Van Winkle Ranch: Building relationships is at the heart of Colorado ranching
Howard and Janie VanWinkle started with 20 head of Suffolk sheep and 20 head of Charolais cross cows, but that’s not where they are today.
The cattle numbers have grown–the sheep were phased out–but the hides of the cattle that dot their Colorado mountain pastures are still white.
Howard and Janie are the fourth generation of their families to ranch in the Grand Junction, Colorado area. Their son, Dean and his wife Tayler, are the fifth generation and are raising their daughter, Paisley, to be the sixth. The VanWinkles’ focus has always been on producing high quality protein in western Colorado, while serving the agriculture industry and their community.
They still have some genetics from the Charolais cows Janie started with, but they have worked hard to cut the average cow weight from 1,500 to 1,300 pounds with a much smaller frame score, while still weaning 600-700 pound calves.
Those seemingly contrasting goals are possible thanks to careful selection of replacement heifers. The replacement heifers go through a rigorous protocol. The first requirement is to have feet and legs that will let them travel over the rugged terrain. Next all the heifers being considered go through a linear measurement system, including hip height, hip width, heart girth and flank.
“We use an old dressmaker measuring tape with a bolt taped on the end for some weight. It’s thrown over their back. The flank girth is expected to be four inches greater than the heart girth. If this isn’t met, they are out the door.” With a minimum of four inches greater girth, they are then measured for hip height, hip width and an array of other measurements. “Some people think we’re crazy, but this is how we’ve been able to maintain the weaning weight with smaller frame scores.” Janie says.
“Pounds of beef is what is being sold, so they have to have the body designed to build those pounds,” Janie said. Temperament is also taken into consideration. The cattle are hauled on trucks several times per year and have to be easy to sort, load and manage.
The VanWinkles have a thriving direct-to-consumer ground beef business, which has grown quickly over the past three to four years. They partner with the Food Bank of the Rockies, which buys beef directly. That ground beef is distributed over much of Colorado and into Wyoming. The cull cows and bulls contribute significantly to the bottom line of the family ranch, as they all go directly into the ground beef business. They grain-feed those culls for 60-70 days to provide high-quality fat for grinding, while producing an 85-90 percent lean product.
Together, Howard and Janie, and Dean and Tayler run around 550 head of cattle, though that number fluctuates depending on the weather and range conditions. The VanWinkles own a few parcels of land, but the vast majority is leased lands. Their landlord partners have different expectations and the VanWinkles work hard to accommodate each one.
Some of their partners include Colorado Mesa University, City of Grand Junction, and a gravel company. They use Forest Service and BLM permits. “We consider our landowners as partners and VanWinkle Ranch strives to leave the land in better condition than when we started,” Janie says. “We have worked with NRCS to improve irrigation efficiencies significantly the last twelve years and communicate regularly with range conservationists and consider them an important part of ensuring resources are being well cared for.”
Along with cattle, VanWinkles put up around 400 ton of hay per year, again depending on weather conditions. With the drought the last few years, they have been forced to buy a lot of hay.
Water is carefully managed. The city of Grand Junction owns the land where the water is. During the summertime water is released from the reservoir to irrigate pastures. During the winter, with a quick flip of a valve, the water goes to the city for municipal use. Grand Junction City Council has agreed to keep it in agriculture production for as long as they can. It is instances like this of rural and urban working together for the good of the community that makes the volunteer commitment worth it, Janie says.
Most of the land is in an urban/rural interface. “While that comes with its extra challenges, there are extra opportunities to engage with consumers and voters,” Janie says. This area around Grand Junction is popular with bicyclists. About five years ago a trail was being planned across some of VanWinkles’ leased property. The trail was planned at 35 miles long, with a drop of 6,000 vertical feet. They projected about 5,000 people a year would be using the trail.
VanWinkle Ranch voiced concerns about the impact on the resources such as wildlife, city watershed, and their cattle. The trail was opened in 2021, but Howard and Janie were a part of the planning process and were involved all the way to the grand opening of the Palisade Plunge trail, when Janie was a featured speaker. There is also a kiosk along the trail that tells the value to the community that food production brings.
“The most common ground is that upon which we’re standing,” Janie says. She speaks to a lot of outdoor recreational groups. Both ranchers and recreationists enjoy the land and leave it better than it was, and that’s the message she carries. Janie has found that sharing her story, but also listening to the other side of the story, has been beneficial. “Understanding that we’re all human and want our grandkids to be able to enjoy and benefit from the land, creates a stepping off point to the discussions,” Janie said.
Janie worked with Colorado State University Extension to figure that every cow in Mesa County Colorado brings in $600-800 per year. “This isn’t just the years they come on vacation, but every year, year after year. There has to be discussions that these cows are benefitting the local economy as well. The area is losing legacy ranches because of the number of people not respecting private property, leaving gates open and constant problems with people not respecting the land.” Janie says.
The ranchers are selling to out of state landowners wanting land to hunt, taking the land out of production agriculture. “We have to bridge the gap between outdoor recreational activities and production agriculture,” Janie says.
To that end, the VanWinkles are involved in several non-agriculture boards and community projects, including the local chambers of commerce. “Agriculture is a business and that’s what chambers are all about,” Janie says. Being in those circles gives people in agriculture a chance to be part of discussions and provide their point of view on issues like wolf introduction and animal cruelty, that chambers of commerce weigh in on, but often don’t understand all the implications. “Be involved in your local community, but step outside the traditional agriculture roles,” Janie said.
Howard and Janie work together every day. Janie says they are successful because they set the big goals together. They work on three- to five-year plans, and keep implementing them until they get to where they want to be. She says to dream with your spouse. Set the goal. Know what you’re working toward. “You can’t get there if you don’t know where there is.”
Howard and Janie met through 4-H in their early teens. They married in the early 1980s. At that time, Howard had 20 head of Suffolk sheep and Janie owned 20 head of Charolais cross cows. After marriage, they focused on growing the operation together. Howard worked at various auto shops and dealerships while working nights and weekends to build their herd. In 2000, he opened his own auto repair shop with his brother. That business was sold in 2010, allowing him to work on the ranch full time.
Janie earned her Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Education from Colorado State University. She worked for several big box stores, including as store manager for the newly opened Barnes & Noble in Grand Junction. In 2004, she opened her own business, Nick-N-Willy’s Pizza. The pizza shop sold in 2015, allowing her to join Howard and work at the VanWinkle Ranch full time.
Their only child, Dean, was born in the late 1990s. He has been an integral part of the ranch since day one. He started building his own cowherd through 4-H. Dean graduated from Kansas State University in 2021, then returned to the ranch with his wife Tayler.
When working together as husband and wife, and then as parents and in-laws with their son and his wife, Janie said respect is the most important thing in their business.
“We aren’t always pleasant to each other, but we are always respectful,” she said.