Developing trust: Hamilton family operates with 30-year CRMWritten by Christy Martinez
Hyattville – In 1915 Keith Hamilton’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side of the family bought a ranch north of Hyattville after arriving in the area in 1893 and operating a general store for a number of years.
The family began with a cattle operation and added sheep in 1928, which dominated the business until the last couple decades, when the Hamiltons transitioned back to cattle because of modern-day predator and labor challenges.
“As time evolved, my granddad purchased other homesteads around the area and put things together a section at a time,” says Keith, who now runs the operation with his wife Linda. “As most of Big Horn County, we’re pretty much tied to federal land, with BLM and Forest Service AUMs (Animal Unit Months), but our base is private land.”
That tie to federal lands led to one of the first Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) efforts in the state in the early 1980s.
“We were one of the first to ever do that, and the reason we did is because our philosophy is that, if we’re going to ranch in this country, we’ve got to learn to get along with the federal agencies, and this was a method we used to accomplish that,” says Keith. “It brought all parties – BLM, Forest Services, NRCS, the Game and Fish, County Extension and ourselves – to the table to discuss a management strategy for our federal lands.”
The group met regularly when the CRM was first being developed.
“It took us a long time to put this together, and that’s why agencies aren’t always excited about CRMs, because of the time commitment, but we made a plan and now we only meet once a year to bring everyone back to the table,” says Keith, adding that he thinks one thing that’s key to a CRM’s success is local agency personnel. “Local people have to have the authority to make some decisions. Everyone gets around the table to make a plan, and that’s what makes it work.”
“As we coordinate our grazing plans through different years with different rainfall amounts, sometimes we’ve got to run later on BLM than we normally do, or earlier on the forest, and it makes it nice to have everybody there to make it all work. We’ve built a lot of flexibility in our grazing program,” he adds.
Of the experience, Keith says he thinks it’s been very positive, and has opened lines of communication they wouldn’t have otherwise had.
“We believe we’ve developed trust, and a plan everybody can live with,” he notes. “We’ve had our CRM for about 30 years now, and we don’t have any reason to give up on it. It still works for us.”
The Hamiltons are almost contiguous from their home place to their forest allotments in the southern Big Horns, to which they trail, and they also have a sheep permit on the north end of the Big Horns, to which they truck up and trail home.
“We do a little bit of everything – whatever we have to do to make it work,” says Linda. “Trailing is a labor situation, and that goes back to why we scaled back our sheep numbers – predators and labor.”
Of the conversion from predominately sheep to more cattle, Keith says that introduced a risk for high altitude disease in the cattle they take to the high country that used to run sheep.
“It’s presented some challenges for us, and we select our bulls based on their resistance to high altitude sickness, and we predominately use Paintrock Angus bulls from right down the road,” says Keith of his neighbors’ seedstock operation. “We still lose our share to brisket disease, but we think it’s helped to use those bulls.”
In addition to the challenge with brisket disease, Linda says transitioning from sheep to cattle also included a full-time cowboy to look after the cattle on the forest in the summer.
“We do have to keep track of them, and we have some nice riparian areas up there,” she comments. “We’ve lucked out, in that we have a full-time guy working for us who likes to go up and do that for us in the summer.”
In addition to rangeland, the Hamiltons also have an irrigated farm, which helps feed their livestock.
“We background our calves in the fall, and we sell them in the spring as eight-weights. We also fatten our lambs and sell them through Mountain States Lamb Co-op,” explains Keith.
“It’s a balanced operation, and we believe we’re successful because of our diversification with sheep, cattle and irrigation,” says Keith of their business plan. “We raise the hay we feed the lambs, and the corn silage we use to background the calves, and we purchase feed grains locally.”
The range operation winters its sheep out, and keeps its cattle out as long as the weather allows.
“We’re traditionally feeding cattle hay by the first of February,” says Keith.
Linda, who originally came from her family’s ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska, helps with shed-lambing and also fills in during haying, riding and calving, in addition to keeping track of the ranch’s bookkeeping.
The Hamiltons have two children – Diane Cox of Casper and Doug Hamilton of Worland, and Keith says Doug and his wife Michelle and are the next generation for the Hamilton operation.
“They’re planning on coming back and making this a better operation than it is right now,” says Keith. “We’re multigenerational, and we’re planning on keeping it that way. This is a tough business, and there are a lot of hours and not a lot of return, so it can be hard to convince the next generation this is the way to go. It’s a good place to raise kids – it teaches them work ethic, and to be conservative.”
Waging war on invasive weedsWritten by Teresa Milner
Lovell – Combine the efforts private landowners and government agencies like the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, add in funding from sources the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund, then top it off with cattle, goats, beetles and some heavy-duty machinery and you’ve got a recipe for success for winning the war on invasive weeds in Big Horn County.
For more than eight years members of the Yellowtail Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) group have been working to eradicate thickets of Russian olive, salt cedar, whitetop, knapweed and other invasive weeds on the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area (WHMA) and adjacent private lands east of Lovell.
Though the Russian olive tree has been used in the past for shelterbelts and erosion control, its ability to survive even the harshest conditions eventually became a liability. The trees have spread across the state, forming monocultures that displace native trees, consume massive amounts of water and provide little habitat diversity for wildlife. Salt cedar poses similar problems.
“Russian olive does provide some wildlife habitat, as well as shade and cover for cows,” says Jerry Altermatt, habitat extension biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “The problem is that it is always moving to dominate the site, outcompeting native woody plants like cottonwood, buffalo berry and willows.”
The Yellowtail CRM was formed out of concern over the ecological degradation caused by the invasive plants in the Big Horn and lower Shoshone River systems. Game and Fish, Bureau of Reclamation, BLM and the National Park Service, as well as neighboring private landowners, the Big Horn County Weed and Pest, Shoshone Conservation District and NRCS are all members of the group.
Altermatt says removing aggressive Russian olive and salt cedar helps restore native woody plants and releases understory plants like grasses and broadleaf plants that provide food for wildlife and domestic livestock. Wildlife like deer, waterfowl, turkey and pheasants will benefit as native vegetation begins to flourish.
Controlling these species requires a number of tools, personnel use a tracked excavator to grind larger Russian olive trees to mulch, crews return to the treatment site the next fall to spray an herbicide on the resprouting Russian olives and the bases of small Russian olive trees and salt cedar plants not cut by the mulching machine are also treated with herbicide.
The mechanical and chemical treatments are supplemented with biological efforts and managers have turned to the leaf beetle, native to Asia, to help control salt cedar. The beetle eats the leaves of salt cedar, defoliating the plant.
“The beetles were slow to get started, but after two years, it just exploded. You could look down in the river bottom and see what looked like hundreds of dead salt cedar,” says Altermatt.
Despite those early signs of success, the beetle population crashed for unknown reasons and the salt cedar started coming back.
“It will take multiple defoliations to really kill salt cedar. But any time you can stress the plant, it’s helpful in the overall effort,” explains Altermatt. “There is no silver bullet in controlling these plants. Beetles are just another tool in the box we can use.”
Boer goats are grazed over the treatment area from April to September to target species with browsing. Early in the year cattle are grazed in small, quarter-mile-wide pastures strategically located throughout the Shoshone River bottom to reduce the risk of wildfire.
“Grazing removes the fine fuels prior to the threat of spring wild fire, and rejuvenates grass and forb communities. The idea is that if a fire would occur and spread to those areas, it would burn out because of the lack of fuel load,” says Altermatt.
While ground is being gained in the war on weeds, efforts must be ongoing to maintain success.
“Once we get all the big stands of trees removed, we’ll begin maintenance mode,” explains Altermatt. “Then we can use a backpack sprayer every other year to treat resprouts or seedlings and stay ahead of the plants. It’s cheaper and easier to treat early when the trees are still small.”
As part of the reclamation process, cottonwood and willow cuttings have been planted in areas previously treated to remove Russian olive and salt cedar. To date, more than 1,000 acres on the Yellowtail WHMA and adjoining private lands have been treated with some combination of mechanical, chemical and biological tool.
Paying for this war on weeds has also taken cooperation. Funding has been provided through sources like the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Trust Fund, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Governor’s Big Game License Coalition, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Shoshone Conservation District. Private landowners and other government agencies like the BLM and Big Horn Weed and Pest provide in-kind support by purchasing herbicides and equipment and providing on-the-ground labor.
Other invasive weed control projects are being implemented in Big Horn County along Shell Creek, Sage Creek and the Greybull River.
Though Wyoming’s rivers and streams will probably never be completely free of Russian olive, salt cedar and other invasive weeds, members of the wildlife and agriculture community will continue to work together to return the diverse habitat that supports a healthy mix of wildlife, forage for grazing and accessible recreational opportunities along the river corridors.
Seperate boundaries common issues: Big Horn County conservation districts work togetherWritten by Teresa Milner
The South Big Horn Conservation District and the Shoshone Conservation District share more than just a boundary line and a place in Big Horn County. Right now, both districts are dealing with the same challenging conservation issues, including invasive weed management, TMDLs and the revision of the BLM’s Bighorn Basin Resource Management Plan (RMP).
The management of the BLM lands in the Bighorn Basin, like all BLM lands, is guided by a document called an RMP, which are typically revised every 15 to 20 years. They serve as a blueprint for all on-the-ground actions and management decisions the BLM will make, and the agency began the revision process of the Bighorn Basin RMP in October 2008.
Conservation districts, county commissioners and other local governments in the Bighorn Basin have been following and participating in the process to ensure the BLM considers the impacts of the plan on the environment, conservation and local communities. Representatives of both the Shoshone Conservation District (CD) and South Big Horn CD provided input on possible alternatives outlined by the BLM.
“The plan can affect outdoor recreation, oil and gas development and grazing in the basin. An effective balance between use and conservation of the resources of the Bighorn Basin is key to us in the process,” says Shoshone CD Coordinator Kristin Tilley. “I believe our local governments coming together to act as a group has made a big difference in the planning process.”
Public comments on the draft RMP were due Sept. 7, and a record of decision and final plan is expected in May 2012.
Originally promoted as an ideal species for windbreaks and wildlife habitat, the Russian olive and salt cedar trees common in the Bighorn Basin have become the latest victims in Wyoming’s war on weeds. Both the South Big Horn and Shoshone CDs are cooperating with groups like the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Weed and Pest, BLM and the National Wild Turkey Federation to help landowners remove the trees from critical riparian areas. The cooperating organizations split the division of duties, with some providing technical expertise and others providing funding.
“Our role is to provide administrative support for the program,” explains South Big Horn CD Manager Janet Hallstead. “We collect receipts, submit payment requests to the grants and pay contractors for their services.”
Both districts use their ongoing seedling tree programs to encourage landowners to plant more suitable species when the Russian olives or salt cedars are removed. The Shoshone CD offers a 50/50 funding match up to $300 for a district resident wanting to plant trees. Together, the districts sold more than 14,000 seedling trees in Big Horn County.
Greedy aquatic plants aren’t the only water issue facing the Big Horn County conservation districts. To comply with Clean Water Act regulations, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has begun the process of developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for many of Wyoming’s waters, including the Big Horn River, where a 13-year deadline to restore the river to its natural condition is up, so a TMDL must be written. The TMDL affecting Big Horn County residents focuses on 16 impaired stream segments in the Greybull and Big Horn River watershed.
“A TMDL study is required when a waterbody is determined not to be meeting its assigned designated use,” explains Tilley. “The Big Horn River and other area streams were listed on the state’s 303(d) list as impaired by fecal bacteria. Our district began trying to address this more than 10 years ago by forming a local watershed district, actively monitoring our waters, writing a comprehensive watershed plan and completing watershed improvement projects.”
When the Clean Water Act was enacted in the early 1970s, Wyoming agriculture producers voiced concerns about how the regulations would impact agriculture, particularly the idea that livestock operations would be heavily regulated or would be singled out as the primary cause of impairment.
“The South Big Horn Conservation District wants to ensure that local landowners are kept up-to-date on the TMDL development process,” says Hallstead. “Our board chairman Linda Hamilton has been attending the TMDL meetings and monthly teleconference calls to monitor the project’s progress and provide guidance to the project team. We’re really trying to be a voice for constituents in this process.”
The South Big Horn and Shoshone CDs have continued water sampling efforts and are helping to address impairments through on-the-ground projects like assisting producers in relocating livestock corrals, burying storm drains and rehabilitating failing or aged septic systems.
“We will continue to assist landowners in implementing best management practices and work on a watershed scale,” says Tilley. “But this TMDL process is very new to all of us. In reality, we’re not sure how this will all unfold.”
Proven bloodlines: Paintrock Angus carries on a 60-year traditionWritten by Saige
Hyattville – Paintrock Angus has been a seedstock supplier of Black Angus cattle for many generations. Its current operator Martin Mercer took over the operation from his father just last year, but has a number of years of experience on the ranch, both in growing up on the land and working on the property.
“My grandpa started raising Black Angus 60 years ago,” says Mercer. “I guess he was a visionary and figured they would be good cattle.”
Martin Mercer is the fifth generation on the ranch and continues traditions established over 100 years ago. He grew up and went to school in Hyattville, saying he has been on the ranch at least six months every year for nearly 40 years.
The Mercer family was awarded the honor of Centennial Farm and Ranch in 2006 to commemorate the ranch that was started in 1896 by Asa Shinn Mercer. As times got hard in the late 1800s, the Mercers sold their cattle and began growing beans on the property.
“They finally made enough money raising beans so they could finally buy a few cows,” says Mercer. “They got started in the black cattle business and off they went.”
Paintrock Angus sits at the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains west of Hyattville. The operation runs its cattle on private land and on both BLM and Forest Service leases in the Big Horn Mountains.
“We run our cattle from about 4,500 to 11,000 feet,” says Mercer. “We live in a very arid environment. It’s high desert, and we’re usually short on rain.”
Mercer comments that his registered herd is run under the same conditions as the commercial herd, so the bulls perform well.
“We run our registered herd the same way we do our commercial cows,” adds Mercer. “One thing we have to offer is that our bulls tend to work well for guys in this kind of climate because we run them just like they do.”
“We combine old bloodlines that have been raised in this environment for a long time,” says Mercer. “We try to use proven genetics. It might not be popular, but we know they won’t throw a kink in somebody’s calf crop.”
Mercer elaborates that they focus on using proven bulls and emphasize structure of their cattle, including leg structure and good feet, along with having a functional female.
Paintrock Angus also focuses on uniformity, carcass quality, growth, calving ease, big, stout thick bulls, maternal strength, low maintenance and good disposition in raising their animals.
“We try not to get too wild about using a new bull,” adds Mercer. “It’s simple, and nothing fancy, but we try to keep adding a few pounds here and there.”
“We deal with a lot of repeat customers,” says Mercer. “Apparently they like how their calves look, so we try not to vary too much.”
In the summer, Mercer’s herd runs on both BLM and Forest Service leases at high altitude.
“It’s a wide variation in environments that they go through,” says Mercer. “Working with the BLM and Forest Service is almost a full-time job. It’s a little more political and scientific than it used to be. There is more paperwork and more phone calls, but we get by.”
“We’ve been selling bulls for 60 years,” says Mercer. “That was my grandpa’s intent when he got started.”
“If producers can get a calf on the ground and on the truck to the feeder, that’s what pays the bills,” says Mercer. “What defines the people who are successful from those who aren’t is a live calf.”
Mercer also runs a commercial Red and Black Angus operation alongside his seedstock cattle.
“When ag is good like it is right now, it’s an exciting business to be in,” says Mercer, who is optimistic about the challenges they face.
“Here in Hyattville, our biggest stepping stone is probably facing the environment,” says Mercer.
“Running on government land and keeping up with the new mandates and paperwork is probably second.”
Other obstacles Mercer faces include the large numbers of grasshoppers and the BLM Big Horn Basin Resource Management Plan.
“It’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before,” says Mercer. “We just have to wait and see and adapt.”
“Other than that, it’s a good place to live,” comments Mercer. “I enjoy the challenge of it all. My ancestors had a vision, and I want to try to build on that. I’m proud of who we are, after we’ve been here this long. I just try to keep toeing the line.”
Mercer and his family operate Paintrock Angus together, and everyone stays involved in all aspects of the ranch.
“My wife Kelly does the books and helps outside, too,” says Mercer. “Royce is 15 and Aca is 13, and they do quite a bit of tractor work. Emma is 10 and she does some tractor work, but she’s a cowgirl. I think they all like what they do and might be interested in taking over when they are older.”
Mercer says his family is rooted in agriculture and taking over the decision-making and management has been an easy transition.
“My mom and dad still help out here full time, and we ran a lot of it together before,” says Mercer.
The Mercer family operation also raises corn, alfalfa/grass mix hay, oats, barley and beans on the property, though the seedstock operation prevails.
Mercer, who plans to continue in the business, says, “I like it, and I think my family likes it.”
The end of the road: Robertsons relocate from Teton CountyWritten by Christy Martinez
Hyattville – Gene and Kris Robertson moved to Big Horn County 18 years ago to escape the rising land prices of Teton County, and have made their home on a ranch outside of Hyattville ever since.
“Teton County is good summer country, but it’s tough winter country, and there’s lots of snow and we had to put up hay, and there wasn’t anything we could afford to buy,” says Gene of their reasons for the move.
Gene was born and raised on the Jackson Hereford Ranch, while Chris was raised at Wilson. The two were married in 1973 and began to look around the country for a different place to ranch.
Today the Robertson’s ranching operation incorporates Hereford/Angus cattle and a guest cabin that serves area hunters and fishermen, and the couple’s daughter Amanda and her husband Cal Tharp have returned to live on and help with the operation.
“Cal’s a great farmer, and I’m a sorry farmer, so it works out well,” says Gene.
While Cal looks after the irrigated alfalfa and grass hay, Gene takes care of going to the mountain with the cows and spending most of the summer there with them. Of this year’s grazing on the mountain, Gene says it’s hit and miss, and they had to wait quite a while to turn out.
“Some of the country looks good, and some doesn’t, and between the grasshoppers and the late season we’ll get through it pretty fast,” he says.
While they had grasshoppers at lower elevations last year, they say this year the insects are far worse on the mountain.
“We had the opportunity to spray the outlying acres of our ranch through cost-share with Weed and Pest, and that paid off,” says Kris. “Last year the grasshoppers ate the grass in the yards, and this year we haven’t seen one.”
Of his reasoning for the Hereford/Angus cross, Gene says with a laugh, “My granddads both grew up with Hereford cows, and now everybody’s gone black, but I’m bullheaded.”
The Robertsons run half Hereford and half black baldie cows and half black and half Hereford bulls, a cross that results in their replacement heifers.
“We have 70 percent black-hided calves, and we save all the red-hided heifers,” says Kris. “The black baldies have the hybrid vigor, and there’s definite growth with them, and I think it’s a good cross.”
“Hereford cows are good range cows, and they’ve been proven to be good range cows for years,” adds Gene. “They’ve got some eye and bag problems in the spring, but, like anything else, if we cull for those things we don’t have that much problem with it.”
“His preference would be to have Hereford bulls, but he doesn’t like the black cows well enough to switch entirely,” says Kris of Gene. “So that’s why we do half-and-half. Someday maybe we’ll do a purebred herd of Hereford cows, because that’s what he grew up with, and raise Hereford bulls for the black cows.”
The cows run on a mountain permit in the Paintrock Basin, which has a campground for public use. Kris says that positive public relations were one of their goals through their guest cabin and interaction with the public on federal lands.
“We thought we had a message to pass on to people – that we’re not raping the ground, and we’re trying to be good stewards, so we try to visit with people every chance we get,” she explains.
The guest cabin was built in 2002.
“It took around seven years to convince Gene to build that cabin, but I thought it would be something to help us diversify and boost our income a little bit,” says Kris.
Of business with the cabin, she says it’s really picked up this year and has been busy. Their guests range from contractors who were working on the nearby community center, to a lion hunter from Cody, fishermen and University of Wisconsin people on a dinosaur dig. Kris says she’d like to expand into areas like retreats and prepared meals, but she says so far the ranch work hasn’t left her the time or energy.
The Robertsons say they’re grateful for organizations like Farm Bureau and Guardians of the Range.
“Both of them have qualified people who stand up for agriculture,” says Kris. “We’re thankful to have them to speak for those of us who aren’t and don’t like to be in the public eye. They make a big difference, and they really help us.”
Of living in the Hyattville area, Kris says she appreciates the community service, including the remodel of an old school into a community center, a project that’s been ongoing since 2003. Annual community events include a Cowboy Carnival, an Old Timer’s Festival and a harvest dinner in the fall.
“It’s nice to live at the end of the road,” says Gene. “We don’t get the through traffic – people have to have a reason to come here. Growing up in Jackson, we remember when it was like this, and everybody knew everybody. These little towns are great places to live and raise your kids.”