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Farm to Fork in the Uncompahgre Valley: Part 1

Caleb Valdez and Brittany Duffy of Uncompahgre Farms are part of the growing movement of regenerative agriculture, which recognizes the need for holistic treatment of our crops and animals to ensure total ecosystem health. Their pride and passion are their cattle and the land that sustains them, and their goal is not only to offer high quality meat products to our community, but to improve the land as they do so.

Photography by Will Woody

On a typical beautiful day in the Uncompahgre Valley, Valdez and Duffy stand surrounded by cattle on a tract of land just south of Montrose. Valdez started the business, Uncompahgre Farms, in 2019, with five cows he purchased on Craigslist. With land so expensive, it is difficult to begin as a first-generation rancher, so Valdez leases the land on which he grazes his own herd. Starting small, he grew his business by knocking on people's doors and gaining lease agreements that allow him to graze cattle. This allows him to expand his herd and accomplish his goal of improving the land at the same time.

As a testament to his good land stewardship, the people he leases from have referred others his way, and his business has grown tremendously. Duffy and Valdez met while both worked for the Forest Service, and she joined him as a partner in the business two years ago. They currently graze over 100 cattle on almost 2,300 acres of leased land located primarily on the Uncompahgre Plateau.

The principles of regenerative agriculture help determine every choice that Valdez and Duffy make. Regenerative agriculture refers to farming and grazing practices that go past the idea of “do no harm.” Instead, it actively seeks to improve the land through holistic methods.

This starts at the soil level, which leads to a cascade of positive effects, most notably on the water and carbon cycles. As Valdez said, they “work with nature, not against it,” by allowing their herd to do what nature intended, and intervening only in limited ways.

The herd is kept in what may just look like a small paddock, but this is by design: the cattle are rotated to a fresh paddock every couple of days. To move them, the portable, solar powered electric fence is turned off, and the new section is opened. The cows come running after being called with a few loud whoops. By frequently moving the cattle to fresh grazing areas, Duffy and Valdez improve the quality of forage that the cows eat, naturally fertilize the soil with the herd's manure, and prevent any areas from being overgrazed. This is known as intensive rotational grazing, a method which mimics the way wild herds like buffalo would move across grasslands.

The land in Montrose is protected from development by a conservation easement. It is not sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, nor is it plowed, which would release the carbon in its soil into the atmosphere. The herd is provided with a sea salt lick, and is 100% grass-fed from start to finish, with supplemental hay only when necessary. The calves are vaccinated, but none of the animals are de-wormed, which provides a more natural end product with the additional benefit of allowing dung beetles to thrive.

These beetles are an important part of pasture ecology, as they effectively break down the dung to recycle the manure back into the soil. This provides natural fertilization and prevents fields and forests from being left full of “cow pies”. It also adds critical organic matter to the soil: per acre, every one percent of organic material added to soil increases its water retention capacity by over 20,000 gallons. This practice of “armoring the soil” is of major importance in an area like the Western Slope, where rain is limited and irrigation water is precious. These regenerative practices provide an effective way for Valdez to achieve his major goal of conserving water.

The herd will soon move up to the plateau for the summer. With the help of three interns, Valdez and Duffy will continue to closely manage where the herd grazes to ensure no area is overly impacted. In fact, they will be concentrated into areas dominated by invasive species, where their action helps eliminate these monocultures, in turn supporting native species and enhancing diversification.

As they continue to adapt to daily challenges, they learn about ways to improve their herd and develop their land management methods, while also providing a positive role model of sustainability for future generations of ranching.

Valdez is inspired to “feed people while improving the landscape” – not content to just lessen the impact on the land, he aspires to have a positive impact while also producing a valuable product.

You can find Uncompahgre Farms at local farmers’ markets in the valley where they offer unique selections like Denver steak, rib steak, beef brats, kidney fat, and marrow bones.

Duffy and Valdez are also planning an event in October: Cowboy Palooza. They hope the event will foster a sense of community between producers and consumers, and educate people about the benefits of regenerative agriculture.

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