Started from Scratch
In the midst of drought, the Schalla family of Colorado works to sustain the cattle operation they built from the ground up.
Dark clouds cloak the moon and stars the night before branding on Blue Hills Ranch. The rumble of distant thunder offers hope that it might rain over the drought-stricken southern Colorado range. The ranch’s owner, Roger Schalla, sits at the head of the dining room table, flanked by his son Walter, son-in-law Jackson and friend Jason Stites. The clock strikes 10 p.m. and Roger has a decision to make. Does he brand all of his calves, banking on the looming storm to produce enough pond water to keep some of his cattle on a piece of leased land, or does he sort off some of the cow-calf pairs to downsize his herd?
The dilemma is one Roger has faced several times since he bought the ranch in 1998.
“We never anticipated a drought,” the 56-year-old rancher explains.
“The year we bought the ranch was one of the best years this country has seen in terms of moisture, and it was really green. It hasn’t been that good since.”
Roger was a farrier for 35 years and had a steady clientele of hunterjumper and dressage clients in Denver and the surrounding suburbs. His noted customers included oil tycoon Martin Davis and American Hall of Fame basketball player and Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel. He also shod a foundered zebra and built a special shoe for an injured wildebeest at the Denver Zoo. His wife, Pat, worked for the United States Postal Service for 25 years. Together, they have spent their entire 34 years of marriage gradually building a ranch where they could retire, run cattle and eventually pass it on to their three children, Joette, 33; J.T., 31; and Walter,24.
Step by Step
Roger was born in Wisconsin and spent his early childhood years on a dairy farm before his family moved to Montana.
“I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but when I got out of high school I set out to work on ranches,” he says. “When I was 19 I moved to Colorado and got a job on the Highlands Ranch [southwest of Denver].”
Pat, who grew up in Pennsylvania, moved to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder. The couple met on a ranch where Pat was riding horses and Roger was shoeing. They married in 1979 and set out to one day have their own cattle ranch.
“When I was [a young man] I didn’t think it was possible to put a ranch together, but we never gave up, even though there were no guarantees,” Roger says. “Pat told me she didn’t care where we lived as long as we could have pigs. It wasn’t that she really wanted pigs, but she wanted to live out.”
The first home they bought was a 12-by-60-foot singlewide trailer on 62 acres south of Kiowa where they ran a small herd of cattle and a few horses. The couple, who had just had their second child, could not get a bank-financed loan.
“They told us we had to have a dairy to get financing, and we didn’t want that,” Pat recalls. “Everything we bought was owner-financed, because Roger was self-employed and I worked only part-time.”
The Schallas lived on that property for a few years and then traded it for 160 irrigated acres near Belfry, Montana, known as the Poor Farm. Roger traveled between Montana and Colorado regularly for his shoeing clients, leaving Pat to tend the ranch and children. After about six months, the Schallas sold that ranch and bought 400 acres in Calhan, Colorado. Roger wanted to own a section of land by the time he was 30, Pat says, so the couple continued to work jobs o the ranch and saved enough money to buy another 280 acres and more cattle.
“I told Pat if we could get 100 head of cattle paid for, we’d be okay,” Roger says with a wry chuckle. “ at’s what I thought at the time, but I found out di erent. But with each step we got a little closer to having what we wanted.”
RUNNING HORSES TO RANCH HORSES
Besides raising cattle, the Schallas also dabbled in racehorses for a short time in the 1980s. eir most successful horse was St Moonlight, a gelding they paid $2,500 for in a claiming race and that won two consecutive races in Colorado.
“He won one race, so the next week we put him in a $2,000 claiming race,” Roger recalls. “Everyone thought he was crippled [since he was o ered for less], but he wasn’t and he won the race.
“We didn’t stay in the racehorse business long, and ended up trading him to a friend in Montana whose daughter used him for 4-H and barrel racing.”
The Schalla kids competed in junior rodeo and 4-H, and Joette also rode in a local U.S. Pony Club. But they also were expected to work on the ranch.
“The kids were the best and only hands we had,” Roger says. “We couldn’t a ord a hired man, so the kids were it.”
Joette admits, “There were times as a teenager I thought I didn’t want to ride horses or work cattle anymore. I really wanted to ride English, so I was in Pony Club. We were fortunate that through a shoeing job Dad acquired a gelding that would jump anything and also ran barrels and poles.”
Needing ranch horses for his family to ride on the ranch and in the arena, Roger bought horses and broodmares he could breed to outside stallions. His appreciation for racehorses factored into his selection.
“I never cared about how a horse was bred if it was a good horse,” he says. “However, there were certain bloodlines I did prefer. I always got along well with Easy Jet horses because they would all watch a cow, yet had some size and sting. “ e problem with today’s cutting-bred horses is that they’re getting so small. I found that if I crossed running and cow horse bloodines I’d get a horse with a larger frame, and bigger bone and heart girth, yet was still cowy.”
Roger bought several weanlings from the R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas. He would start them on the ranch and then the kids would take turns riding the colts. e family spent a lot of time horseback, doctoring, branding and trailing cattle to di erent pastures.
“We had a pretty big cow herd in Calhan,” Joette says. “It wasn’t uncommon for us to push the cattle 10 to 15 miles up the county road when gathering them. My brothers and I thought it would be fun to have a four-wheeler to play on, but Dad always said, ‘You don’t need a four-wheeler because you have horses to ride.’ ”
Teaching his children good horsemanship was a priority for Roger, not only for safety reasons but also so they could work cattle quietly and e ciently. Joette says that although she and her siblings did not always want to heed their dad’s advice, they did take his coaching seriously.
“I remember Dad asking us what diagonal or lead we were on, or what foot was hitting the ground while we were loping across the pasture,” she says. “He had great ways of explaining things to us and taught us to have a better feel for our horses.
“I don’t think we would have done as well in roping and rodeo if Dad hadn’t taught us good horsemanship skills, and we would have had to buy [trained] horses instead of making our own.”
Roger’s emphasis on horsemanship stemmed from his days starting colts for the public as a teenager with his brothers.
“Looking back, we probably didn’t do a very good job,” he says. “It was a tough, dangerous job, and horsemanship became one of my priorities to make things easier for me and the horse. I went to several Ray Hunt clinics, and he had a huge in uence on me.”
Even when neighboring during gathers and brandings, Roger is cautious about whom he invites to help.
“Some people get out of control, and that’s no way to handle horses and cattle,” he says. “I believe going slow gets the job done more e ciently. If you have good horsemanship skills, I believe you’re a lot more in tune with what’s going on with the animals—both the horse and cow.” Horses with tough feet and big bone do best on Blue Hills Ranch, because they are better suited to withstand the rocky terrain, arid conditions and plentiful cactus.
“The horses Dad raised here seemed to do better than the ones he brought in,” Joette says. “It’s like they adapted to the land.”
Through the years, the Schallas raised, trained and sold roping and ranch horses to local and well-known horsemen, such as 20-time National Finals Rodeo team roper Doyle Gellerman.
“I didn’t sell a lot of horses,” Roger says. “But I sold the good ones.”
RETIRED TO RANCH
In 1998, after 11 years in Calhan, the Schallas sold their ranch. Land prices in Colorado were at a premium at the time, as ranches were being bought for development. Roger and Pat received a high return on their investment that, combined with savings and bank nancing, allowed them both to retire and purchase Blue Hills Ranch in southern Colorado, about 28 miles east of Walsenburg. e place has varied terrain, from hilly high-desert pasture to deep rocky canyons with cedar breaks at the bottom.
Roger and Pat continue to live on the 10,000-acre ranch that is located in a region known for mild winters, hardy grasses and reasonable land prices. Each of their children lives within 75 miles on other ranches or their own acreage.
J.T. completed the horse-training program at Lamar Community College in Colorado and received an associate’s degree in ranch management. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business from Oklahoma Panhandle State University. He, his wife, Amber, and their young child live in Avondale. He trains roping horses and has worked on the Hermosilla Ranch for more than seven years. At the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show last fall, he placed sixth in the junior tie-down roping nals on a Hermosilla horse he trained.
Joette graduated from Panhandle State University with a business degree and is a retail buyer for Big R Stores. She and her husband, Jackson Donnell, a fourth-generation Colorado rancher, run a small cattle herd in Boone.
Walter, who graduated from a junior college in Trinidad with a degree in energy production and construction management, is a cowboy on the Mustang Ranch in southern Colorado.
The three siblings still help their parents on the ranch, especially during branding and shipping, and they are involved in making decisions that a ect the ranch’s future.
“We all do our own things, but we all run [Blue Hills Ranch] together,” Joette says. “If you’re going to work hard, there’s nothing more rewarding than coming to this scenic ranch and working cattle. We all love this lifestyle and hope to keep this ranch going.”
Roger and Pat have considered moving to an area where it takes less land to run cattle, but the scenery and wildlife on Blue Hills Ranch have deepened their roots there.
“We’re nally seeing the rewards of our hard work,” Roger says. “We both quit our day jobs and retired to running our ranch full-time. We’re busier now than ever.”
ADJUSTING TO THE ENVIRONMENT
Back at the dining room table, another hour has passed, and Roger is still unsure what to do. Having invested everything he has into the ranch and cattle and wanting to see the operation perpetuate, he has to be absolutely sure of his decision.
“Let’s just drive up there [to the lease near La Veta about 40 miles away] and see if it’s raining,” Stites says.
Looking at the clock and time ticking away, Roger opts to call a friend outside of La Veta and nds out that it is indeed raining. e dry, thirsty ponds absorb the rain faster than it can fall. But this slightest bit of moisture encourages Roger to hold onto his cattle.
Last year, the ranch received only six inches of precipitation. The region receives 10 inches of moisture during a good year and can support one cow per 50 to 60 acres. Now, it takes 100 acres to feed one cow.
A decade-long drought has reshaped the Schalla cow herd. Some years the Schallas have run more yearlings than mother cows.
“We would start putting yearlings together around the rst of the year and sell them in the fall,” he explains. “It is a good way to supplement the ranch’s income, and you get a quicker return on the cattle.”
The major shift Roger made was crossing Corriente cattle with Hereford and Angus to create a hardier cow that could survive on poorer quality grasses growing in the parched pastures.
“The market discounts Corrientes a little, but we’re working toward a three-quarter or half-Angus cow that is as thrifty as a Corriente, but can survive in cold weather,” he explains.
The Schallas have also had to learn to be exible, and adjust their herd size and acres leased according to the conditions.
“The last couple of years we sold calves right o the cow,” he says. “Normally, we’d wean and background them a little before selling them in January.
“How we rotate our pastures depends on the grass—we don’t have a set plan. When the grass is green and growing, we rotate faster. In drought conditions, like we’re experiencing now, we rotate slower. I change the rotation to where we’re grazing di erent pastures at different times of the year to help the grass grow.”
Roger also tries to breed his heifers so they calve in April and May when there’s more grass.
“Our cows are kept in the open,” he explains. “It takes twice as much feed to support a cow while she has a calf on her, so we want to avoid calving in February and March.”
Though Roger ended up branding the calves he had considered selling, later he culled several head from the herd when land for lease became scarce.
“It eventually started raining the end of July, but it didn’t last long,” Roger says. “We had to adjust our grazing by reducing our numbers. It’s extremely hard to nd ground to lease.”
As branding time nears again, the Schallas are waiting to see what nature has in store for them this spring.
“If we don’t have good rains or snows this spring, it could get really ugly,” Roger says. “We will know in May or June what we need to do.”
Stites, who has neighbored with the family for more than 10 years, says that it’s uncommon to find a family who has built a ranch the way the Schallas have.
“Roger has been able to do this because he’s adaptable to any situation and is smart in the way he manages his ranch,” Stites says.
Despite the vagaries of weather and cattle prices, Roger says his family will find ways to sustain—and even expand— their operation.
“We’ll always look for opportunities to grow the ranch and cow herd, especially with the kids wanting to take over,” he explains. “Our goal is to build this ranch to the point all three kids can partner up. We’ve come too far to give up now.”
JENNIFER DENISON is senior editor of Western Horseman. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.