It Takes Tough Cowboys to Raise Tender Beef
It’s 8 a.m. Christmas morning. The thermometer hovers at four above. The black cattle are silvered with frost. Oblivious to the fact that it’s a holiday, they trail inquisitively along behind a green tractor carrying a 1,200-pound hay roll. The massive round bale is speared through like a spool of thread, and every few feet, the tractor shakes it, winnowing hay down onto the frozen earth. As it falls, the cows trot over to each new mound, sniffing, their breath steaming in the cold.
Marty Nieslanik laughs. “They’ve gotta see if the new patch is better or different from the last one, even though it’s all from the same bale.”
It takes tough fellas to raise tender beef. Because cattle don’t take vacations, don’t come in from the cold, and don’t observe office hours, ranching isn’t for the lazy, the faint of heart, or the squeamish. “When you’re born into it, when you’ve done it all your life, it is your life,” Marty explains.
Perhaps this explains why Marty, 55, is still ranching—despite being hooked by a cow’s horns, thrown into a barn wall, and having to have his head stitched up a couple of years back.
Marty marks the middle of three Nieslanik generations. In 1952, Marty’s dad, John Nieslanik, now 84, bought three ranches just east and above Carbondale. A cluster of buildings perches at the top of the family’s 200-acre family spread. In the ranch house kitchen, sun pours in through wrap-around windows that offer a panoramic view of East Mesa and Mt. Sopris. Marty gestures across a weathered table at John, his dad. Gray-haired and ruddy-faced, John, the family’s patriarch, is clad in a leather coat, jeans and stocking feet. His muck boots, along with those of his son and grandsons, have been left out on the doorstep. Marty exclaims, “He’s still workin’ and he shouldn’t even be walkin’!”
At the age of 80, John was tossed over a fence by a bull. “Broke his neck,” says Marty. “Docs said he shoulda been dead or paralyzed.”
John Nieslanik was born and raised on a ranch in Spring Valley, a few miles from Carbondale. Most of John’s 11 brothers and sisters still live a rural lifestyle, but over his eight decades, he’s watched dozens of local ranches sold off. It’s happening statewide; the American Farmland Trust says that Colorado is losing more than 75 acres of agricultural land each day to urbanization. But John and the two following generations are determined to hold onto their way of life. “We don’t want to get rid of the land,” John proclaims. “Land is precious. If you sell your land, you got money, but pretty soon that money just flows out. And then you don’t got nothing.”
Marty reminisces, “In places where we used to put up hay, they’ve put up apartments.”
“Look around this valley and there’s no young folks ranching,” he continues. “But I’m just like my dad. I wanted to see my kids grow up here, and I want to be able to see my kids’ kids grow up here.”
Marty’s kids, Parker James, 28, and 22-year-old John Slater, called “Johnny”, are making a go of it, so far. Parker—who earned an agricultural degree in Nebraska—worked in construction for five years before coming back to the family ranch. Parker’s earliest memory is of his dad sliding a pillow under his butt so that he’d be tall enough to drive a water tank truck. His dad was burning brush out of the irrigation ditches and putting out fires—he needed a hand.
“Parker was probably no more than about eight, but I needed a driver!” Marty chuckles.
Did he know how to drive? “Nope,” says Parker. “But on the ranch, you learn something new every day.”
“Yep,” adds Johnny. “We call it Nieslanik U.”
No two days out here are alike. Ranch work ranges from clearing ditches, irrigating, sowing, and reaping hay to branding, repairing fences and fixing machinery. Ranchers must learn to perform artificial insemination, deliver calves, and doctor sick cattle.
The Nieslaniks regale their magazine-writer visitor with tales of cows struck by lightning, cows stalked by coyotes, cougars, and bears, and cows ingesting poison. Mag chloride is used to control ice and dust on roads; if a cow ingests it from drinking contaminated water, the animal will die within minutes. Larkspur, which grows wild on Mount Sopris, is also a deadly poison.
Marty interjects a tale. “One day, we saw one of the cows stumbling about, like she was drunk. That’s a telltale sign of larkspur poisoning. We’d heard from one of the old timers that if you cut off a cow’s tail and let it bleed, the cow would recover.” Figuring that the cow was going to die anyway—a loss of nearly $1,000—Marty decided to experiment. After having a portion of her tail cut off, the cow bled most of the day. But by nightfall, she was walking straight; all signs of the poison had vanished! She lived on for years as a healthy, if stump-tailed, cow.
Between the loss of cattle, rising fuel and machinery prices, and market volatility, the economic pressure on family ranches is unrelenting. “The price of everything except cattle goes up every year,” Marty laments. He notes that while he’s never drawn a salary, the ranch has been able to provide modest paychecks to Parker and Johnny. “Dad’s vision is to keep this place a ranch as long as it can be a ranch, and right now, we’re making it available to the third generation.”
The family’s economic strategy involves selling more cattle each year, raising pigs, growing wheat for a local brewery (see related story page 24), and selling direct to the public rather than auctioning off their cattle to middlemen. Because large-scale packers and distributors pay prices that fluctuate from year to year, a calf can sell for anywhere from $250 to $400. At that scale’s lower end, ranchers can’t pay their overhead.
Asked where beef-lovers can purchase the Nieslanik’s grass-fed, hormone and antibody-free natural beef, Marty says, “Folks can just stop by and we’ll sell a quarter, a half, a whole, a steak, whatever you need.” The beef is sold at Carbondale’s Dandelion Market and the family’s website—NieslanikBeef.com—offers rib-eyes, T-bones, New York Strip, back ribs, flank steaks, and even beef jerky, complete with shipping and local delivery options. (An inch-thick rib-eye runs $11.99 a pound.)
The Nieslaniks raise grass-fed, Angus-Simmenthal-mix cattle, and the quality of their beef reflects the care they give the herd. In June, they herd the cattle through Carbondale to summer pastures up in the Thompson Divide. (Last year, the herd was only slightly confused by the new roundabout on Route 133.) In winter, the cattle feed on hay grown by the Nieslaniks.
By February, about the time this article appears, the Nieslanik’s 250 cows will be delivering roughly the same number of calves. All three generations of cowboys will be sleeping in shifts while on round-the-clock maternity watch. Usually it goes pretty well, but in any species, nature’s fiercest critter is known by just one name: mom.
“We know which ones will get you,” laughs Marty. “We’ll be guardin’ each other with pitchforks.”