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Peterson recalls the way of the rancher

Posted: Friday, Feb 1st, 2013

San Luis Valley Cattleman of the Year Paul Peterson stands with his cattle on his Centennial Ranch in La Jara.

Courier staff writer

LA JARA — San Luis Valley Cattleman of the Year Paul Peterson could become a Centennial Rancher working a Centennial Ranch.

Peterson, 84, La Jara, is a cowboy who still wrangles his herd on horse back down in New Mexico to get them back across the state line. His Herefords roam the same Valley pastures as his grandfathers’ stock a century ago, and he and his wife, Gerry, live in the adobe home in which he was born. It’s filled with trinkets and their stories about Bob, his son, who today keeps him moving in the right direction and his grandson, Cody, who studies livestock and all the other animals of the world at Colorado State University. There is a photo dating back 100 years. It’s of his grandfather gathering hay with a pitchfork and tossing it into a wagon next to a mule-drawn plough. He is a chapter in the tale of the great American west; he fought for it in war and what he has seen holds a lifetime of lessons for the future.

Today, Peterson, a graduate of the now defunct La Jara High School and the 1985 San Luis Valley Cattlemen’s Association President, runs about 400 head of cattle. He received the 2012 award last month for his Hereford production, but he is proud to point out the Black Bali cows mixed in among the red and the white. He said the Angus-Hereford cross makes for a good animal, and their market price is worthwhile. They should continue to do well, but that’s only speculation.

Which, he said, was all part of the cattle rearing game alongside working within the realms of Mother Nature. For example, Peterson grew Coors barley and was forced to call it quits when his water supply was no longer enough to compete with other producers. He also used to take at least three solid alfalfa cuttings a year, and 10 years ago his artesian wells were untapped before there was an imbalance.

“Now we have to pump them,” Peterson said looking out on his herd scattered over acreage that seems to melt into the San Juan Mountains. “The water has really hurt us bad. My production is way down on hay. It is mainly on account of this water.”

Although water has stifled the crop, Peterson has adjusted to the changes to the best of his ability. Being without pasture for nearly six months out of the year has pinched his pocket, but he has found relief in leaving a potential third alfalfa cutting on the field for fall grazing.

“We don’t sell any, but we raise all our own hay (alfalfa and oat),” Peterson said. “It takes a lot of feed to feed them and we feed too long here. That takes all of the profit out of it that being the price of hay now.”

In addition to his Valley ranch, Peterson also owns 8,000-acres in New Mexico where his cattle graze during the summer months, and where Mother Nature has forced a production cutback.

“A lot of the reason we have had to cut back is on account of the elk in the mountains,” Peterson said. “We got so many elk in the mountains we have had to cut back. We have about 200 elk on our place and they eat just like the cow. We have cut down about 200 head.”

Modern machinery also presents Peterson with a challenge. When his family arrived from Denmark in 1880, animals were tractors, but without the speed and efficiency he admitted makes the workload easier today.

“The machinery and the fuel are the big problem,” Peterson said while reflecting on the changes each decade brought to the cattle industry. “It is so high. You can do a lot more with the machinery than we could before. Years ago, you didn’t have to have so much money. It seems the dollar isn’t worth so much any more. It takes a million dollars to buy anything.”

These many modern costs, he feared, will be the demise of the rancher.

“It’s real hard to get started,” said Peterson, who plays an active role in young farmer programs. “The government will help you, but you will be all of your life paying for it. Unless you have it come as a gift to you, it’s pretty hard to get into it.”

He added, “These boys that get an education, they can get such good jobs anymore that pay good with a lot easier life. Forty hours a week only. That ain’t like watching the cattle.”

After 84 years, however, Peterson doesn’t regret the ranching life that is “hard with no pay.” After nearly a century, there is no place he’d rather be than with a heifer and her calf on a cold February morning.

“The cows,” he said. “I just like them. I like working with them. You bet.”

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