With a standard, 58-day summer growing season and temperatures that hover around 40 below during winter, Gunnison, Colo., might seem like a harsh place to live but Abilene, Texas native Eric McPhail is clearly thriving there. As head of the CSU (Colorado State University) Extension office, since 2006 he’s been monitoring the cattle and hay-growing industry as well as teaching Master Gardner classes, helping people set up greenhouses for such cool-weather crops as potatoes, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and herbs. “Our classes are specifically tailored on how to best extend the growing season up here,” he explained. “The greenhouses we suggest are of a simple, rounded design made of PVC pipe and UV plastic, which makes them really economical and easy to move.”
Born into ranching, this lifelong horseman and cattleman — who graduated from Texas A&M with a master’s degree in Ruminant Nutrition — went on to manage the family business for eight years before getting into teaching. From there Eric started looking for an extension job with the goal of finding a position in Agricultural Education: when Gunnison had an opening he applied for it.
“We have a really diverse population here which includes a large-scale ranching community, college students, government employees, and second-home owners,” he continued. “People come for the ski resort, the landscape and the mountains, and many of them eventually turn to some form of agriculture.”
And although less and less ranching family kids are staying on the land these days, “more and more college kids are turning up who want to be involved. You can’t stop the youth push and drive,” so Eric tries to think of innovative ways to get them working since “that foothold can be difficult.”
As part of the Education Outreach program, “we provide research-based information to anybody in order to better their quality of life,” which covers everything from clean and renewable energy to 4-H youth development to natural resources.
One of the main advantages to farming in Gunnison, he points out, is that “the soil is our best asset. It’s typically high in mineral content and organic matter, plus it’s well-draining. We don’t have to battle clay.” There’s lots of sunshine during the growing season, as well, and as a result “we produce some of the most energy-concentrated, premium-quality, native mountain meadow grass hays around. (Gunnison is the fifth largest hay producing county in Colorado. According to office literature it’s also a leading producer of Certified Weed Seed Free Forage: 16 percent of the state’s 6,200 certified acres are located in Gunnison County.) It’s on the borderline of 9½ percent crude protein — just enough and not too much — which is the maintenance that the animals need. It’s easily digestible, and the cattle get lots of carbohydrates and energy.”
Specifically chosen for the ability to thrive in long, sub-zero winters at high altitudes, “We typically run cattle that are about 50/50 English and Continental. I see the smaller, more docile, and easier fattening breeds (Angus and Hereford) crossed with the heavily-muscled, exotic breeds such as Simmental, Limousin, and Gelbvieh.”
PAP testing — otherwise known as Pulmonary Arterial Pressure — is done to assure that they can thrive and survive in such an environment. This is important when one considers elevations, which range from 6,600 to 13,000 feet, and winters that last so long “we get zero degree days in March and April. That’s when I say ‘enough already!’ ” Eric says with a short laugh.
“The biggest problem with Gunnison is the dry climate. We might get a total of 10 inches of moisture, which sometimes isn’t enough for a good snow cover, and as a result ground insulating can be a problem,” especially when temperatures bottom out in January. “For the last two years we’ve been below average on moisture, while in 2007 and 2008 we had records.” But although Gunnison “has water problems like everybody, the availability is good.” Thanks in part to the work of the Extension Office, those problems are being solved by teaching such techniques as proper irrigation management, better forage management, water rights, and overall land conservation. New property owners can read a wealth of information on water efficiency in one of the office’s free brochures, “Sustaining Colorado Agriculture.”
For anyone wanting to learn more about how to thrive in Gunnison, it’s really easy to find the Extension Office, which is located at the Fairgrounds on 275 S. Spruce. The phone number is (970) 641-1260) Gunnison native Lori Wilcox, who is Eric’s administrative assistant says, “We can help people with anything they ask.” Fielding phone calls to Eric, she explains that people want to know about everything from gardening to chickens to youth programs” and from the looks of the soil samples that were being brought into the office, this time of year they are certainly going into the busiest time of their season. ❖