Saddleback Ranch achieves happy blend of yearling steers, tourism and 1,000 hungry goats
June 22, 2014
Steamboat Springs — You'd never know it unless you made the turn off of U.S. Highway 40 onto Routt County Road 179 and crossed the Yampa River, but one of the largest goat herds in Colorado is resolutely chomping on noxious weeds and cavorting in the lush spring meadows of the lower Trout Creek Valley.
Once you reach Saddleback Ranch, it's difficult to overlook the large herds of little white and brown animals dotting the hillsides. They appear to be everywhere — up on that verdant bench above the creek and over in that little draw.
When the Iacovetto family purchased four goats for their daughters about four years ago, it was solely to provide them with the lessons that come from caring for livestock.
"The goats have a personality, and they won't run the girls over," said their mother, Lane Iacovetto. "We wanted to teach them responsibility."
And she forgot to mention cute. One of the nannies, known only as No. 121, gave birth to quadruplets this spring. The four Iacovetto girls named them after characters in a popular animated film from last year — something about a princess, a pet reindeer and a snowman — called "Frozen."
"Their names are Elsa, Anna, Olaf and Sven," Makayla Iacovetto informed a visitor this week. Her younger sisters are Kiley, Lexi and Josie.
Not long after purchasing their first goats, Lane and her husband, Jerad, noticed that goats are the original weed eater. Elsa, Anna, Olaf and Sven were chowing down on plants that the ranch drops significant coin on to spray with herbicides from the air. That's when they purchased the goat herd of neighbor Tyler Knott (doubling theirs in size), brought in Ryan Wattles as a partner and watched the animals begin to multiply.
Jerad and Lane Iacovetto are part of a multi-generational family ranch about 12 miles west of Steamboat Springs in what could be considered rural unincorporated Milner.
Jerad's parents, Wayne and Luanna Iacovetto, purchased Saddleback Ranch from Luanna's father, Jim Thompson, in 1993 and continue to operate it. Jerad and his older brother Justin, his wife, Cara, and their two daughters, Bailey and Britney, work the ranch with Wayne and Luanna.
Wearing out unwanted weeds
This spring, the weeds at Saddleback Ranch are under siege.
"Weeds are here to stay; we just have to manage them," Jerad said. "Our top-three targets are houndstongue, white top and mustard. Goats will eat 75 percent of weeds and shrubs, but if you put them on (a pasture) after the cattle have already grazed it, that goes up to 85 percent."
Goats may be here to stay, too.
Routt County CSU Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said this week that as agricultural lands on Colorado's Western Slope become more fragmented, smaller ruminants like sheep and goats may become more suitable for smaller farms and ranches.
"There isn't a ton of research on goats, and that's why this is a cool opportunity," Hagenbuch said. "I think this is not going to be the rarity it is right now. I think it's going to become more popular. We'll need experts to manage goats' health issues and manage the range."
Ruminants are animals, like cows, sheep and goats, that consume plants by "chewing their cud" in a multi-stage digestive process aided by a four-compartment stomach.
Of course, the popularity of dairy goats is on the rise, and other goat operators raise them for their fiber, which can be made into highly sought-after yarn. But at Saddleback Ranch, it's all about controlling weeds and collecting some cash flow on the back end.
Longtime Routt County resident Pat Evangelatos also is in the business of keeping goats for weed control. She was in the Rifle area this week with members of her herd who were hard at work attacking a patch of blue mustard, kochia and cheat grass on a parcel of Bureau of Land Management land. The name of her business is Green Goat Patrol, and she specializes in larger projects, staying away from small residential backyards.
"This is a two-week project," she said about the job near Rifle. "What I do when I get to the property is set up an electric fence and netting (to contain the goats) in the target area. I'll stay on site for several days or weeks (living in her camper) and monitor the goats."
Evangelatos would not be in the weed control business if it weren't for goats.
"I'm allergic to chemical sprays. I can't even be around Roundup, so this has been a great alternative," she said.
Evangelatos has used Spanish bucks to tweak the genetics of her herd until the goats are very cooperative in the weed control effort.
"My goats know what's expected of them," she said. "Once you put it together, it's very rewarding."
Lane Iacovetto said her family is interested in doing the same and is in discussions with the state of Colorado about leasing their nannies at a rate of $1 per goat per nanny to help control a troublesome patch of noxious whitetop along the Yampa River between Hayden and Craig. The goats would be ideal in that situation because the use of herbicides that close to the river is out of the question.
The Iacovettos' goat herd is heavily populated with brown and white members of the Boer breed. But there also are a handful each of Nubian, Cashmere and Spanish dairy goats, representing an ongoing experiment to see which breed has the best traits for conditions in Northwest Colorado.
According to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, houndstongue competes vigorously with desirable livestock forage plants, and though cattle avoid its purple flowers and brown cockleburs, if baled into hay and consumed, its chemical compounds can stop reproduction of liver cells.
Colorado State University agriculture professor Steve LeValley, who specializes in small ruminants, said the persistence of goats actually wears out weeds like leafy spurge and whitetop.
"Cattle will avoid weed patches," LeValley said. "Goats are probably a little more aggressive with woody plants than sheep are. They'll eat brush and roughage that sheep don't prefer."
According to LeValley, goats wear down weed plants by continually eating their flowering tops. That, in turn, stresses the root system, which must provide the nutrition to re-seed the plant.
"Those plants continually struggle to put out new shoots, and that eventually depletes the energy in the roof system," LeValley said.
A non-traditional cattle ranch
Although Double Dollar Cattle Company, Saddleback's alternate identity, grazes 1,500 head of yearling steers on the 8,000-acre ranch and is known to many Routt County visitors for its multitude of recreational activities ranging from horse-drawn dinner sleigh rides, tubing and snowmobile rides in winter to wagon rides and horseback riding in the summer, it's the goats that are making a strong bid for a starring role.
"The tourists would rather look at the goats than the cows," Jerad Iacovetto said wryly this month.
It's hard to blame them. The kids trailing their nannies around the hillsides of Saddleback Ranch this month were more active and inquisitive than any beef calf — or maybe they just have attention deficit disorder. Whatever the case, goats in their first weeks of life are in constant motion.
Jerad bemoaned the fact last week that he was in between goat herders, and that meant he is having to rely on his Anatolian sheep dogs and his own patrols to keep the multiple herds scattered across Saddleback Ranch bunched up and safe from coyotes. He is spending a good deal of his time this month monitoring the goat herds to see that the youngsters don't get separated from the group and become easy prey for predators.
"They're like coyote candy. Come on babies, don't become coyote food," he urged while routing an AWOL band of about 25 kids out of the sagebrush. Once he had them moving in the right direction, he jumped into the saddle of an ATV to finish the job.
Iacovetto said that at birth, and for the first few weeks of their lives, the newborns are much more labor intensive than calves, And this year at Saddleback, there were 600 newborn kids to look after. He explained that barring a medical emergency, newborn calves spend all of their time in the pasture with their mothers, but goats are different.
For the first couple of days after birth, the nannies and kids are kept with other families in a 4-by-6-foot pen, then transferred to a larger pen for four days or so until, at 2 weeks old, they are turned out onto the hillsides in a larger group. A critical stage in the development of the young goats comes during the ensuing two weeks — that's the time it takes for the herd to coalesce into a tight group.
It's during this time that the youngsters are most vulnerable to predators, Jerad said.
When LeValley and colleague Dr. Charlie Davis, of the CSU vet school, came calling at Saddleback Ranch this spring, it was to give the Iacovettos some advice on medical care for the growing goat herd.
"They're doing a great job," LeValley said. "We just gave them some advice about injections and keeping the herd healthy."
Anyone for barbecued goat?
The male and female kids mostly are destined for different fates. The males can weigh 90 pounds when they reach five months in age. By autumn, they will be sold to a meat buyer who will have them slaughtered and sent to distant markets.
Goat is the meat most consumed on the planet, Iacovetto said.
The economics of goat meat goes something like this: The nannies produce 1.7 kids each year and the young males produce 65 pounds of meat that sell for about $100, so a goat rancher can expect to gross $170 annually per nanny.
Much of the goat meat from Saddleback goes to large metropolitan areas like New York, Iacovetto said. But LeValley said the increasingly diverse ethnicity in the Denver metro area has led to increasing demand for goat meat, or cabrito, as Latin Americans call it.
All but 50 of the young females will be spared from the slaughterhouse and will join their mothers feeding on hay during the winter in Hayden, Iacovetto said. They will be bred, and some of them will deliver kids next spring at just 1 year old.
LeValley said not that many Colorado cattle ranches are taking advantage of the potential of goat herds to blend in with cattle while controlling weeds in a sustainable way.
"My observation, coming from a cattle background, is that it's kind of a cultural thing," LeValley said. "Cattlemen have not typically integrated small ruminants into their operations. Some of them probably want to do it, but it takes special patience and a strong management system. Some cattlemen are not willing to take that on."
He agreed that some cattle ranchers don't have open minds to blending smaller animals like sheep and goats into their operation.
"People like the Iacovettos are out there doing it and providing an example for others," LeValley said.