Ranching undoubtedly represents a part of Wyoming’s history — but it’s also the future.
The Wyoming Business Council has aimed a spotlight on the Wyoming cattle industry, studying how to value-add opportunities, while the State Historic Preservation Office’s Centennial Farm and Ranch program, which honors families that have lived and worked on their family agricultural operations for at least 100 years, honored 20 families this summer.
Two Sheridan County families made the list: the Kimble family of the Five Diamond Ranch, established in 1883, and the Miller family of the Miller & Son Ranch, established in 1919.
“Our older ranches hold a lot of history, and that is important to us,” Renee Bovee of SHPO said. “This is a way of opening the doors and the dialogue with them.”
Wyoming’s ranching future is also important, and as such, the Centennial Ranch program partners with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. According to Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the WYSGA, agriculture is the third largest industry in the state behind energy and tourism.
While Wyoming faces a decline in the energy industry and looks for economic diversification opportunities, it must also honor its heritage, he said.
“We want to strengthen our economy at the same time as we maintain our culture and our lifestyle,” Magagna said. “We need to focus more on bringing value added to the industries that we have, like ranching.”
Magagna pointed out that tourism in Wyoming is also largely based on wide open spaces, which draw from the state’s ranching culture. If the state loses its ranches, it loses a lot of the open space and becomes something other than what it is today.
To be a Centennial Ranch, the same family must have lived on and worked the land for 100 years or more, and a piece of the original property claim must remain in place today.
C.W. “Charles” Miller recorded the deed for the Miller & Son Ranch on July 2, 1919, and ran approximately 400 head of Hereford cattle under the S Cross brand. He had three children, and the ranch ended up with his grandson Everett Miller, who worked side by side with his dad and grandfather.
In 1987, Everett Miller married Robin Arndt, and they raised two children, Tyler and Paige. Everett, Robin, Tyler and Paige currently own and operate Miller & Son. Everett and Tyler have lived their entire lives on the Miller & Son Ranch.
“The family has always felt it is important to keep the ranch within the family,” Robin Arndt Miller said. “Unfortunately, in this day and age, each of us has found it necessary to have full-time jobs outside of the ranch.”
Miller & Son produces approximately 500 ton of grass hay annually. While the family is no longer involved in cattle production, ranch pastures are leased to Double Rafter Ranch where livestock are raised on the 1,100 acre ranch.
Technology has made hay production less time intensive and requires less manual labor, Miller said. The ranch has progressed from small square bales, which required significant manpower, to hay that can be swathed, baled and stacked by a single person with the advent of the round baler and quick attachments.
Heather Westkott, whose parents run the Five Diamond Ranch, said the original homesteader of their family ranch was a man named Al Williams. Williams came to Wyoming in 1876, where he and his older brother ran a cattle operation in Cheyenne.
“For the first several years, Al Williams, my three-times great grandfather, brought cows up to Ucross for his brother’s cattle operation. In 1883, he took out the first homestead deed on that acreage,” Westkott said. “We have 136 years of history. If we can make it four more years, we will be at 140 years.”
The ranch has changed, but the family has found creative ways to keep it alive.
“The ironic thing is that when people homesteaded in the 1880s or 1890s, they had to be self-sufficient,” Westkott said. “They had to have their own cattle for meat, they had to have their own veggies and chickens. There was no traveling to town to go to Walmart to get toilet paper. Anything you wanted, you had to produce yourself.”
Westkott said she sees that history as the future of ranching in Wyoming. Diversity beyond cattle is one of the solutions. Haying and renting property — which she does on her family’s ranch — are ways to survive.
Westkott and her husband made the choice to raise their children on the family ranch.
“Growing up out there, I was the kid that never wanted to be a ranch kid. I rodeoed and rode horses when I was little, and as soon as I hit teenage years, I was like, ‘I’m out,’” she remembered. “But when we had our own kids, it was like, not all town kids know how to fix a flat tire or grow their own corn. Not all kids get the opportunity to milk a cow or ride a horse or have chickens. We made a conscious decision that we wanted to take our family back out to the ranch so they could have more practical, real-world knowledge.”
Her children go to public school and aren’t losing out. Instead, she said, they’re gaining opportunities to have practical life skills.
Technology, in a broad sense, has significantly changed ranching from what it was 100 years ago, Magagna said. Today, the emphasis is on things like soil health, grazing systems and land management.
“Livestock ranching cattle and growing hay involves managing the land resource, and a lot of great science has come into how you manage the resource,” he said. “It used to be that you just turned animals out there, and when the grass was gone or low, you brought them in.”
In recent years, ranchers have focused on measuring soil health, which leads to different management styles. No one way fits for all ranchers, though.
Genetics, breeding and even the size of cattle have changed over the years, he continued.
For many years, he said, the move was toward larger cattle. More pounds per animal meant more dollars. Now ranchers work to “right-size” their herds to fit the resource, calving schedules and other factors.
While these are internal factors ranchers consider today, many look externally in the hopes of increasing revenue. Out-feeding, granting hunting privileges, bringing in recreationalists or tourists are all sources of revenue, Magagna said.
On an even broader scale, an option that has played a role — but one that is not for every rancher — is allowing conservation easements on privately owned ranch land.
As land values in Wyoming have become very high in most areas, and in particular in areas with higher recreational values like Sheridan County, it is difficult to keep the land in ranching, Magagna said.
Land value is often high for other uses, but families want to make it possible for the next generation to stay put. They also need to provide for retiring generations, ranch maintenance and other costs.
“One tool that some ranchers have found very useful is to sell a conservation easement on their land, which can vary, but could bring maybe 40% of the market value, and then they can have the flexibility to do some of those planning things they couldn’t do otherwise,” Magagna said.
As ranchers consider and plan for the future of the industry, they often look to its history for lessons and inspiration.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
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