younger brother of Travis. Sisters Missy and Jackye live in Nebraska but often travel back to the ranch.

"Tyler's and my goal is to honor and build upon what Keven and Sandi, and their parents started," Page says. "It's also our goal to hand down the ranch to our children."

Stacked Lazy 3 Ranch is cutting a memorable legacy. Keven and Sandi were awarded the 2016 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award for their work in restoring 3,000 acres of native grasses, building terraces, restoring waterways and planting thousands of trees, eastern red cedars and Rocky Mountain junipers among others. The award, sponsored by the Sand County Foundation, of Madison, Wisconsin, recognizes voluntary conservation by private landowners.

"We don't do this for the awards," Tyler says. "We do it because it's right. We don't want our legacy to be a rundown ranch."

Range Restored.

Stacked Lazy 3 Ranch is drained by the South Platte River and covers a wide swath of Colorado's Eastern Plains. Six thousand feet above sea level, a half-hour east of the Denver International Airport, the ranch copes with sizzling summers and the bitter bite of winter. On this summer day in 2016, a crop of golden wheat stands in contrast to an oncoming storm born in the Rockies. Beyond the wheat fields is 28,000 acres of native grass pastures, brushed with pretty shades of green.

On a clear day, the Tureceks can see the Continental Divide, west of Denver. The nearest town is Deer Trail, 546 residents today and once a bustling hub for grain, cattle and sheep. Keven's dad, John, operated a grain elevator, service station, restaurant and liquor store, and a radio station there.

"We farmed and ranched, then worked at the service station," Keven remembers. Cowboys once drove cattle from New Mexico and Texas to Deer Trail. The community is home to the first rodeo in the U.S. It was held on July 4, 1869 (although historians and cowboys in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas might dispute that). And, Deer Trail is home to a tongue-in-cheek proposal whereby the town would issue drone-hunting licenses. The proposal went down to defeat 132 to 49 in 2014—although the sentiment behind it might well remain in some quarters.

Travis manages the 5,000-acre wheat operation, keeping half of it in fallow every year. The soils of the wheat fields are protected from blowing and erosion by no-till planting and 55,000 feet of terraces. On the Eastern Plains, wheat and climate are in a constant struggle with one another.

One Good Harvest.

"I've seen 70-bushel straw with 8-bushel wheat," Keven jokes, sort of. He is thrilled with the crop he sees, now just two weeks away from harvest, but is worried, too, about the storm moving closer.

Stacked Lazy 3 had its best wheat crop in six years in 2016. Past crops fell to drought, freezing temperatures and a heart-breaking hailstorm that submerged one ripening wheat crop under 8 inches of ice. Ultimately, the ranch boasted 2,500 acres of good wheat.

Page and Tyler tend the cattle, inspect unending strands of wire strung on posts for 1,935 miles, and manage the grass. Five-hundred Angus-mix cow/calf pairs range the hills that bear native grasses—big and little bluestem, gamagrass, sideoats grama and buffalograss. "The grass has a lot of kick to it," he says. This was range once plowed and forced to produce often ragged grain crops at best. "But that's what they had to do," Keven says.

Stacked Lazy 3 heifers are artificially inseminated. The cows are bred by bulls chosen for good temperament and a modest frame. The result is calves—born at a rate of 10 to 25 per day during calving season—of modest growth rate. "That just works better in this country," Keven says.

He and Sandi tell visitors that grass comes before cattle. Together, they have restored thousands of acres of native grasses. "We identified certain areas of the farm that we wanted to turn back to native grass to stop erosion. It really wasn't the best quality farm ground to start with," Keven admits. The Tureceks manage their grassland closely, grazing only 50% of their grasses in a season. Calves and their mothers come off pasture at weaning.

Today, Stacked Lazy 3 and surrounding ranches represent the largest intact grassland operating this close to any metropolitan area in the country.

"If you watch, Mother Nature will tell you what you need to do," Travis says in the video produced for the Leopold Award. "I believe [that] to keep good range, it's management. It's keeping your cattle in the right place at the right time."

Then there is water. "Without water, you don't have much," Sandi says.

Rebuilding The Herd.

Water is a much-sought-after resource on the Eastern Plains. It is key to plans the Tureceks have for their herd. The ranch once grazed significantly more cow/calf pairs than it does today. But, a decade-long drought that began in the 1990s brought the ranch to its knees.

"It was about as dry as I've ever seen," Keven recalls, explaining that he and Sandi talked seriously about moving the entire operation north to Montana in search of fresh forage. Just 1.3 inches of rain fell on the ranch over an 18-month period during 2011 and 2012. The drought ended in 2013. By then, Keven had culled his herd to 280 cow/calf pairs. The Tureceks are rebuilding, adding about 100 cows and heifers per year toward a goal of 900 cow/calf pairs.

Keven and Sandi have improved the water resource of Stacked Lazy 3. The ranch includes 7,700 feet of water pipeline, with 15 wells, 11 storage tanks and nine solar-operated pumps. They have repaired ponds and stream banks, and have restored riparian areas.

With the assistance of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, they installed a 12,000-gallon water-storage tank, its pump powered by a solar panel. A pipeline from that tank gravity feeds four stock tanks. More stock tanks can be added to the line, if needed.

Water Conserved.

Keven has come to favor solar pumping systems. They are practically maintenance free, and with a float to turn water off when the tank is full, the systems are excellent conservers of water. Keven leaves the solar systems pumping in the winter to give mule and whitetail deer and antelope a source of water.

"When we started compiling stuff for the Leopold [Conservation Award], it's amazing how much you do over the course of 25 or 30 years," Sandi says. "Our ethic on conservation is that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you."

Keven adds, "We've preserved this ranch today to hand it down to [our children and their children]."

"This ranch," says Tyler, standing on a high knob looking down on pastures as big as Midwest farms, "has always been the carrier, it's where we want to raise our kids. One day, I'll be gone, and this place will be here with my family. That's what I want to be remembered by."

Page writes new lines in "The View From Under a Cowboy Hat": "Tonight, the air is soft and cool, the crickets chirp quietly outside in the creek, and the stars shine brightly over the eastern Colorado prairie. As I gaze out across the land, I'm overwhelmed ... I'm overwhelmed with the awesomeness of God's creation ... [Of] why we love what we do so much, and the land that allows it."

(AG)

Dan Miller