XK Bar Ranch

Seven-month Ranching Apprenticeship in Crawford, Colorado

At the XK Bar Ranch we raise and direct market grass-fed beef.  These days our herd ranges between about 20 – 40 animals as we buy weanling calves from local ranches then grow them out for  12+ months on irrigated pastures.  Every couple of months  two or three beeves are sorted off the herd, hauled to a nearby USDA processor then the frozen beef is brought back to freezers at the home ranch.  The cuts are sold at Farmers Markets, local stores, direct from the ranch and through home deliveries.  Also some beeves are sold as carcasses.

I’m Tony Prendergast, owner of Sunshine Beef (sunshinebeef.com) and primary operator of the XK Bar Ranch.  I started raising and selling grass-fed beef in 2011, starting with just 2 calves.  My goals as a rancher are to continue growing and developing the business into a sustainable livelihood while producing healthy food in a way that stewards the land, animals and wildlife and contributes to the local community.

This apprenticeship offers the opportunity to work closely with me on every aspect of running and developing a small, from the ground up, grass-fed beef ranch and direct marketing business.

XK Bar Ranch

 Twenty-four years ago we bought a 260 acre property and started the XK Bar Ranch.  To facilitate the purchase we formed a land-owning cooperative comprised of 4 different families.  Today we are still 4 families; one partner doesn’t live on the ranch but tends a 3 acre apple orchard here, another partner lives on the ranch with his teenage son and works in town, my son lives here and works from a home office as an architect, and I live here and tend the ranch.  There is also a partner who doesn’t live here and is interested in selling her shares.  I lease the ranch lands from the cooperative to run my herd.

 The ranch lands consist of 86 acres of irrigated hay fields and pastures, with the rest of the acreage being pinyon/juniper hills.  The ranch lays against the foothills of the West Elk Mountains so provides significant wildlife habitat.  Part of the ranch is in a conservation easement.  I also lease another 280 acre ranch about 5 miles away that is mostly irrigated hay fields and pastures, and includes a stretch of a perennial creek and riparian cottonwood gallery.  The cattle are mostly kept on the leased ranch, and we spend a lot of time there irrigating, haying and moving electric fence.

  My ranching and land stewardship practices are closely aligned with regenerative agriculture principles.  Cattle are 100% grass-fed on polyculture pastures.  I don’t apply commercial fertilizers nor use herbicides.  Grazing management thru extensive use of electric fencing, timing and pasture rotations is our primary tool to sustain and improve land health and continue building healthy soils.  We cut hay from the same fields that the cattle graze to feed them thru the snowiest winter months.  

     The ranch is located at 6800’ elevation right below the West Elk Wilderness.  To the west is the Black Canyon National Park.  The surrounding area is mostly ranches interspersed with smaller acreage residential properties.  



The Mentor

  My grandfathers were both ranchers/farmers.  I spent part of my childhood on a small family ranch and started working on neighboring ranches when I was 13.  At the age of 17 I embarked on a long horseback pilgrimage around the southwest that led to working as a cowboy on a vast open range cow outfit in Utah.  I always dreamed of having a ranch of my own, but took a long winding road to get here.  For many years I worked as an Outward Bound instructor and carpenter/builder.  In my early thirties I envisioned and pulled together our land owning cooperative that led to the XK Bar Ranch, but while raising a family I wasn’t able to make a living starting up a ranch operation, so leased the ranch lands to a neighbor.  In the meantime I worked as a Wilderness Ranger for the Forest Service and ran a wilderness hunting guide & outfitter business.  Along the way I built an off-grid passive solar strawbale/adobe house and served for several years on the board of the regional Electric Cooperative and the County Planning Commission.  Currently I am the president of our local ditch company.

 Once my children were raised I bought a couple of calves to try my hand at grass-fed beef.  Since then I have been slowly growing the herd, developing a customer base,  making all the mistakes, getting whacked down by drought, regrowing the herd…  It is a lot of work for relatively little financial return, but I love it.  Being my own boss, working with animals, working with people, spending lots of time in nature, doing something meaningful every day, the endless variety of tasks; I find it wonderfully fulfilling, 

Nuts and Bolts

 Work on the ranch constantly adapts to seasonal needs and weather and an apprentice should come prepared to adapt to a fluid schedule, dictated by nature and the seasons.  The typical day starts early – especially in mid-summer heat. An apprentice should be prepared for occasional mornings starting before dawn.  During the long days of summer, there will often be an afternoon siesta break, with work starting up again in the cool of evening.  If there has been a string of long, hard days, we will take some down time to rest and catch up.  Irrigating first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening brackets most days from May – August, unless it’s a drought and water runs out earlier.

The XK Bar apprentice will participate in and learn about all aspects of the operation.  From April – October the primary work is irrigating, growing, and harvesting grass and hay, tending cattle and selling beef.  Spring involves cleaning ditches, preparing irrigation systems and harrowing fields.  Irrigating starts in May and is the significant daily task during the summer.  Tony has both old fashioned open ditch flood irrigation as well as more modern technologies including a center pivot, gated pipe and big gun sprinklers.  Hay harvest starts about solstice and is a dominant activity for about a month.  August and on into the fall is more mellow and aside from enjoying some down time, is the season when “projects” are undertaken.  

Throughout the growing season cattle need to be checked almost every day, pasture rotations done as needed, barbed wire fences repaired and electric fences moved.  Every few weeks a beef or two are sorted out of the herd and hauled to the processor.  Then a couple weeks later the meat is hauled home and put in freezers.  Every week deliveries are made to local stores and we attend one or two Farmers Markets.  Additionally a major ongoing project on the home ranch is putting in a new modern irrigation system and obliterating the old open ditches.  This entails digging trenches with an excavator and laying pipe for sprinklers.

There is a lot of maintenance work to do on a ranch, so the apprentice should expect to always have a punch list of tasks to be working thru.  These include things like cleaning windshields, checking tire pressures, sweeping the freezer room, fixing leaks in hoses, sorting the lumber stack, wetting the compost pile, etc etc etc.  This is not glorious work though there is lots of variety.

We control a few weed problems by hand pulling and chopping, so there are a couple of weeks in June and August when this activity is a big, demanding project.  If possible we bring on another volunteer worker or two to help, in which case the apprentice leads and supervises their work.  Sometimes there is also extra time in which to pick rocks out of the hay fields.  Expect some hot, itchy, tedious work.

Depending on an apprentices skills and interests, I try to expose them to or involve them in some of the administrative work such as the book-keeping, grazing planning and charting, cattle record keeping, and the marketing, sales and customer relations admin work.  I find that business admin works takes a fair amount of my time, so often the apprentice must work out on the ranch on their own.  Expect to work alone about 50% of the time.

 The primary skills and experiences an apprentice could expect to learn and practice at XK Bar are:  

  • Driving a tractor
  • Harrowing and operating some of the haying machinery 
  • Possibly operating an excavator 
  • Using a Chainsaw
  • Driving pickup trucks and possibly pulling a stock trailer  
  • Vehicle, tractor and machinery maintenance and cleaning.
  • How to irrigate the old fashioned way and the new-fangled way, the basics of water law and ditch company workings, and how to tend ditch networks from the mountain snowbanks all the way down to the ranch fields.
  • How pasture forage grows and can be managed and how to grow and harvest quality hay.  
  • Checking, herding and handling cattle including using dogs. Apprentices will get experience branding cattle, buying calves and judging when a beef is finished and ready to butcher.  
  • How to set up, tend, move and care for electric fence and solar chargers.
  • How to fix, tend and rebuild barbed wire fence.  
  • The apprentice will also learn how to lay buried pipe and how a modern irrigation system is designed and installed.
  • Composting
  • The apprentice will be actively involved in direct marketing and sales, selling at farmers markets, managing inventory and tracking sales.  
  • In the bigger picture the apprentice will learn how to be observant, will learn about land, animals, water, ecosystems and small, rural communities. The apprentice will encounter the intersection of idealism and reality, and in particular will gain first hand familiarity with, and contribute with most daily actions towards, the long, slow, never-ending work of creating an ever more regenerative agri-culture.


Primary mentor:  The primary mentor is Tony.  Tony’s son Darby is also a resident on and peripherally involved in the ranch.  Darby works full time for an architecture firm from his home office.  He has primary responsibility for stewarding the ranch buildings and grounds, tends the horse herd and occasionally helps with the cattle.  Tony’s girlfriend Marianna also spends a lot of time on the ranch and helps out moving cattle etc.  Marianna runs a business in nearby Paonia growing and selling flowers.

Stipend: The stipend is  $1000 and will be paid at the end of the month.  The stipend may or may not cover monthly expenses for the apprentice based on his or her needs and lifestyle. The position does not allow time for a second job, so the apprentice should consider his or her budgetary needs before applying to this position. 

Housing:  Apprentice housing is a converted bus located near the barn and 100 yards from the original ranch house where Darby lives.  Bus includes private, comfy living space for sleeping and hanging out.  There is a kitchenette with small refrigerator and 2 burner stove.  Water is available via buckets/jugs from a nearby outdoor hydrant. Wastewater in dish tubs is slung onto ground outside.  Toilet is a humanure compost bucket toilet, emptied into a large, actively managed compost pile.  Showering/bathing will be sponge baths in bucket tub in bus or an outdoor solar shower in fair weather.       Alternatively, the bathroom of the nearby original 100+ year old ranch house will be available for apprentice to use/share.   The house is old and rustic but charming and fully functional.   It is surrounded by a rough lawn, big shade trees, a nice firepit, well developed garden spots and an orchard.  To the extent that apprentice uses the house facilities, they will be expected to contribute to cleaning, lawn mowing, grounds keeping and general maintenance.   The bus has electricity, wifi and is heated with a wood stove.  Tony’s house is about 1/4 mile away on the other side of the hayfields.

Paid apprenticeship runs from April – October, but housing and food stipend could continue to be available on thru the winter in exchange for ranch care-taking and several days a week of feeding cattle and horses.  

Quivira Coalition Activities:  This apprenticeship is offered through Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program.  The full cohort of apprentices on regenerative ranches and farms across the west will attend an April orientation, participate in supplemental education provided in partnership with Holistic Management International, and attend the annual Quivira Conference, hosted with Holistic Management International and the American Grassfed Association, in November.  Apprentices are also required to write several reports during their apprenticeship; these reports will go through the NAP Coordinator at Quivira, and be posted on the Quivira website.

Time off:  One scheduled day off per week April – July.  August thru October the schedule can become more flexible and apprentice can take off consecutive days with 2 weeks prior notice.

Visitors:  Occasional apprentice visitors are fine as long as they do not interfere with work.  Visitors who stay for more than a couple of days are expected to contribute with some work such as weeding gardens, helping with projects, picking rocks out of hayfields etc.  We can often use extra hands.

Food:  Plenty of beef – apprentices are encouraged to sample and get to know the various cuts.  The ranch endeavors to keep a flock of chickens, so usually eggs if we are not outwitted by the fox.  Great potential for garden, and orchard – plums & apples in late summer/fall.  Apprentice can opt to plant and tend the garden – Tony will provide guidance and seeds.  The apprentice could do as much gardening as they want; near the apprentice housing are two fenced garden plots with good soil and water.  There will probably be some apprentice work helping to tend the orchard – some tree planting, irrigating and possibly apple harvest in the fall if there is a crop. The apprentice will also be invited to occasionally share meals, but there is no set schedule.

Pets:  Dogs must not hassle stock/chickens/neighbors livestock, and not interfere too much with work.  Horse is possible.  If an apprentice can handle a horse competently on their own, they may be able to ride and work with one of Tony’s.  Tony and Darby keep about 6 horses/mules on the ranch.  The horses are seldom used for cattle work as most of the pasture moves are very simple.   The horses are a holdover from the outfitting days.  We still try to do a hunting trip into the backcountry every year and occasionally ride.  The apprentice will also spend a fair amount of time with Tony’s 2 border collie dogs and the barn cat.

All the fun stuff:  The bottom line policy is responsibility.  Smoking must be outdoors and firesafe.  Alcohol/drugs is on your own time and must absolutely not interfere with ability to work, get up early and have an alert, focused mind.  Occasional parties/gatherings ok as long as you maintain a safe atmosphere and clean up.  Personally I usually enjoy a beer after work.  I think it is important to gather people to celebrate life’s triumphs and seasonal milestones, and there is a great fire pit at the farmhouse so typically a handful of potlucks and barbecues happen there thru a season.  You are encouraged to become engaged with the local community, make friends and host gatherings.

Having a personal gun in your possession is ok.  Again the bottom line is safety and responsibility.  We don’t target shoot here at the ranch. however we do control prairie dogs with a .22 rifle.  If an apprentice is or becomes competent shooting, they may participate in prairie dog control.  There is an informal shooting range on BLM “dobie” land a few miles away.

Health Insurance: The ranching lifestyle has inherent dangers. While personal health insurance is not required to participate in the apprenticeship program, it is strongly encouraged. XK Bar carries Workman’s Compensation to cover injuries incurred on the job. But if the apprentice is injured on his or her day off, gets sick, or has or develops chronic conditions like allergies, these types of issues should be covered by personal health insurance. 

Ranch Vehicle: Apprentice will use ranch vehicles for work.  They are all manual shift.

Personal Vehicle: Personal vehicle highly recommended for apprentice independence on their time off.  

Services available to the apprentice:
Internet connection: 100mb full time wifi internet in apprentice housing.  Connectivity is a little patchy.
Phone Service: Cell service is spotty in our area.  Primary service providers are T-mobile  and Verizon, or services that use their networks.  AT&T does not work at all!  Apprentice is expected to have a working cell phone and service to use for communicating during work days.

Additional items the apprentice will need for the duration of the apprenticeship: House/bus is set up with basics.  Apprentice may want their own bedding and kitchen utensils.

Activities on the operation that the apprentice will not participate in? Apprentice will not  engage in activities that are unsafe for, or beyond the scope of, their skill level, such as vehicle with trailers, tractor equipment etc. 

Living in Crawford Colorado:  Crawford is a very small town without much going on.  However Paonia is 1/2 hour drive and is a small town rich with cultural entertainments, music, coffee shops, events, educational workshops of all kinds, community radio station, churches and a growing population of young people and families.  About as lively as it gets for a small town.  This area also has a great diversity of outdoor recreation opportunities such as hiking, boating, fishing, hunting, biking, horseback riding etc.

COVID – 19Covid -19 protocols:  State and local protocols in place at any given time, such as wearing a mask and maintaining appropriate social distance, will be followed when on work time representing XK Bar in the community such as when delivering beef or selling at Farmers Markets.  On the ranch we generally try to be covid aware and take whatever precautions the group feel are necessary. What is important to us is maintaining communication about potential covid exposures, expectations about precautions, and taking appropriate steps if the need arises.  Though it could change as risk of infection may change in our region, at this time our concern about covid is low.  At this time our local communities probably have a lower concern about covid than seems to be the case in larger urban areas.  Tony is not vaccinated, Darby and Marianna are vaccinated.


Apply Now!

Applications for a 2021 apprenticeship will be accepted through December 15, 2021

2021 Apprentice

One year ago I was soggy, cold, and very tired of lifting muddy root vegetables while pondering applying for an apprenticeship on a beautiful dry grassland with cattle. And here I am, indeed in dry crisp Colorado air, feeling like I have only scratched the surface of a similar yet very different life in agriculture. Still living with the weather and trying to understand what it means to produce a livelihood off the land while working with nature. An interesting dance to try to learn, but I’ll say the most fulfilling way to spend my days.” -Excerpt from New Agrarian Voices Blog

2020 Apprentice

“At UC Davis I studied international agricultural development, with a focus on rangeland management, and my time there, as well as my continued reading and study on my own, convinced me that agriculture, and the intersection between food systems, ecology, and social justice is where I want to continue to work. I also reaffirmed my view that pure academia and basic research are not for me. Coming to this apprenticeship, my biggest goal now is finding out if I can see myself working on the things I care most about as a producer. In the world of regenerative ranching I am starting to see many examples of people who I might think of as role models, in that they do important advocacy and social or environmental justice work, but also produce things that people want and need, and support themselves. Maybe that could be me someday!” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog

New Agrarian News

Get information on apprenticeships, jobs, and other opportunities.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Become a member

its the best way to support resilience on western working landscapes.