For George Whitten, owner of San Juan Ranch in Saguache, every day of his life with animals has been a blessing. Born and raised on a large sheep ranch started by his grandfather in 1893, Whitten can’t remember a time when life wasn’t centered around farm animals.
“We really are codependent, relying on each other for food and life,” Whitten says about the animals he raises in the San Luis Valley. “We owe them our lives, and we learn a great deal from them. We understand them in a way that few people get to.”
This belief is put into action as Whitten and his wife, Julie Sullivan, continue to go above and beyond for the health and safety of their animals on their 100% grass-fed beef operation, which is organic, humane and Audubon-certified. The pair never uses confinement except for short periods of time to care for animal health needs. Instead, they rotate their cattle in a way that more closely mimics nature and supports natural systems while raising healthy livestock. By applying these principles of holistic management, the focus is always on effectiveness rather than efficiency.
For example, part of their production cycle includes working with farmers to integrate livestock into cropping rotations. “We partner with farmers who want livestock on their farmland to help them achieve soil health goals,” says Whitten, who also serves on the Colorado Agricultural Commission. “In return, they offer us high-quality forage to finish our market animals on. This helps bring farmers, ranchers and consumers together to make their land and their communities more resilient both economically and environmentally.”
As Whitten sees it, this type of low-stress agricultural production nurtures everything in the system from the grass, living soil and livestock to rattlesnakes and magpies. “We don’t need to kill anything except the livestock at harvest, which we do in the most humane way possible. Our nomadic grazing practices are, when you think about it, a very ancient form of relating to the world, which we now call ‘agriculture’ – vetted by time, by evolution and by nature.”
Protecting the Animals
Similarly, Dr. Keith Roehr, state veterinarian with the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), has witnessed how livestock husbandry practices are passed down through the generations and are also continuously evolving. “We, as producers and veterinarians, have long understood that patience and kindness pay big dividends,” he says.
Today, livestock care and stewardship are top-tier issues with all farmers and ranchers across Colorado. Beef, pork, dairy and poultry producers have continually reevaluated and changed their daily care procedures in ways that reduce stress and diseases, increase well-being and result in better production.
Over the years, new technology and research have resulted in significant improvements in animal welfare, enabling livestock managers to develop an even deeper relationship with their animals and understanding of the needs of the animals and of the land. These innovations and insights have led to improved farm-level training and manuals, certifications, assessments and auditing.
An important part of this oversight falls under the CDA’s Bureau of Animal Protection (BAP), which partners with local law enforcement to prevent animal neglect. Each year, BAP agents conduct many assessments concerning all aspects of animal well-being, including (but not limited to) proper housing and nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, and humane handling practices.
The end results benefit not only the animals, the environment and the producers, but the consumers as well. Further, as more consumers desire to learn where their food comes from and how it’s raised, it’s clear these animal welfare programs will continue to be part of the discussion and the solution.
“We at CDA are proud of the livestock producers in our state and know they have a love of the land and the animals that they keep and care for,” Dr. Roehr says. Indeed, it’s just a way of life.
Helpful Resources for Animal Welfare
Bureau of Animal Protection
Emergency Preparedness and Response for Bovine, Poultry, and Swine Disease Outbreaks
What, When, and How to Report Concerns about Livestock Health