Custer County (Colo.) FFA-operated Riggs Ranch a successful partnership
November 6, 2023 — Westcliffe, Colo., which is home to the Custer County FFA chapter, is sandwiched between the Wet and the Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges in the Wet Mountain Valley. It is home to vast hay meadows that roll toward the mountain ranges and plenty of quality cattle grazing acres. The Wet Mountain Valley is home to several cow calf operations with long and rich histories and one of those operations belongs to the Riggs family.
The Riggs family came to Colorado from Tennessee by way of Texas in 1870 and moved to the Trinidad area on a ranch north and west where they raised cattle and sold beef to the miners in the area. In the 1950s, Dan Riggs moved with a young son, Derald, after the passing of his first wife. His job, which led him to Westcliffe, was as a government trapper with what was Colorado Game and Fish at the time. Dan met his wife, Arlie Crabb, who was a home economics teacher in Westcliffe. The family of three welcomed son Dean in 1958.
Originally, the 160-acre Riggs Ranch was a sheep operation with a smattering of registered Angus cows. Dean admits the operation wasn't as large as some, but it was manageable for Dan as he balanced his work and love for agriculture and wildlife.
"The interest in educating people goes back to Dad," Dean said. "As a young wildlife officer, everyone was living off the land, and he was tasked with arresting (poachers) and taking them to town in front of the judge."
Dan thought perhaps he could proactively work to educate those people's children to shape how the next generation thinks about wildlife, changing the cycle for the better. In his years teaching hunter education courses, he encouraged agriculture interests and wildlife interests to cooperate, insisting that plenty of outside attacks would exist that could be better defended against as a united front without in-fighting. Through his efforts, he became a leader in the community, working to bring a health clinic to town and other efforts to better the community. Arlie, too, was a leader in her own right, retiring from social services after a long career supporting people in the community. She, too, was dedicated to education about the value of wildlife and how to develop the valley with wildlife in mind.
There was no FFA program in Westcliffe for Dean and his brother Derald at the time, and they are now quick to recognize and appreciate the number of students positively impacted by the current FFA program. Dean, too, worked in agriculture and then served the state for 30 years within what was then the Division of Wildlife, even spending several years running the Canon City Wild Horse Inmate Program at the correctional facility.
When Dan passed away about 40 years ago, Arlie became a cattlewoman, running her own herd with assistance from the school's agriculture teacher.
"Tom Flower, who later became a county commissioner, said he would bring the FFA kids out and brand the calves," Riggs said. "The next thing, they were fixing fence and that was a great partnership."
FFA OUTDOOR CLASSROOM
As rural Colorado ranchers do as they age and require assistance, Arlie moved to town. The drought was bearing down on the valley at the time, and Dean and Derald let the ranch rest and recover for a couple of years. After some discussion and some rain, the brothers decided to continue their relationship with FFA and turned it into an outdoor classroom with the FFA chapter at the helm. The chapter moved forward and began their cowherd on the ranch and continued the maintenance, work and operations.
The chapter has improved fences and added a chute and working facilities to ensure the students are best able to utilize the ranch. With 40 students in the program, all of the activities at the ranch can truly provide a hands-on experience in multiple ways. Beyond the beef operation, Crispe said a sophomore student is planning to utilize the ranch in her soil research.
Ben Stafford, chapter president, is a senior and a member of one of the multi-generational cattle-raising families in the Wet Mountain Valley.
"We try our best to use it as a learning lab for students," Stafford said. "Whether that's kids who have never been around agriculture or cattle in general, we try to show those kids, whether it's taking them out there and them understanding how preg checking works or how we ship cattle we can show the entire process from branding all the way to the salebarn. We use it as a learning lab and a tool because that's why we have it."
When the beef operation began, chapter vice president Kenna Ingram said some of the calves produced were exhibited by members at the county fair. The herd is commercial, and the goal isn't to raise show steers, but rather to provide an experience to the student and to show members of the community how the chapter is utilizing the opportunities made possible by not only the generosity of the Riggs family, but countless members of the community.
"For students who need a facility to keep their project animal, the Riggs is open for that," she said. "That has been an interesting and amazing start for how we can tie that into our county fair and show the community that we're here for the kids."
The cowherd consists of 10 cow calf pairs and three heifers retained from the calf crop that will calve in the spring. Shane and Beth Temple, owners of the T-Heart Ranch in LaGarita, donate the use of a herd bull annually and Crispe said their high altitude genetics play a huge role in building a quality cowherd.
"Mr. Dean Riggs has been a great help to us," chapter treasurer Chris Mullett said. "He hays the ranch and we're able to buy 1,000 bales from him to feed throughout the year."
RAISING AND MARKETING CALVES
In previous years, the chapter members have raised the calves and marketed them in La Junta at Winter Livestock. This year, with new adviser Eddie Crispe, who has a background in cattle feeding, the calves are contracted to Five Rivers. The calves will be delivered in mid-November and Crispe and his students will have monthly data from the feedyard they can use to calculate daily gains, feed efficiency, cost of gain and other real world data points as the cattle are fed. When the cattle reach their endpoint, Crispe and the students will travel to Greeley to the JBS beef plant and tour the facility and see the carcasses hanging.
"They'll get to see the very start to the very end and more of an educational process," Crispe said. "Hopefully we can continue that partnership with Five Rivers and make that an extension of the classroom."
Riggs leases their family brand to the chapter. It's the inverted T stacked bar strung bar that dates back to the 1870s. Dean said it has become as much a symbol of pride for the FFA students as the Custer County Bobcats mascot.
"The legacy the Riggs family has of ranching and living in this valley for so many years and being a part of our FFA chapter and being a part of agriculture in the Wet Mountain Valley is something we pride ourselves on that these are alumni that have given us this opportunity," Stafford said. "We're proud to be able to say this is our ranch. When people ask about our chapter, the ranch is what I tell them about because I think it is an amazing opportunity for us to capitalize on."
Dean studied animal science at Colorado State University and said because his father managed their cowherd at home for minimal labor, the first time he pulled a calf was at Colorado State University, of course, in the middle of the night when he was alone watching the heifers.
"I got a call from the previous ag instructor, Kyle Evans, and he told me the story of the FFA kids checking cows while he was out of town with another group of kids," he said. "They were having problems, and those kids pulled a calf out there at the ranch and they were successful. Here's the value, you know. Hands on experience while you're still in high school. Those experiences are good ones for those kids."
He said Arlie was instrumental getting a conservation easement on it as well and that took a great deal of "noodling" about whether or not to do it, but it came down to what dad would have wanted and with his wildlife background and agriculture, that was the decision made. At that intersection of agriculture and wildlife, Dean offered the latest example of the ballot proposal to prohibit the hunting of mountain lions and bobcats.
"I'm a realist to know that just because they're in FFA and wear the blue corduroy jacket, doesn't mean they'll end up employed in agriculture, but they're all going to vote — I hope they vote," he said. "I hope they get something out of it that will leave them when, for instance, animal rights-type folks take a run at something, they can lean back on that experience somehow and think and make the right decision on the ballot."
Source: Rachel Gabel, The Fence Post Magazine