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.”