Brand awareness: Promoting cattle industry welcome task for Grand Valley rancher.

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Janie VanWinkle wears a lot of hats.

She wears a white straw cowboy hat as she leads a tour of part of her family’s cattle ranching operation south of Grand Junction. The wide brim of that hat shades her face from the summer sun as she points out improvements to an irrigation system on the property and grass that’s grown waist high in places. She stops at a spot where a small herd of yearlings hang out, waiting for a ride that will take them to cooler pastures atop the Grand Mesa. There’s an outlier in the bunch of mostly white Charolais — a Texas longhorn who really is with a fearsome 6 feet worth extending past his ears.

On other occasions, VanWinkle says she wears other, proverbial hats. Those of a meteorologist or veterinarian. Or a business owner faced with complex decisions involving everything from supply chains to market trends to trade policies.

“It’s not just a cowboy hat,” she says.

VanWinkle has yet another hat to wear these days as the newly elected president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). She’s the 115th president of one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country, but only the third woman over the course of more than 150 years to hold the position.

While the coronavirus pandemic could hamper some of her aspirations for her year-long term, VanWinkle says some effects of the pandemic also could stimulate some needed conversations about where food comes from and the role of ranchers who provide that food. It’s important for the industry to connect with consumers, she says, because they’re the end-users who drive business.

VanWinkle brings some experience to that endeavor as a former manager of big box retailers and owner of a take-and-bake pizza franchise. But she’s worked longer — for most of her life, in fact — as a rancher.

VanWinkle and her husband, Howard, have belonged to the CCA for more than 30 years. Janie VanWinkle has served on the CCA board of directors for more than six years in a succession of officer positions that’s led to her presidency. She’ll continue serving on the board as a past president.

The association represents ranchers and others working in the beef industry across the state and advocates on their behalf. As a grassroots organization, the board takes its direction from members. VanWinkle says it’s part of her job as president to lead board efforts.

Those efforts come at a time when she says the Colorado cattle industry faces challenges from a pandemic, drought and widening gap between the prices consumers pay and ranchers receive.

VanWinkle grew up in Western Colorado and graduated from Nucla High School. She attended Colorado State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education.

She returned to the West Slope and initially planned to teach. She took a job at Mervyn’s in Grand Junction and went on to become an operations manager for the department store chain. She also managed the Barnes & Noble when an outlet opened in Grand Junction. She owned the Nick-N-Willy’s Pizza franchise in Grand Junction until she sold the restaurant in 2015.

Howard VanWinkle worked as a mechanic at various dealerships and shops before operating his own shop.

Janie VanWinkle says she and Howard finally realized in 2015 their dreams to work together full-time on the ranching operation they’d started when they married. “It only took 35 years to get there.”

Their son, Dean, a student at Kansas State University, also has joined in the family operation.

Janie VanWinkle says she and Howard started out when they married with her 20 head of Charolais cross cows and his 20 head of Suffolk sheep.

Today, the VanWinkles oversee a cow-calf operation with a herd of about 550 cows to produce calves sold to feedlots for beef.

Their operation includes not only the property at their home near Fruita, but also property they lease from the City of Grand Junction east of Whitewater as well as federal grazing allotments on the Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre Plateau. With 70 miles between some of the locations, the ranch puts more than 6,000 miles a year on the truck that hauls cattle, Janie VanWinkle says.

The work can be tiring, she says. Cows are monitored around the clock during calving season. And moving cattle to some grazing allotments requires long days on horseback. That’s to mention growing, cutting and storing hay.

The work also can be rewarding, she says. But depending on market conditions, not always financially so. “There’s pride in what we’re doing, but it doesn’t always pay the bills. You save during the good years to get through the bad years.”

This year, VanWinkle says the calves they sold through a video auction brought less than the break-even price per pound.

It’s a challenge for ranchers, she says. Even as beef prices at grocery stores have increased, the prices ranchers earn for cattle have decreased. She attributes part of the gap to a bottleneck in processing that’s resulted in a glut of cattle in feedlots. But there are also concerns among ranchers over the power of meatpackers to set prices.

The VanWinkle Ranch has diversified its operation by selling hamburger directly to consumers. That not only adds value to their product, she says, but also affords her opportunities to talk to consumers and answer their questions about ranching and beef. “It allows me to do some education.”

Other opportunities arose after the onset of the pandemic, she says, when empty grocery store shelves prompted concerns about food supplies.

VanWinkle says one of her intentions as CCA president is to foster better connections between ranchers and consumers.

Ranching is a matter of not only providing food, but also promoting economic development, she says.

According to the CCA, Colorado livestock and products account for more than $3.7 billion in annual cash receipts — about 75 percent of that from cattle and calves. Colorado ranks fourth among states in exports of fresh and frozen beef.

According to results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, cattle and calves also ranked as the top agriculture product sold in Mesa County at nearly $28 million.

VanWinkle says her family strives to care for livestock as well as the land and community.

Colorado Parks & Wildlife honored the VanWinkle Ranch as the CCA 2019 Landowner of the Year for efforts to improve resources that also benefit wildlife. In addition to her work with the CCA, Janie VanWinkle serves on the boards of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Valley Power.

Those are more hats for VanWinkle to wear.

Still, she says she most enjoys time spent under her cowboy hat — whether that’s checking on the cattle on her ranch or advocating on behalf of the cattle industry in Colorado.