Steadfastly devoted to ranch life and taking risks, John Welch and his family have built a self-sustaining cow-calf operation: Welch Cattle Company.
The mentality of a rancher is generally different from that of a working cowboy. Rather than being independent and carefree, ranchers tend to be more moderate and calculated.
Responsible for cattle genetics, calving weights, marketing strategies, operational procedures, budgets and a host of other factors that affect a ranch’s bottom line, it’s understandable why those who manage or own a cattle operation take a measured approach to their vocation.
But that doesn’t mean they avoid stepping onto a wild ride, and for them the risks may include life, limb or financial ruin. Longtime rancher John Welch has strapped himself to countless ventures with no chance for a dismount.
“It’s like a guy that gets up on a hillside with his toboggan,” Welch says. “And you decide, ‘Okay, I’m going down.’ There’s nothing but pine trees and snow below. Well, once you push off, the big planning is done. Now you’re just dodging trees. And if you get to the bottom, you say, ‘Whew, I made it.’ And then it’s on to another hillside.”
Despite the hazards associated with ranching—from natural disasters to volatile markets—Welch and his family have essentially built their own cattle operation from scratch during the past 30 years. Welch Cattle Company runs cows and calves in Colorado, Kansas and Montana. It is headquartered near La Junta, Colorado.
“There have been a lot of stressful times, but it has been very rewarding,” Welch says. “And it’s been real rewarding to have my boys become good hands who are all making their living in the cattle and horse business.”
Welch was raised on a farm near Midland, Texas, and was always drawn to cowboy life. But during his freshman year at Texas A&M University, he realized that owning a ranch was his true passion. After graduation, he and his wife, Bonnie, moved to Denver, Colorado, and he began working as a market analyst for CattleFax, a member-owned information organization serving beef producers.
“We moved to Colorado in the early 1970s,” Welch says. “It was wonderful because every day and all day long I would call some of the most progressive ranchers in the state of Texas and talk to them about the market.”
After several years Welch established his own beef cattle commodities business, trading futures for customers and himself. Along the way, he leased various ranches and properties and ran cattle on them. One place, the Bijou Springs Ranch north of Colorado Springs, changed ownership, and in 1984 Welch was able to expand his lease agreement and move his wife and three boys onto the 15,000-acre ranch. At that point he sold his commodities company.
“That was the big leap of faith,” Welch recalls. “Bob was 6, Andy was 3 and Wesley was 2. I had owned cattle and leased country, but I had never lived on a ranch. Sometimes I had a guy hired to help me. At that point we were just ranching for a living.”
The Welches lived on Bijou Springs for 16 years, and as the boys grew they developed into a capable cowboy crew. Later, Welch and a business partner purchased a ranch in Nebraska, and selling it a few years afterward helped the Welches buy Apishapa Canyon Ranch, near La Junta, in 1991. John and Bonnie moved there once their boys were out of high school.
“Through it all, I always have had other jobs that supported us buying a ranch,” Welch says, “whether it was doing cattle consulting work for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, working for Spade Ranches, or training and selling cutting horses. What I feel satisfaction with is that those things involved cattle, horses and ranchland. And those are three things that conventional wisdom says you can’t make a living on.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, Welch competed as a non-professional in the National Cutting Horse Association. He trained his own horses and sold a few for impressive profits. One mare, Bid A Little, carried him to the 1993 NCHA Futurity non-pro finals, and then the non-pro reserve championship at the Augusta Futurity. Afterward, Welch sold the mare, a daughter of Peppy San Badger, for an amount that covered the annual mortgage on Apishapa Canyon Ranch.
In 2003, Welch was hired as president and CEO of Spade Ranches. He and Bonnie moved to Lubbock, Texas, where offices for the large West Texas cow-calf operation are located.
Meanwhile, Bob was pursuing a career in journalism (he is now editor in chief of American Cowboy magazine). Wesley was in college, and Andy was working on a master’s degree in integrated resource management. Once Andy graduated, it was clear that his interests were in managing the family cattle operation.
“I think growing up we all knew that I wasn’t going to go real far from the home place,” Andy says. “The thought was to grow it, and pretty much right out of college I came back and stayed.”
Within a few years, the Welches modified their ownership structure, creating Welch Cattle Company, which is equally owned by the four couples in the immediate family: John and Bonnie, Bob and Kristen, Andy and Rianna, and Wesley and Ledah. Welch Cattle pays Andy a competitive wage to manage operations, and employs one other cowboy. It leases land for grazing in multiple locations, including Apishapa Canyon Ranch, which serves as headquarters. Separately, the three brothers have formed their own partnership on stocker yearlings, and John runs his own yearlings from Texas to Montana.
“I have to give Andy credit,” Welch says. “When we formed Welch Cattle, we were running about 350 cows. He’s got us up to over 1,000 head now.”
Andy says that he, his brothers and father work well together.
“My brothers and I were all taught the same, so there aren’t many big-picture arguments,” Andy says. “[Welch Cattle Company] hired me to do a job, and they trust that I’m going to do it. They don’t worry about the day-to-day.”
Getting along isn’t always a reality on family operations. But if things are cohesive, Welch believes it’s the best ranching business model.
“I think that’s the most efficient way to ranch,” he says. “Family members do the work, as well as handle strategic planning, and that cuts down on the overhead. And then there is the pride in ownership, which will make you work that extra hour.”
The Welches also take pride in handling cattle with traditional methods: gathering on horseback and roping and dragging calves to the branding fire. Andy rides horses purchased from respected ranch horse programs, as well as a couple of his wife’s barrel horses.
“I really believe that ranch work keeps their brains right,” Rianna says.
The Welches agree that being horseback is one of the biggest perks of ranch life. The stressful part is dealing with escalating land values, tax structures, plummeting beef prices and unpredictable weather patterns. During the recent drought that began in 2011, the Welches struggled to find enough grass for the cattle they had decided to keep. They continually moved cattle all over the western United States.
“It’s like playing checkers, constantly moving pieces,” Welch says.
When rains returned last year, they took a loan and bought a set of mother cows, banking on selling their calves for a good price. But the beef market took a sharp downward spiral last fall.
When navigating the slippery slope of ranching, it helps to have an even-keel mindset in spite of those ups and downs in the market.
“The boys are more that way than I am,” Welch says. “They have a good perspective on life, and I admire that about them. Their faith is first, family is second, and ranching third. Bonnie must have taught that to them.”
Welch retired from Spade Ranches in 2012, and Wesley took his dad’s position. But that hasn’t freed Welch’s schedule, as ranching ventures keep him as busy as ever. All three of his boys have families, so there are also important grandchildren to visit. Welch avoids getting overly philosophical, but at this stage in his life it’s hard not to begin making life assessments.
“Too many people get caught up in their dream or their careers, and I’ve been guilty of that,” Welch says. “I’m trying to do better now. You might focus on your career goals and achieve them, but find that the cost was greater than what you got. If Bonnie hadn’t been my partner for the last 44 years, and my sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren weren’t so involved, and if I hadn’t made hundreds of great friends, all the rest would have very little value. The good Lord has blessed me way more than I deserve.”
This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Western Horseman.