Stanko family holds on for the next generation in Colorado
As each anniversary of Jim and Jo Stanko’s centennial ranch rolls around, Jim is grateful for the opportunity to take care of the land, and manage the family operation. Jim, who is the third generation to manage the Stanko Ranch in Steamboat Springs, CO, considers each anniversary as a celebration of one of the greatest accomplishments in his life.
Peter Stanko Sr. came to the United States from what he called the old country, which was in the Balkans. It was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, so he always considered himself an Austrian, Jim said.
“When he first arrived in 1881, he worked in coal mines in Pennsylvania, and then traveled to Colorado to work in the coal mines,” he said. About 1900, he started a saloon in Walsenburg, but sold it in 1907 and came to Steamboat Springs to start a ranch.
Unlike many ranchers of his era, Peter didn’t homestead the ranch in Steamboat Springs. He purchased it in 1907 from Logan Crawford, who was the son of the founder of Steamboat Springs, CO. Peter Stanko Sr. moved his wife and four children to the ranch. Peter Stanko Jr, Jim’s father, and another daughter were born on the ranch. “Over the years, he expanded the ranch by purchasing additional property around the original 160 acres until the ranch was a little over 700 acres,” Jim explained.
The ranch started out as primarily a grain farming operation. “He broke ground with wheat, oats, and barley,” Jim explained. “Soon after that, he purchased one of the first thrashing machines in Routt County, which he powered with a Case steam-powered tractor in 1910,” he explained. “He thrashed grain for himself, and others in the community.”
It wasn’t until 1912 that the first cattle appeared on the Stanko Ranch. The cattle were Herefords, and Jim said Peter Sr. believed that “if it wasn’t a Hereford, it couldn’t come on the place”. In 1912, he purchased the ranch’s first brand, which is still the family brand.
After breaking up land for grain crops, Peter Sr. built several outbuildings that are still on the ranch. The largest is a three story barn that was built in 1912, and is quite unique. The barn has a basement, which was used for calves and later, sheep. The main floor was used for horses and milking cows. The hayloft had a hay fork, which assisted in lifting hay up to the second story to be stored. Over the years, the barn has been carefully preserved, and although it is now over 100 years old, Jim still uses it as the primary barn to house his livestock.
Peter Sr. also built graineries on the ranch. One grainery, built in 1914, has room for grain storage, in addition to room for a grinder that was used to grind grain, and a grain cleaner.
Although Peter Sr. enjoyed farming, most operations in the area at that time were diversified. It was common to see chickens, pigs, some sheep, and dairy cows on the ranch, Jo explained. “They milked 10 to 12 cows back then because the cream check was an important part of their income,” she said. They also raised 25-30 hogs at a time. “They just didn’t rely totally on grain and cattle back then,” she said.
By 1945, Peter Sr. retired from the operation. His son, Peter Jr., took over management until 1974 when the operation passed down to Peter Jr’s son, Jim and his wife, Jo, who are the current managers of the ranch. When Peter Jr. took over the operation, he cut back on the number of cows that were milked, reduced the number of hogs raised, and started to expand the cattle operation. “At that point, it basically became a grain and cattle operation,” Jim explained.
The farming continued to be a major source of income for the family ranch until the financial crisis in the late 70s. Jim, who was managing the operation by then, remembers wheat dropping from $4 a bushel to $1.90. “Diesel fuel was climbing, and we just couldn’t make it farming,” he said. When the CRP program came out in 1980, Jim and Jo enrolled 90 percent of their crop acres in the program, and went strictly to raising cattle and hay.When the land came out of CRP in 1992, Jim reseeded a lot of the grass to convert it to rangeland pasture. Some was also planted to alfalfa fields to expand their haying enterprise.
The cattle operation also changed. While Jim’s grandfather and father were strict Hereford cattlemen, Jim thought adding some hybrid vigor to the herd may improve not only the price, but the quality of cattle he produced. Although he started adding some black bulls to the herd to produce black baldy calves, he soon settled on Red Angus and Red Angus crossbreds for his cow herd. “I still use black bulls on them to produce the black calves that the market wants,” he said.
The move toward Red Angus has eliminated many management problems on the operation like foot rot, pink eye, and dehorning. He has also been able to purchase his bulls and cows locally to avoid brisket disease and high altitude issues.
Despite moving to the Angus breed, which is noted for lighter birthweights, Jim still purchases low birth-weight bulls within the breed to eliminate calving problems. “I haven’t pulled a calf in 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d even remember how,” he chuckled. The birth weight hasn’t impacted his weaning weights much, Jim shared. “Despite the drought, we weaned calves that averaged 580 pounds this year,” he said. “We don’t calve until April.”
Jim also feeds the cattle at night from November until they go to summer grass to encourage the cows to calve during the day. “It has made a difference for us,” he said. “At least 90 percent of our calves are born between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.” For Jim, it makes calving season much more enjoyable to have calves that are born in the heat of the day, which gives them time to get up and soak in some sunlight before the cold winter nights.
The couple produce all their own feed on the ranch with several hay fields they have improved by adding irrigation. When the city built a wastewater treatment facility next to the ranch, Jim was able to acquire wastewater affluent that is irrigated onto some of his hayfields. “I was able to turn about 30 acres of dryland hay ground into irrigated hay with a sideroll system,” he explained. “I have also developed sprinkler gun systems to use with the flood irrigation system to water the high spots in my hay field,” he continued. “Those things have allowed us to really increase our hay production.”
Despite the improvements and careful care-taking of the land, one area Jim and Jo struggle with in the Steamboat Springs area is the ability to expand. When Jim grew up on the ranch, there were five to six other ranches in the area. Since then, the value of land has increased to the point where those ranches have sold out to urban development. “We are the only hold out,” Jo explained. “It is to the point that if we have to rent from someone, they are usually not involved in agriculture so they don’t understand what we are trying to accomplish.”
It is also frustrating to the couple that the fourth and fifth generations will have a tougher time making a living on the operation. Because it takes more cattle to make a living now, the inability to expand has made it difficult for Jim and Jo’s son, Pat, to take over the operation one day, and have it be sustainable. The couple hopes when their son does take over, he will be able to operate the ranch, while still earning an off-farm income, that will allow the fourth and fifth generations of the Stanko family to keep the family business alive for future generations to enjoy.
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