Code of the West and Cowpies in My Yard!

Why are there cow pies in my yard and what is the Code of the West?

Not long after we purchased our first home, we received a newsletter published for the region that explained why it may be neither uncommon nor illegal to find livesCode of the West Conjures Images of Cowboys on Horsebacktock grazing in our yard and on our property.  For those living in rural or ‘unincorporated’ areas of Colorado (and many other areas of the inter-mountain west) a guiding principle known as the Code of the West and a definition of land called “Open Range” create a way of life that is often foreign to those accustomed to living in the city. 

The Code of the West is a term first popularized by writer, Zane Grey in the title and subject of one of his many novels.  The romantic notion of the cowboy riding the ranges of the western frontier, herding cattle, and living a life of independence and self-reliance are well documented by Hollywood and novelists of that genre.  By the same token, the lives of homesteader farmers carving out sections of prairie and converting vast grasslands and sage brush to wheat and corn fields is just as vividly depicted on film and in literature.    John Clarke, a former Larimer county commissioner here in northern Colorado, incorporated many of those characteristics in a Code of the West paper written to inform and guide residents new to rural life.  It has since been adapted and adopted by many counties across the west as an unofficial compact between county governments and rural residents as to the benefits and liabilities of living outside city limits.

Roaming Cattle Are Just One Part of The Code of The West So why is that cow pooping in my yard?  According to the definition of open range, livestock owners who turn their livestock out to pasture are not obligated to maintain fences keeping their livestock in.  Rather, property owners living nearby or adjacent to such open range grazing lands are obligated to fence out these wandering eating, chewing, and defecating machines.  As a matter of fact, unless a property owner can prove that the livestock were maliciously urged (herded) onto private property or that a lawful fence was in place and properly maintained but thereby broken through, claims of trespass or for damages can be tough to win in court.

The Farmer and the Cowman should be friends…  These open range laws were designed by Farmers and Ranchers Helped Define The Code of The Westterritory governments and state legislatures in the late 1800’s in order to provide legal precedents at a time when cattle ranchers and the steady stream of settlers and ‘sod-busters’ entered into conflicts.   The cattlemen had previously unrestricted grazing rights, driving herds between winter and summer pastures.  Farmers and their crops impeded the traditional routes of these seasonal migrations.  Of course, there are many stories about unethical cowmen cutting barbed wire fences and even setting fire to a hard-scrabble farmer’s entire crop.  Likewise, Barbed Wire is One Strategy for Maintaining The Code of The Westmany farmers used lethal force to “maintain” their fences by shooting wandering bovines with reckless abandon.

Can’t we all just get along?  In many areas, farmers and ranchers have merged as one and the present-day interloper is the suburbia-escapee.  The desire to abandon subdivisions and HOA’s and live in the country remains a dream for many homeowners (Open Range is a Critical Component in The Code of The Westhow many subdivisions do you know are named “Green Acres”?).  However, once there, city folk find that ‘peace and quiet’ is a relative term.  What one has escaped in terms of early morning lawn-mowers, rambunctious neighbor kids, blaring televisions,  and bass-boosted iPod car stereos may be substituted by crowing roosters, bleating sheep, lowing cattle, crop-dusting bi-planes, malodorous manure spreaders, and rattling diesel tractors.  The laws on the books still favor the highest and best use of land for agriculture and mining – be forewarned that city sensibilities won’t be of the highest priority out in the country.  For my wife and I, living outside of town remains ideal in spite of the comparative isolation and scarcity of convenient amenities.  And as far as the cow pies are concerned – instead of putting up a fence, I opted for a scoop shovel.

About Chris Hardy

Born and raised in Northern Colorado but I've been around the block having lived in Hawaii and California, too! I've been in the Real Estate Business for over 10 years helping people find more than just a new home. We help people build wealth and find peace of mind!