Winter is a welcome visitor to our ranch this year. After a hectic fall, we are looking forward to the simplicity winter offers. Although the cold weather doesn’t usually make a rancher’s work easier, it does add a degree of predictability to the job. Spring, summer and fall demand taking advantage of every hour of daylight to fix fences, harrow fields, irrigate, harvest hay and gather cattle at a relentless pace. Winter demands feeding cattle on a daily schedule, and routine is allowed to take a front seat.
Although most locals can’t wait for that famous champagne powder to blanket the slopes, we can’t wait for it to cover the meadows so we can pull the feed sled through the snow and feed our cattle. Our day begins when the barn door opens and the black Percheron workhorses diligently stroll in for their morning grain. As they eat, they are harnessed with simple leather gear that will enable them to pull with amazing force and grace. Harnessing takes only a few minutes per horse — less time than it takes for a cold tractor to warm up. The horses then are led in twos to the feed sled equipped with runners that allow smooth pulling across the deep snow. Once they’re hooked up, they’re driven to the appropriate haystack where they patiently wait, steam rising off their backs, while we hand load a feed sled with about 6,000 pounds of hay.
Once loaded and following a stern voice command, the horses work in unison with a powerful tug that frees the sled from its ruts. The horses then fall into a routine, and together they pull the load through the snow. The cattle fall in behind the sled with the dominant ones keeping pace in an effort to get a taste of some green meadow grass hay before it’s pitched from the sled. We scatter the hay along a trail that allows the herd to spread out and eat without pecking order pressure. With the bells on the harness ringing, the snow creaking under the weight of the hooves and the horses’ labored breathing, it’s a melodic reminder of why we love what we do. After a few trips around the feeding area, we head back to the barn where the horses are returned to their respective stalls and allowed to cool off while they finish their morning grain.
Somehow, the routine seems to set the bar for the rest of the day, and we are energized but relaxed at the same time.
We are able to connect as a family and with our animals. We often say there is no better way to start the day than by feeding cattle with a team of workhorses. Winter gives us the opportunity to slow down and take notice of how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy this lifestyle.
Christy Belton is part of a longtime ranching family in the Elk River Valley north of Steamboat Springs.