XK Bar RanchEight-month Ranching Apprenticeship in Crawford, Colorado
XK Bar raises and direct markets grass-fed beef, maintaining a herd of about 20 – 40 animals. XK Bar purchases weaned calves and grows them out on irrigated pasture for about 18 months, then direct markets them to individuals, local food stores and a ski town butcher shop. XK Bar hopes to branch into selling through a weekly farmers market starting in 2020. XK Bar irrigates grass pastures and hay fields on the home ranch and a nearby leased ranch, selling surplus pasture and hay for additional revenue.
Mentor Tony Prendergast’s goals as a rancher are to make a living and continue developing the grass-fed beef business as a sustainable livelihood into his old age, 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 mentor Tony Prendergast to continue to grow his business and through living and working at XK Bar, gain a strong understanding of how to develop a sustainable grass-fed beef business from the ground up.
Meet the mentors
Meet the apprentice
XK Bar Ranch
Tony Prendergast bought the XK Bar ranch 21 years ago by forming a small land cooperative to enable the purchase. Four different families have ownership/residential/conservation interests in the land, including Tony’s two grown children. Tony and one other family now live on the ranch and Tony leases most of the ranch property from the cooperative to run his cattle. Another shareholder leases and tends a small apple orchard. The goals of the cooperative are to conserve and steward the land and wildlife, while sustainably integrating human activities of ranching, orcharding and residential life. Tony’s goals as a rancher are to make a living and continue developing the grass-fed beef business as a sustainable livelihood into his old age, while producing healthy food in a way that stewards the land, animals and wildlife and contributes to the local community.
The home ranch is 260 acres of which 70 acres are in a conservation easement. 86 acres are irrigated and the other 170 acres are range and pinyon juniper woodlands. XK Bar sits at the foothills of the West Elk Mountains so provides important wildlife habitat. The irrigated ground is mostly productive grass/alfalfa hayfields, along with some rougher grass pastures and a small orchard. Tony leases a second ranch 5 miles away that is an additional 280 acres with about 200 acres actively irrigated. The leased land includes a cottonwood gallery pasture along a creek, as well as several hay/pasture fields.
Although the ranch is not certified organic, Tony’s land stewardship practices follow organic principles. Tony does not use chemical fertilizers and only very occasionally spot sprays herbicides. Cattle are 100% grass fed. Timing, electric fence and pasture rotations are the primary tools used to achieve land management/improvement goals. Effectiveness and efficiency of irrigation is the other key to productive, healthy soils and pastures in much of the XK Bar operation, so a lot of work goes into irrigating and water management. The leased ranch had been neglected and mismanaged for years prior to Tony taking it on, especially the irrigation ditches. So a lot of effort is going into fixing and improving the irrigation system, getting water to the dry places, and using timing, rotations, etc to reduce the weeds and improve the soil and grass. Tony also strategically chops and pulls specific biennial weeds by hand to help control the weed populations.
Tony’s grandfathers were both ranchers/farmers. Tony spent part of his childhood on a small family ranch and started working on neighboring ranches when he was 13. He always wanted to be a rancher/cowboy and in his late teens he made a long horse-packing pilgrimage around the southwest and landed work cowboying on a vast open range ranch in Utah. As a young family man Tony worked as an Outward Bound instructor and carpenter/builder. 20 years ago, he envisioned and pulled together a cooperative land ownership venture which brought him to the XK Bar Ranch which is his home and business. But raising a family, Tony was unable to make a living on a start up ranch, so he leased the ranch to a neighbor while he raised his children and worked as a Wilderness Ranger with the USFS, then became an outfitter and also joined the board of directors of the local Electric Coop. Along the way Tony also built his current straw bale/tire/adobe off grid passive solar house.
Tony has always been an active community member. Until recently he served for 12 years on the board of the local Rural Electric Association, and for 9 years on the County planning commission. Before that Tony was a founding board member of a local land trust. He is also a representative for the national group ‘Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ to a stakeholder group that is working on land conservation legislation to protect about 500,000 acres of wildlands in Gunnison County. Tony currently serves as the president of the local ditch company, tending the main headgate and covering the early season ditch-riding duties.
In 2011, Tony bought 2 calves to try his hand at grass-fed beef. Since then he has been slowly growing the herd, making all the mistakes, developing a customer base, getting whacked down by severe drought, regrowing the herd. It is a lot of work – but as Tony says “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…what’s not to love?”
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 shortly after dawn- especially in mid-summer heat. An apprentice should also be prepared for some mornings starting well before dawn when beeves need to be hauled to butcher by 7am or other early projects need to be completed. During the long days of summer, there will often be an afternoon siesta break, with work starting up again in the cool of evening. The exception to this rule is during haying when we will work as long as needed to get a field in ahead of a building thunderstorm, taking a break when it rains. If there has been a string of long, hard days, we will take some 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 running 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 a little more mellow and aside from enjoying some down time, is the period of the season when “projects” are undertaken.
Throughout the growing season cattle need to be checked almost every day, pasture rotations done as needed, permanent fences repaired and electric fences moved. Every few weeks a few animals are sorted off the herd and hauled to the processor. Then a couple of weeks later the meat is hauled home and put in freezers. Every week or two deliveries are made to local stores or individuals. Tony is hopeful that next year one day a week will be spent selling beef at a local farmer’s market. Additionally, in the 2020 April-October season 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.
The primary skills and experiences an apprentice could expect to learn and practice at XK Bar are:
- Driving a tractor
- Harrowing and operating haying machinery
- Possibly operating an excavator
- Using a Chainsaw
- Driving pickup trucks and possibly pulling a stock trailer
- Vehicle, tractor and machinery maintenance.
- 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.
- How grass 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 beeve 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 including setting posts.
- The apprentice will also learn how to lay buried pipe and how a modern irrigation system is designed and installed.
- The apprentice will be exposed to direct marketing and 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 of, 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 – owner. There may be opportunity to do some work for (and learn from) a next door neighbor who is a retired rancher still stewarding his ranch lands and putting up hay.
Are there specific challenges on the operation that the apprentice could help find possible solutions to address?: Continuing to develop marketing and sales of grass-fed beef is a challenge an apprentice may be able to work on. Researching and developing ideas/strategies for regenerating some weedy areas of dry rangeland would be a useful apprentice project as well.
Stipend: The stipend is determined each year by available funds. Typically the take home pay 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. That being said there will probably be some opportunity for apprentice to work for neighboring ranches occasionally for supplemental income. Apprentice should not count on this, but it is a possibility.
Housing: Independent house with full kitchen, bathroom, laundry, livingroom/bedroom, porch. The house is original 100+ year old ranch house. Charming but rustic. No screens on windows/doors, must be willing to trap mice. Surrounded by a rough lawn, big shady trees, a nice firepit, well developed garden spot and ancient orchard. Good internet provided. Currently the beef freezers are in a room of the house, so I come and go there. Occasionally other ranch guests, such as past wwoofers and other wayfarers, may stay at the house for a day or two, so it is not entirely private. Heat is provided by a wood stove in April and October. Occupant has to wrangle firewood, mow the lawn occasionally and generally steward and look after the place, which is at the center of the ranch. My house is about 1/4 mile away on the other side of the hayfields.
Housing set-up is conducive to hosting a couple. Ranch apprenticeship is a primary role for one person, but there is great opportunity for extensive gardening/homesteading. Paid apprenticeship will end in 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 May – July. August thru October the schedule can become more flexible and apprentice can take off consecutive days with 2 weeks prior notice.
Visitors: Apprentice visitors are fine as long as they do not interfere with work. Visitors who stay for more than one night 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 meat – elk, venison and/or beef. The ranch endeavors to keep a flock of chickens, so potential for eggs if you are not outwitted by the fox. Great potential for garden, and orchard – plums & apples in late summer/fall. Apprentice tends chickens and garden (optional)…Tony will provide guidance and seeds. The apprentice could do as much gardening as they want; near the apprentice house are two fenced garden plots with good soil and water infrastructure. There will probably be some apprentice work helping to tend the orchard – some 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 fine. If an apprentice can handle a horse on their own, they can ride and work with one of Tony’s as much as they want. Tony keeps 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 Tony’s outfitting days when he was in the saddle almost every day in the fall. He still tries to do a hunting trip into the backcountry every year and occasionally rides. If an apprentice wants to mess with horses and ride around the ranch and into the nearby hills, the ranch is well set up to accommodate that. The apprentice will also likely 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 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, nor have a need to control predators by shooting them. 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:
- Washing: Washer only. Clothes dry on a line outside.
- Internet connection: 100mb full time internet in apprentice house.
Additional items the apprentice will need for the duration of the apprenticeship: House 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 be asked to engage in activities that are unsafe for their skill level, such as vehicle with trailers, tractor equipment etc. Spot spraying herbicide on knapweed with a backpack sprayer will be optional for apprentice.
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.
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