By cvlopez | email@example.com
IT’S 8 a.m. and Jim Higel is pulling around the tractor loaded with hay for the Saturday morning feed. His son, Greg, who runs operations, and their longtime employee and close friend Mitch Osteen are pulling into the driveway of the Higels’ 2,000-acre ranch west of Alamosa and their conversation quickly turns to the chores at hand.
Greg had been up earlier, at 1:30 a.m. he said, checking on one of the cows he was concerned about. “I thought the calf was backward the way she was acting,” he tells Osteen as they make their morning checks. “She had me worried. I almost called you.”
It’s a scene they’ve played out together every March for the past 60 years, nearly. Jim Higel just turned 83, and Greg and Mitch are going on 63. For the next two months of calving season, it’s a constant, round-the-clock check on the livestock, daily nurturing of the calves, and talking between themselves about which of the breeding cows to keep a watch on.
Greg Higel and his dad, Jim, have worked the ranch together since Greg was young.
CATTLE ranching, like other ag and farming in the Valley, is down in numbers. A 2017 census showed 87,937 cattle and calves in the San Luis Valley, according to the Colorado State University SLV Extension office. Greg Higel figures the Valley’s head of cattle total is about half of what it was 20 years ago when the drought started.
The Higels currently own 220 head of cattle, down from 250 in 2002. It’s a tough business with not much profit to be made – in a rare, good year you might clear $10,000 off 200-head of cattle. The drought has meant less water to grow hay, so Greg has had to buy hay three of the last five years, he said, adding to his costs. Most years he’s lucky to break even or show just a small loss.
The conditions are changing with the drought, and the temptation to sell operations to outsiders as many cattle ranchers in the Valley have done is great. The neighboring ranch is owned by someone in Arkansas, and other operations in the Valley have similarly gone the way of wealthy, absentee owners.
Greg Higel figures he could make more money by renting his pastures and working cattle for others. “There are very few guys like me that make their living doing it,” he said. “Most all have an influx of money somewhere with another job. These days you gotta have money somewhere else coming in.”
WHEN the sky is bluer than blue and the sun is beaming in the morning, it’s the pure beauty of raising cattle and tending to newborns that makes the annual season all the worthwhile.
The Higel ranch yields some of the most breathtaking 360-degree scenic views you’ll find on the planet, with the Valley’s 14,000-foot peaks punctuating the sky. While the Higels work 2,000 acres, they only own half of it. They had the foresight decades ago to commit 1,000 acres for conservation, and now the Colorado Parks & Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited control part of what Jim Higel and Greg Higel originally owed.
The beauty of Greg Higel’s arrangement with Colorado Parks & Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited is that he continues to graze and manage the conservation easements portion of the ranch on behalf of CPW and Ducks Unlimited. He’s worked out leases that let him work those acres so neither CPW or Ducks Unlimited has to commit their own staff to care for the land.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with as much knowledge about the lands of the San Luis Valley, the condition of the Rio Grande as it flows through the Valley, the nature of ditch riding and using the land to raise cattle and hay as Greg Higel. When he’s not ranching, he’s serving as board president for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, a volunteer position.
Breaking the ice at the river so the cattle can get to water, and getting hold of a newborn calf to give it medicine.
YOU’D also be hard-pressed to find a more pure and supportive father-son relationship than what you see with Jim Higel and his only son, Greg. Jim Higel’s grandfather was first on the Higel ranch back in the 1890s. Back then the Higel brothers – five of them – controlled around 4,000 acres between them. Some of the Higels, like Jim’s dad, liked cattle ranching, while others preferred to farm.
As older generations passed on, Jim and Greg would purchase and control more of what earlier generations of Higels started. Eventually, as conditions warranted, Greg guided his dad through the conservation easement process back in the 1990s, and then schooled the state on how to tie to the land the senior water shares that the Higels owned.
“I got to arguing about water,” he says of why the Higels were the second family in the San Luis Valley, not the first, to commit to a conservation easement of their land.
“They wanted to tie our shares to the land and make X amount of water come down. I said, ‘You can’t do it that way because shares don’t produce the same amount of water every year, and especially in a drought.’
“You get what the shares of the ditch produce, that’s it. That’s all you’re going to get that year, you’re not going to get any extra, and they were wanting specific amounts. It took two months to level that out. You couldn’t put a fixed amount of share-to-water because it’s not the same two years in a row. They just had a template out of Washington, D.C.”
The Higel ranch gets water from the Centennial Ditch, giving them some of the most senior water rights in the Valley. They also can get water from the neighboring Excelsior Ditch.
“We’re kind of unique, we don’t really ever run out of the water because of the way the priorities are,” Greg Higel says. Which makes it even more impressive that the Higels haven’t sold, given what they could sell for.
There have been times when he thought he would sell, but then he would think about his great grandfather, and grandfather, and his dad, and how the Higels have been on their land for 120 years, and he can’t really see himself giving it up.
“All my retirement, you’re driving on it,” Greg Higel says. He’s hopeful now that his youngest son, Alec, is expressing interest in coming to the Valley and working with him on the ranch.
He tells his son that there aren’t really days off when you’re a rancher, that you have to commit to the life and lifestyle.
There’s another reason Greg Higel doesn’t ever see himself selling and sees the Higel family continuing on.
“I got water to my headgate, and that’s worth all the money in the world to me.”
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