The Cows of It All

I had to go way back in my archives, to May 2019, to find this not-as-scenic-as-I’d-like-to-convince-you photo of Parker cows on the Van Tuyl Ranch. I took it from one of the public trails — look how close together we are!

There are probably 20 tabs open in assorted browsers on my assorted computers of stories I mean to read but which — as now is becoming clear — I might never get to. All of these tabs are stories about climate change, and while I feel I ought to read them, as a citizen of Earth, I just don’t.

These are not the warning stories; those I either read or see on the daily news, the massive fires, the giant hurricanes, the floods. I don’t even have to read the news: I walk outside and it feels warmer than it ever has in my 50-some years here in Gunnison.

Many of the stories I pulled up to read and then didn’t are reasons why I shouldn’t despair at what has the potential to be a doomsday scenario. The rest of my tabs offer advice on what I personally, one small person in the vast sea of humanity, can do to effect climate change for the better. When I do start to read these stories, almost always at the top of the list is embracing a plant-based diet. That’s because in our rush to blame anyone but ourselves, cows have become the primary villain in the climate wars.

I don’t know what to think about that, exactly. There doesn’t appear to be any question that cows are large, methane-producing creatures — in fact, the newest story is about how much methane they excrete in their urine, and how someone somewhere is attempting to essentially litter-box-train cattle, so that the methane from their excretions can be sequestered and stored underground, which is our solution for everything: sweep it under the rug and hope that works out for us.

I have a friend whose diet has gone from meat to limited meat to vegetarian and now vegan, mostly based on ethical considerations. I admire her conviction, but am also rather bemused at how much effort she puts into finding plant-based foods manipulated to taste like meat and cheese — and how much effort companies have put into accommodating this effort.

Since we want things to taste like meat, and who knows what sort of chemicals are required to make plants more meatlike, I am wondering if we shouldn’t cut the real cows some slack. At least here in Gunnison County, they seem like they’re more part of the solution than the problem.

I get that not every place is Gunnison, and I did go to college in Boulder, where you knew it was going to storm because the wind started blowing out of the northeast, from Greeley. This storm wind always carried the stink of feedlots.

Still, I wonder about environmental trade-offs, and Gunnison is a place that makes me wonder that profoundly.

We started life as an extremely short-lived agrarian colony, when Sylvester Richardson found to his dismay in the 1870s that we don’t have what you could really call a growing season. Since the U.S. government had already established a cow camp to feed rounded-up Utes, cattle became the lifeblood of Gunnison County, probably into the 1970s.

Now we are a tourist destination, and when people arrive in the Gunnison Valley, they look across verdant green fields to picturesque mountainscapes. Those verdant fields weren’t part of Nature’s plan, however: it was the manmade work of a century of cattle raising, irrigation and the clearing of acre upon acre of sagebrush.

While there are probably people who rue the lost sagebrush, the landscape photos I see all start with a rancher’s meadow and maybe his or her barn. Most of us seem to find it scenic and environmental, and it probably is, this sea of alfalfa and timothy absorbing carbon dioxide and pushing out oxygen.

Without cows (and a few pigs and the occasional sheep), we have no reason for this landscape. In fact, what comes after are houses, such as the one I’m in right now where Lynn and I really like the meadow on our south end, the meadow that once was an alfalfa field and now, since it’s no longer under irrigation, is mostly weeds.

So now let’s talk about Ray and Louis Van Tuyl (van tile), brothers who were ranchers just north of the City of Gunnison. And when I say “just,” I mean that in the 1960s they either sold or developed the ranchland that became the Palisades Addition where I grew up.

For another couple decades they maintained working ranch pasturage between the Palisades and the rest of town. I walked to school past cowboys and cattle. Now it’s all housing too.

The remainder of the Van Tuyl ranch, which I looked out upon from the back of our house on Tincup Drive, was held by Ray after his brother died, but somewhere in there he ended up selling the property to the city, which bought it with the intent of it serving as a recharge area for the city’s wells. As in, it needs to be left under irrigation.

Mr. Van Tuyl leased the ranch back from the city until his death, although while he was alive the city began building a trail system through his fields. Not always building them well, since none of the city slickers understood the hydrology of ranch irrigation.

They just didn’t understand ranching period, the two officials who had the most say over this property. One of them was sure the hay was a cash crop gold mine worth $60,000 per year, despite a dearth of bidders to back up his assertion, while the other wanted to scrap the ranching altogether and install a series of retention ponds.

The ranch ended up under lease to Bill and Kellie Parker, both of whom grew up in this area and who have embraced the public portion of their operation, with bikers, walkers and dogs — as long as the dogs stay where they belong — wending their way through and around a working ranch.

They run mostly cattle (some pigs and an occasional sheep, plus chickens that have to be guarded zealously from the foxes), and they sell their own grass-fed animals, all of which are processed within two hours of their ranch.

I realize many cattle operations the world over are not like this model, but this could be a model when looking to our planet’s future. No matter how much methane the Parker cattle excrete, there are acres of grass and forage to offset it. Acres that wouldn’t be there if not for the cattle.

The city could try bidding out the property for hay alone, although hay is a product mostly utilized by livestock. Or it could try the retention ponds, but if we’re not going to worry about a hay crop we either end up with weeds — or we start talking about surrounding each pond with housing.

I hardly know where to begin on the issue of climate change — I can’t even bring myself to read self-assigned articles on how it might not be so bad and how we can adapt. But I’m not sold on the notion that Lynn and I need to give up our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share with Parker Pastures in order to help the planet. It feels like we’re already helping.

My favorite Ray Van Tuyl story, which I did not hear firsthand, so by the time I’m telling it to you may be completely apocryphal, goes like this: Mr. Van Tuyl summoned a vet to tend to a sick calf. The vet said, “Ray, you have a lot of cows. Why worry about just one?” To which Mr. Van Tuyl replied, “Well, Jim, I kinda like cows.”

I kinda like cows too, and think any future worth having ought to include them.

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