Grill Up Some Local Colorado Beef from Eagle Rock Ranch This Summer | Westword
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Grill Up Some Beef From 156-Year-Old Eagle Rock Ranch This Summer

The family-run operation continues to protect Colorado heritage through land stewardship and wildlife conservation.
The iconic entrance to the 156-year-old property.
The iconic entrance to the 156-year-old property. Eagle Rock Ranch
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Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic farming, saw life as a wheel: birth, growth, ripeness, harvest; then death, decay, and rebirth. Over one hundred years after his words, we have power as consumers when we put our dollars into family-run establishments that follow that natural order in their practices, and I can think of no greater example than Eagle Rock Ranch in Jefferson.

Dave Gottenborg, a grass farmer and geologist, runs the 156-year-old ranch alongside his wife, Jean. Their daughter, Erin Michalski, runs Eagle Rock's direct-to-consumer beef business as well as its mercantile store in Fairplay. Together, the family places the well-being of livestock in line with that of the ecosystems of the ranch. Here’s how:
click to enlarge man in cowboy hat and woman in baseball cap posing outside with three children
Erin Michalski, manager of Eagle Rock Ranch Mercantile, pictured with her husband, Matt, and children Addie, David and Harper.
Eagle Rock Ranch

Beef that’s totally free of weeds, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides

According to Michalski, Eagle Rock's haying operation is certified weed-free as part of the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Weed-Free Forage program. It is also “the only ranch in the area with this certification," she notes. "We don't use any chemical fertilizers on our grass, keeping the water on our land free of contamination.”

“We don’t use insecticides on the cattle, either," Gottenborg adds during a UTV tour around the property. When major cattle operations use insecticides to repel flies, residuals in manure also kill the essential microbes that naturally occur in soil, which plants need.

As we near a hillside dotted with calves and cows resting in the sun, he points out the famed Eagle Rock to our right and shares the insight behind the ranch. “I keep asking my friends at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, ‘When you inspect deer and elk carcasses, do you see insect infestations? Ticks? Lice? What do you see?’ And they always say they’re pretty darn clean. And so my thought is, if they can do it, why can’t my cows do it? Let’s go with the way nature’s doing it," Gottenborg says.

In place of herbicides and pesticides, Eagle Rock uses cow manure. “We put the cows out here in the fall after we cut the hay, they come in and trim it up. ... We leave about six inches, [and] in the winter, what we gain by leaving it is that it helps trap snow, which gives us better moisture in the spring when we’re trying to get started," he explains.
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Dave Gottenborg, land steward and co-owner of Eagle Rock Ranch, points out one of many fish ladders along a stretch of Tarryall Creek.
Kevin Foote

Beef that’s inextricably tied to the land and water

The ride through the ranch is filled with massive boulders jetting around us beside the rushing, muddy waters of Tarryall Creek in flood stage, one of many creeks and rivers crisscrossing the property. The backsides of Mount Baldy and Guyot stretch into clear skies. When we reach the headgate and watch the river flow over fish ladders and boulders,
geese fly past as we ford a stream. Gottenborg grins. “Look at that. They mate for life, y’know," he says.

The ranch is a habitat for mice and voles, which are beneficial to the ecosystem here. “There’s certain voles that only eat weed seeds, so they’re running around, cleaning up for me," he notes. The rodents are a staple part of the diet for coyotes, hawks and even bald eagles, in whose reintroduction the ranch has been integral. Numerous species of birds come back when the fish return, while juncos are “voracious weed seed eaters” year-round.

The family is passionate about reestablishing the ecosystem. “We’re the only place in this district with fish ladders and ditch screens," Gottenborg says. "I asked [the water commissioner] why that is, and he said it’s because we’re the only ones who care that much about the issue. Other people kind of have to learn, I think.”

He pauses again, this time his voice giddy. “Oh, they have their babies! We gotta turn around!” He points out a doe with her fawn near where the dirt road leads deeper into the property, then points past them by the river. “The message has gotta get out. Just like those geese, they’re raising their young, right here…it’s all working together.”

The last section of the ranch, which Gottenborg calls “the Daycare Center," is full of calves sunbathing beside a couple of cows. As we pass it, I ask what he and his family want the public to know next time we shop for beef. “People want people to know that their choices directly impact the well-being of ranching and farming families here," he says. "They want to feel good. They want to support rural America and wildlife. ... Consider what moves in when ranches move out.”

Michalski knows this is the truth about consumers, and she wants to immerse the public in the process behind purchasing proteins. “Our family wants as many people as possible to experience the magic of Eagle Rock Ranch," she says. "We are currently in the process of building an event space on the ranch to host meetings and events. Additionally, we are planning to host guest chefs and ranch workshops beginning this summer."

Over this Fourth of July weekend and during the summer grilling days to come, support Eagle Rock Ranch and family businesses like theirs. You’ll taste the difference, and protect the natural beauty of this state at the same time.

For more information on Eagle Rock Ranch and to shop for its beef, visit eaglerockbeef.com.
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