Of all the worries western farmers and ranchers contend with at any given moment—drought, disease, pests, mid-August hail storms, mineral rights development, water wars, and more drought—the Mikita family of Calhan, Colorado has a unique problem to add to their list: Super Slab.
It sounds like something out of a ‘50’s science fiction movie, or a crop disease. It is, in fact, the brain child of a private developing concern that has proposed a 210-mile long toll highway curving through Colorado's eastern plains from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and has been decried by locals “as a solution in search of a need.” The proposed path of the Super Slab winds through the eastern plains of the Colorado Rockies and the Mikita’s 2,500 acre ranch. Were the project to go through, Scott Mikita says, “we could lose every inch of our land.”
The land that hosts the Mikita Dairy has been farmed by the family for generations, Scott and his wife Robin being the fourth. “When my sons grow up, they’ll be the fifth,” Scott predicts. Three of those generations live within spitting distance of each other now. “We like to joke that my parents live ‘up north’, Robin and I live ‘down south,’ and my grandmother lives in the middle,” Scott says. “Of course, we’re all within 50 yards of each other.” Some folks might find that arrangement too close for comfort, but for the Mikitas, close is comfort. “We’re a very tight-knit family,” Scott says. “When my sister had to live away with her husband for a few years, she and my Mom were on the phone pretty near every day.”
It’s an alliance that has brought them a long way and a good way. Though they have only recently become certified organic, the family has always farmed with minimal inputs. “My grandparents were not seduced by all the hype of chemicals and ‘bigger is better’ that came along in the 50’s. Their operation was working fine without all that. Why mess with it?” Still, when Scott graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Agriculture business, he couldn’t resist messing with it a little bit. “I had some big ideas,” he admits. He thought they might do a little better with more cows, and little better yet with more inputs. “It was clear to me pretty quickly that it did not make sense. I had the herd size up to 90 and I barely saw my family.”
The Mikitas are all about making sense. Today, Scott and Robin milk about 67 Holsteins that provide milk for Organic Valley, and they have reclaimed their family life. Even so, they don’t go away much. “Everything I want to do and see is right here,” Scott says. Robin, a former rodeo queen, is a horsewoman, but doesn’t have much time for rodeo these days, not with two young boys and a dairy herd to manage. She keeps three horses and uses them some for ranch work, but mostly for pleasure riding if she has time.
Robin grew up in a ranching family, too. She and Scott met at Colorado State where she was on a pre-veterinarian track. When she graduated, she and Scott were married and she quickly put her skills to work on the ranch. “She handles most of our vetting needs and manages the calf program.” Scott laughs, “I’m not allowed to handle the calves.”
It was Robin who spearheaded the Mikita Dairy’s move to organic certification. “There wasn’t much to the transition for us,” Scott says. “Pretty much the only thing we had to change was the purchased feeds, which are now all certified organic, and the milk replacer we used to give the calves after they were weaned. Now they’re fed fresh whole milk straight out of the bulk tank.” After researching options of where to sell their milk, it was the Organic Valley/ CROPP cooperative that stood out to Robin.
Since the farm is run only by family members, they didn’t have time to get into creative marketing techniques to sell their product, and they weren’t much inclined to that sort of thing anyway. “The Co-op model is a great way to do business,” Scott says, “because it allows us to get down to business, to do what we do best and that’s to take care of our cows so that they can take care of us. The co-op handles the rest.” The fact that member/owners of Organic Valley are paid a fair and stable price for quality products was a big attraction, relieving them from the uncertainty of huge swings in milk prices that are far removed from the actual costs of farming. “Making food for people is the most important and constant job in the world. It doesn’t make sense that you can’t get paid for it consistently. The co-op recognizes this fact.”
Calhan has the distinction of being the highest non-mountainous incorporated town in North America, but the eastern plains that claim the sprawl of the Mikita ranch are fairly flat. It is classic short grass prairie land, and makes great pasture for the Holsteins. The Mikitas raise their own alfalfa for winter feed for the animals, but when the weather warms and the pasture greens up, the cows are in the fields. “My favorite time of year is spring, because that’s when the stock can get back on the grass and everybody’s happy.” And on this family farm in Calhan, happy cows just make sense.