The odometer on BradBuchanan’s 2015 gray Ford F-150 moves like a stampede. The truck is the work vehicle for his 8,500-acre Flying B Bar Ranch about an hour east of Denver and a couple of jogs northwest of Strasburg. He also uses it to commute 60 miles round-trip on surface and gravel roads five days a week to his other job as CEO of the nonprofit National West-ern Center Authority. From his office in the old Livestock Exchange Building, he can see ongoing construction of the massive billion-dollar project that is transforming the century-old stock show grounds into an expanded 250-acre campus that will be a global destination for culture, entertainment, education, research and agribusiness innovation.
After spending more than two decades as a prominent architect and recent years as Denver’s community planning and Development director, Buchanan’s newest role as a rancher gives him another set of skills to draw on as he works to oversee day-to-day operations of the National Western Center. The authority’s 13-member board of directors selected him following a national search.
“Brad is one of the most innovative thinkers I know,” says Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock. “He’s inspirational, pragmatic and is bringing passion and an entrepreneurial spirit to the National Western Center Authority. He will take this treasured city asset to a level that benefits all of us.”
“Brad Buchanan is a renaissance man,” says Tami Door, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, who worked with Buchanan when he ran the city’s development office.“His depth of knowledge and understanding around rural and urban environments brings a powerful and unique perspective to his role. He has the ability to think big and to deliver boldly.”
Home on the range
In 2006, seeking a place to get away from the city, Buchanan and his wife, Margaret, purchased the ranch. Surrounded by shortgrass prairie, and treeless save for those few planted by former owners and the cottonwoods that sidle up to nearby Kiowa Creek, the setting, Buchanan says, “was peaceful, quiet and reflected an awesome vastness in the sky.”
Their then-10-year-old daughter was the spark that ignited the move and eventually the family to get on board. The Buchanans sold their 6,000 square-foot Denver home and settled into the old 1,500-square-foot farmhouse with one bathroom.
Even before the property closed, the city slicker with dreams of living in cattle country learned a lesson. Buchanan had negotiated a sales price with the owner, Charles Robbins, but realized after a few weeks that they hadn’t signed a contract. When he called to ask Robbins about it, he was rebuffed and told that they only needed a handshake to seal the deal.
“The humbling take-home lesson for me was that Charles had lived up to the cowboy code of the West: that a man’s word is his bond, and that integrity is still alive and well in rural Colorado,” Buchanan says. It was also important because Charles and Pat Robbins became mentors on how to manage the ranch and raise grass-fed cattle.
The family’s move was transformative. “It brought the family together and taught us about farm discipline,” Buchanan says. “Raising grass-fed cattle is hard. It’s not subtle work. It’s physical and it has to be done, regardless of the time, temperature or one’s work mood. For our kids, the ranch has been their third parent.”
Grace, 23, a student at Colorado State University, works with her mom in marketing and shipping custom beef orders. Will, 21, is a summa cum laude graduate of Kansas State University, where he was co-captain of the rodeo team, and also works on the ranch.
All hat and 900 cattle
Buchanan’s goal is to make the Flying B Bar one of the most innovative, efficient, resourceful and environmentally sound operations in Colorado. He’s a strong advocate for rangeland sustainability, the humane treatment of animals and selling healthy meat. He’s not just a cattle rancher, he’s a proud grass-fed cattle rancher, believing cows are what they eat.
His wagyu-Angus cows spend their time on the range grazing on grass, forage, and ranch-grown hay. Unlike industrialized conventionally raised cows, Flying Bar B cattle are not confined to feedlots eating corn and grains supplemented with growth-promoting chemicals.
Buchanan doesn’t romanticize the cattle business and often wonders how small family ranchers make it financially. Raising grass-fed cattle is not cheap, fast or easy. His cows take almost twice as long as grain-fed cattle to reach market weight.
Working with his business partner Rob Gary, Buchanan trucks hundreds of cows each summer to Gary’s two ranches north of Silverthorne along the Blue River. The lush green grass setting is like a four-star cattle resort.
The ranch sells its beef primarily online and some of its customers have been with them since they started selling a decade ago. The Flying B offers everything at its online store from one pound of burger or a filet to a half or whole beef.
This year business is up 300 percent. The sales increase means the ranch will break even for the first time. “Margaret and I don’t take a penny,” Buchanan says. “We are still paying off debt, buying and repairing equipment and paying salaries for a ranch manager and three ranch hands.”
From barn to boardroom
Having ranch help is what enables Buchanan to move from barn to boardroom. His other job involves building the foundation for operating, maintaining, programming and promoting the broader NWC campus. To achieve that mission, he works with funding partners including the city of Denver, the National Western Stock Show and the Colorado State University System.
Why the new campus? The facilities at the stock show complex were tired and faced expensive deferred maintenance. It had also outgrown the site and many of the buildings were underutilized following the January stock show. To be competitive and viable, something had to be done or the stock show, a Denver tradition since 1906, would become insolvent.
There were even proposals to move it out of Denver. But in 2015, Denver voters came to the rescue and overwhelmingly approved a small tax increase on lodging and rental cars to help fund a portion of the project.
That set in motion an ambitious building and expansion undertaking to create a year-round, global destination for agriculture and food innovation, Western heritage and culture that will attract local, national and international visitors. Buchanan’s job is to have programs in place when the doors open in three years so that the authority can begin generating its own revenue via on-campus events and concessions.
Site changes are coming. After more than a year of horizontal infrastructure work, construction officially went vertical this year. “This is the beginning of a new era for these grounds. Constructing one million square feet of indoor and outdoor space and doubling the campus size is underway.
It’s going to take a lot of time and patience but it will be well worth it. I’m a firm believer that this is the right project, at the right time and at the right place,” Buchanan says.
Also under construction, and a huge accomplishment for Buchanan’s team, is an energy system that uses heat recovered from underground wastewater lines to source nearly 90 percent of NWC’s heating and cooling. “This will be the largest sewer-heat recovery system in North America. We made a promise to be at the forefront of sustainability, and we’re delivering,” he says.
Brad Buchanan’s life has been woven from his many journeys. A self-described introvert, he possesses quiet strength that comes from his tradition of hard work, resourcefulness, perseverance and a “get-‘er-done” attitude. Guiding operations at the new National Western Center and the family ranch has become his calling.
“It’s a bunch of work and worth every mile, muscle and minute,” he says.
Charlie Brown is a former Colorado state representative who also served more than 14 years on Denver City Council. He fought the proposed stock show move, prompting one newspaper editorial to say: “It was the city council led by Councilman Charlie Brown that fought the good fight regarding the potential move of the National Western Stock Show from Denver to Aurora.”
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