Colorado couple turns healthy profit from healthy beef

  • David James

    Peter McBride

Ten miles north of Durango, Colo., the property lines of the James Ranch are obvious. Red cliffs, cottonwoods and the Animas River frame one side, while to the south, west and north, new homes and a busy state highway push on the fence lines.

It’s a common sight in many Western valleys: ranchers stubbornly clinging to valuable land, fighting debt and resisting the temptation to sell out for millions.

David and Kay James, the owners of the James Ranch, readily admit they are stubborn, but they are anything but common. For starters, they produce something rarely found in cattle ranching today — a profit.

The profit comes from a hot product — "grass-finished" beef — and a local marketing strategy that pays. Grass-finished cows stay on the range or in pastures their whole lives, so their meat is less fatty than that of traditional grain-finished cows, which spend the last months of their lives in feedlots. The results fetch premium prices: A piece of James Ranch tenderloin sells for a cool $19.95 a pound at farmers’ markets in Durango and Telluride.

"We can’t get enough meat to those folks in Telluride," says David James, a fit 65-year-old. "They buy us right out."

Sales have doubled each of the last three years, according to James, and the ranch’s products now go beyond local farmers’ markets to two delis, two restaurants, the Fort Lewis College lunch program and scattered Internet customers from Maine to California.

The Jameses’ path to economic success started with a defeat: In the 1970s, debt forced them to sell the south end of their property for a housing development. In 1992, when selling more land seemed to be the only way to survive, David James took a holistic resource management class from the Savory Center in New Mexico, which promotes new ways of managing livestock to make the land more productive. The family soon embraced a model of cattle production based on intensive, short-duration grazing of pastures, which Savory adherents claim stimulates plant growth for both cows and wildlife. Not long after, the ranch plunged into the small but growing market for healthy beef.

Today the James Ranch sells roughly 80 "fats" — steers fattened for market — each year. Instead of selling off more ranchland, they have bought additional grazing permits from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to raise more cattle. With some 220,000 acres of public-land leases in Colorado and Utah, the Jameses are now among the largest public-land ranchers in the West.

The Jameses have only recently extended their short-duration grazing practices to the public land they lease, and Mark Tucker, the range manager for the San Juan National Forest and BLM office in Durango, says he considers the methods experimental.

"The jury is still out on whether we’ll see any improvement" in the condition of the range, Tucker says, adding that the James approach demands a constant on-the-ground presence to monitor the cattle and their movements.

Kay and David say they don’t mind the work. They’re optimistic about their future, partly because they’re grooming a new generation of ranchers. Three of the five James children have returned to the ranch, and each one contributes in some way to the holistic plan of the ranch. The oldest daughter, Jennifer, and her husband grow organic vegetables for the farmers’ markets; second daughter Julie and her husband run a tree farm; and son Danny and his wife use milk from grass-fed dairy cows to produce aged cheese.

David James recalls, "People used to come by with millions asking to buy our place. Now they’ve stopped asking. I guess those realtor folks finally got our message: We sell beef."

The author writes from Basalt, Colorado.

This story is funded by the donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West’s private lands.

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