Tucked away in the urban centers of the Front Range of Colorado are remnants of Colorado’s rural roots. You do not have to look too hard to find these in Fort Collins — just head west on Drake or Horsetooth Road or south on Timberline Road. Because these small farms and ranches are quickly being surrounded by urban growth, many are not seen by the occupants of the cars that speed by.
One of these family ranches is Laffey’s Irish Animals. The property is a 36-acre rectangle that slopes down to the west. The house, barn and pens are on the lower back side and hay is grown on the part next to the road. Thousands pass the property every day and have no concept that there is a small family ranch there.
It is a totally different story on the southern boundary of the property. In 2009, the year before Stephen and Kelly Laffey and their six children moved to Colorado and made their home there, the land to the south was an open field. Today it is a densely packed, modern sub-division and some of the residents can look across their back yards and watch seven beautiful Gypsy Vanner horses running in their next door neighbors pasture.
The Laffeys have made some remarkable progress with their operation. Remarkable, because not only are the Laffeys not from Colorado, they are from the Northeast. Kelly Laffey grew up in Mississippi and is the only member of the family that had any experience with horses. Stephen Laffey grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island, and was president of a large investment firm in the South. He moved home to Cranston to serve four years as its mayor, and rescued the town from bankruptcy. After an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate, Laffey decided that a fresh start was in order and made the wise choice to move to Colorado, “We picked Fort Collins because we thought it would be a good place to raise children,” said Laffey.
“I always wanted to buy my wife, Kelly, a ranch and get her some horses. So when we got this property, myself being the businessman, I did two things — One, never having any animals, I tried to find some animals that wouldn’t hurt me, so that led me to the red, polled Dexter and the Gypsy horses. They both happen to be Irish. So I’m the marketing guy and I called it Laffey’s Irish Animals,” said Laffey.
The second wise decision Steven Laffey made was a realistic assessment of a business model for Laffey’s Irish Animals. “We can’t do Black Angus and we can’t do the Irish Blacks. That takes real acreage and real water. So we need a higher margin, lower volume business, something rare that we can only sell a small amount a year, but the kids can handle and do 4-H with them. The Red Dexter’s and the Gypsy Vanners fit those criteria and they are more expensive and they are very rare. There are only a couple of thousand Gypsies in the United States and of the polled Red Dexters, with no PHA and no Chondro, and being A2A2, there might be 70, and I had to go all over the country to find them,” said Laffey.
Dexter cattle are the smallest of the European cattle breeds, being about half the size of a traditional Hereford. They are definitely small, but not a miniature. The Black Dexter is larger, horned and sold mostly for meat. The Red Dexter is polled and used primarily for milk. The meat is excellent, but they are far too valuable to slaughter. There are two genetic diseases in Dexters, PHA and Chondro. PHA produces a kind of dwarfism with short legs and Chondro is responsible for fatal abortions. To have animals that are certified PHA and Chondro free is a big deal.
Without being too technical, Red Dexters that have the homozygous A2A2 proteins in their milk are extremely rare and valuable. Cow’s milk contains different types of proteins. One type is Beta Casein and there are three variants, A1A1, A1A2, and A2A2, within this type. Over the years, the homozygous A2A2 has been bred out of most dairy breeds. The majority of the milk consumed in the United States is A1A1. “We are actually trying to help the breed because the A2A2 milk protein has been bred out of all those big cows. We have found, and people know, that the people that are allergic to milk can actually drink A2A2 milk.”
According to the American Dexter Cattle Association, there are 635 registered Dexters in Colorado. Of the 635 registered Dexters having the parameters of red, polled, no Chondro, and no PHA, there are only 17 in Colorado and five of them belong to Stephen Laffey. To top it all off “Mojo, our bull, has all five characteristics — he is red, polled, no PHA, no Chondro, and he is A2A2,” said Laffey.
The Laffey Gypsy Vanners are some of the best in the country. The Gypsy horse is a small draught breed, recognized for its abundant leg feathering, long thick mane and tail, gentle disposition and black and white color. Because of the small children in the family, Stephen and Kelly Laffey have made the decision to not have a stallion at Laffey’s Irish Animals. All breeding is done by AI and some of the best Gypsy Vanner bloodlines are present in the Laffey horses.
“We’re a small operation, but I can truthfully say these are A-level Gypsies,” said Stephen Laffey, “We’re not breeding to win some great championship show. We are breeding for disposition, size and markings. We also want all of them to be as gentle as possible so we can promote the breed.” Everyone in the family handles the Gypsies on a daily basis and Kelly has trained two of them to ride using natural horsemanship.
“The older they get, the more gentle they get,” said Kelly Laffey. “I worked with our gelding for a long time when he was one and a half. The first time I put a bridle and saddle on him and cinched it up he just stood there. Every single one of these horses that is old enough, has had a saddle on them, and has never bucked.”
Stephan and Kelly Laffey are firmly convinced that making the move to Colorado was the right thing to do and it has been good for the kids and brought an already close family even closer. “There are things that the family does together here, such as raising chickens, the 4-H projects, taking steers to slaughter which are important lessons that they never would have learned in Rhode Island,” said Stephan Laffey. “Altogether, it produces a happier and more closely knit family. Everyone has much more responsibility every day. The kids are doing something every day that keeps us closer, and teaches them valuable life lessons. ❖