Preserving the heritage, history and resources of her family’s 139-year-old ranch is something this Colorado rancher takes seriously.
Interview and Photograph by JENNIFER DENISON
SARA KETTLE SHIELDS WAS RAISED on the San Isabel Ranch in Westcliffe, Colorado, which her great-grandfather, William Charles Kettle, homesteaded in 1872. A graduate of Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in equine science and a master’s in beef industry leadership, Sara worked in several facets of the cattle industry for more than 10 years before receiving a call from her father, who was 73 at the time, asking if she’d like to come home and help run the ranch. It’s a job she gladly accepted and continues to do in his honor.
MY FATHER, BEN KETTLE, was a country veterinarian who graduated from Colorado A&M in 1944. His commitment to the land, livestock and community provided an example of leadership I try to uphold today.
WHEN FATHER GOT OLDER, I got to be his right-hand man. I remember one fall we were pregnancy checking the cows and I had taken it upon myself to learn to do that. He flipped over a five-gallon bucket, sat on it, grinned and said, “I’ve waited a lot of years to be able to sit and watch.” It was a wonderful moment because I felt so much a part of our ranch and that the responsibility was on my shoulders.
THERE IS A LOT OF BUZZ TODAY about low-stress cattle handling, livestock management and animal husbandry. These management styles are not a recent addition to our ranch, but a long-time philosophy.
I AM THE YOUNGEST of 10 children. Because my father had six girls and four boys on his cowboy crew, he never made me feel like I shouldn’t be part of the ranch work because I was a girl. He encouraged us to do whatever we wanted with our whole heart.
“There are times when the ranch comes first and our family earns less.”
I DIDN’T DECIDE to go back to the ranch; my dad made that decision. Although it was always in my heart to return, it was up to him when he needed the help and felt that it was time for the next generation to come home. I got that call in 1996. It was bittersweet, as I was leaving a job with the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association I truly loved. The hidden blessing was that the timing was perfect. Five years after I returned, my father passed away suddenly. I cherish the time we shared.
I MET MY HUSBAND, Mike, in Westcliffe. He was managing the ranch to the south of ours. We became very good friends and traded help. Then my dad offered him a job on our ranch. What better thing to do than fall in love with the boss’s daughter?
THERE’S AN UNSPOKEN communication between us. For example, when working cows we rarely have to check with each other to see who’s going to get the gate or ride up front.
FROM THE TIME I was a little girl, horses were my refuge. I found such joy riding bareback everywhere I went on good ranch horses. The moment I got off the school bus, I’d grab a can of oats and go down to the horse pasture. Sometimes I’d do what kids do—sit backwards and simply read a book or study the shapes of the clouds from my horse’s back. Countless hours have been spent horseback pasture-checking cows. These are quiet moments other industries cannot provide. The horses in my string have always supplied a special friendship.
I’VE FOUND THE BALANCE between the ranch and my responsibilities as a wife, mother and member of the community through the Lord. I strive to keep my heart and priorities in the right place. It’s remembering that He’ll give me another day if the house isn’t perfectly clean because I need to put a calving heifer first.
WE PARTNERED with neighboring ranchers on a conservation easement. As a family, it provides peace of mind because what is most important to us is the natural resources and working landscape.
MIKE AND I are devoted to the idea of both of us working on the ranch, rather than one of us getting a job in town, so we’ve had to diversify to earn additional income. I give riding lessons, take in colts and manage a vacation house on the ranch. Mike buys and sells cattle for other feed yards.
I’M AMAZED at how much colts teach me. Watching them grow and develop, and knowing I had a hand in how they respond, is a great journey.
THE NOTION of not being here is an ever-present thought, but we’re not willing to throw in the towel. The thought of having someone else own the cows we’ve raised for generations makes us realize that the land and livestock are part of the family.
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