Colorado ranch family has made National Western Stock Show a tradition for nearly five decades

For nearly a half century, folks at Running Creek Ranch have geared up every year for one of agriculture’s major events: the National Western Stock Show.

This year is no different.

The ranch in Elizabeth was bustling Tuesday preparing “yearling” bulls, ones born last spring, to show at the National Western. The black bulls were ushered into a big red barn where they were washed and dried as part of the primping to ensure the animals look their best when judges and buyers check them out.

Joey Freund, manager and co-owner of the ranch, and the rest of the crew planned to bring the bulls to the stock show complex in Denver on Friday, the day before the 113th annual National Western officially starts. The ranch, started by Freund’s father, Joe, in 1970, specializes in raising registered Limousin bulls.

“All the guys here look forward to going to it,” said Freund, whose 15-year-old son, Soren, will show a lamb at the National Western.

The Freunds will also bring their Belgian draft horses to compete in the Draft Horse Show and Pulling Contest on Jan. 25-27. Freund’s father helped revive the draft-horse competition in 1980. Instead of trucks or tractors, the ranch uses teams of two draft horses to haul the hay to feed their cattle.

“It’s more efficient. One guy can go out and feed the cows,” Freund said. “You don’t have to get out of the truck and take it out of gear. The horses all drive on voice command. They just walk along at a slow pace. You can look at the cows and you can see things a lot better. And it’s just enjoyable.”

For several years, Freund’s father has invited others who show draft horses to keep their animals at Running Creek Ranch during the National Western. The ranch, with its rolling grasslands, hills, and cottonwood trees along a meandering creek, is only 50 miles southeast of Denver.

“I think last year we had 30 teams staying and people from all over: Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma. It gives them a spot where they can put their horses up. The horses kind of get acclimated to the altitude,” Freund said. “I think more than anything people just love to come out and get some Colorado sunshine.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Joey Freund stands at his family ranch, called Running Creek Ranch, on Jan. 7, 2019 in Elizabeth. The Freund family are longtime participants in the National Western Stock Show

Showing off the draft horses is one of the Freund family’s passions. The nitty gritty of the National Western for them takes place in the sprawling stockyards on the complex grounds. That’s where the family’s “carload” of bulls — a total of 10 — will hang out for a few days. At one point, the bulls will also be taken as a group to an arena to be reviewed by judges.

As the bulls that were headed to the National Western were tended to in the barn, Freund’s son, Ethan, explained the focus is on sending animals that are the same age and are uniform in appearance, one of the qualities they will be judged on.

The National Western is the only stock show that shows cattle by pens — a total of three cattle — and the carload, Freund said. Showing the animals in a group is called a carload because the cattle used to arrive at the yards by train car, he added.

“Down in the yards, it’s down to earth. People are doing business,” Freund said.

It’s an opportunity to talk to potential buyers, go over the kinds of traits the family breeds, make new connections and catch up with regular customers and fellow ranchers from all over the country.

Buyers from across the country and the world attend the National Western, providing an important platform for ranchers. The Running Creek Ranch has sold semen from its bulls for artificial insemination to operations in Great Britain, Scotland, Mexico, Canada and Australia.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Joey Freund, owner of Running Creek Ranch in Elizabeth, checks the gate to the sleeping pin where he has cattle in the yard at the National Western Stock Show on Jan. 11, 2019, in Denver.

Running Creek was one of the first ranches in the area to start using artificial insemination on a large scale, Freund said. The ranch started raising Limousin cattle exclusively after buying a herd in 1979.

“We just fell in love with the Limousin breed, the quality of their traits, the ease of calving and the quality of the carcass,” Freund said.

The breed, which originated in France and is known for its sturdiness, also requires less hay and feed than other cattle, Freund said. “They’re just very efficient animals in their consumption of forage.”

The family worked with people at Colorado State University to achieve the kinds of results they wanted. The ranchers closely monitor the characteristics of the bulls, cows and offspring. Running Creek specializes in selling 2-year-old bulls, rather than 15-month-old bulls that other ranches market. Freund said the older animals are more successful breeders.

A good showing at the National Western can pay dividends throughout the year. People who talk to the family at the show may contact them later to discuss a deal.

“You see people there you haven’t seen since last year. You talk to people and you compare notes. You ask what their weather was like or how did their calves do this year,” Freund said. “They might have tried a new, upcoming bull and you’re a little skeptical, so you ask, ‘What did you think of those calves?’

“That’s the thing: the friendship and the camaraderie,” he added.

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