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Community ties: Burlington rancher gets involved

Written by Saige

Burlington – Mike Riley has been in the Burlington area for his entire life and is continuing the family tradition raising Red Angus cows and growing row crops.

“My grandpa was one of the first people who came into the Burlington area,” says Riley. “My dad and I were both raised here. I’ve been in the area for forever.”

Riley went to college at Northwest College in Powell and finished his bachelor’s degree in animal science with a minor in ag business at the University of Wyoming before coming home help his father on the family ranch.

His experience at UW was broad and included opportunities to work in both the dairy lab and in reproductive physiology while carrying a full course load.

“I had the chance to continue on to a Master’s program,” says Riley. “But truthfully, I was tired of school and my dad got hurt, so I came home to help the family out.”

“I came back and expanded some from what my dad had,” says Riley, who runs the farm and ranch today with only the help of one part-time hired hand.

Riley’s cow-calf Red Angus operation runs on pasture in the winter and grazes on private land and BLM leases during the spring and summer months.  

As president of the board of directors for the Otter Creek Grazing Association, Riley has access to both low elevation and high elevation grazing lands.

The Otter Creek Grazing Association is one of a handful of remaining organizations that were created under the Taylor Grazing Act from the 1960s, explains Riley. The association owns a ranch and has some BLM leases that serve as grazing land for 2,300 head of cattle belonging to the 12 members of the association.

“Our grazing season is long, because we have some private land through the grazing association,” says Riley. “We can go on May 1 in a normal year and don’t come off until Nov. 1. It is a true six-month grazing season.”

Riley admits this provides a huge benefit to his operation, allowing him to focus on the row crop aspect of his operation.

This year, however, because of the wet spring, Riley and the other members of the Otter Creek Grazing Association had to wait to get to their grazing land, and now he is worried the grass won’t hold out until the end of the grazing season.

“We couldn’t get up on the mountain,” says Riley. “It went from too cool to too hot too fast, so the grass matured quickly. It quit growing and matured out due to the temperature.”

In a typical year, Riley sees grass growing in the mountains until at least August, and he’s hoping for rain to influence some regrowth this season.

“We’ve had years that rain in August will help get some good fall regrowth,” says Riley. “We’re hoping for that. Not counting on it, but hoping for it.”

The grazing association also employs a full-time manager and assistant manager that take care of a bull battery of nearly 100 bulls.

“You really discover how much bulls cost when you own them,” says Riley. “The average useful life of a bull is only about three years, after injury and death loss. Bulls are very expensive when you consider their true cost, including maintenance.”

After Riley’s cows make it up to the grazing lands in the spring, Riley focuses on growing row crops on more than 500 acres.

“I grow sugarbeets, malt barley, dry beans and corn,” explains Riley. “I also have pasture and some hay on top of that.”

Riley runs a custom chopping business in the fall, chopping silage for neighbors.

“I chopped about 1,000 acres of silage last year,” says Riley. “Right now, I’m trying to get everything ready for this year.”

Riley’s son and daughter are only modestly involved in the operation, but have taken an interest in agriculture by showing animals at the county fair.

“My daughter showed a steer this year, and both also showed a pig,” says Riley. “It was an interesting learning experience.”

Riley is also involved in the Burlington community as a member of both the cemetery board and the canal board.

“You have to be involved in small communities,” says Riley. “You get involved for the benefit of everybody. The canal board works on irrigation, and everything here is irrigated.”

Because of the prevalence of irrigated farming in Big Horn County, Riley says that also creates some challenges.

“We’ve just come off a seven-year drought. We’ve had two good years now and have some off-stream storage and precipitation now,” says Riley. “But for several years, our irrigation water was severely limited.”

He also notes that some of the challenges in the area include labor and the price of inputs.

“Like everywhere else, commodity prices are up, but if you look at the price of equipment, it’s not where it should be,” says Riley. “Fuel is a major cost as well.”

“One of the biggest problems I have is finding quality help at any price,” explains Riley. “I can only afford to pay so much, and it’s hard work. Finding quality help is a problem.”

Despite the challenges facing agriculture in Big Horn County and Wyoming, Riley says that Big Horn County is a good place to live and be involved in agriculture.

“Overall, Big Horn County has been ag friendly,” says Riley. “We lack an implement dealership and supply stores, so a lot of our business is done in Park County, but it’s an ag-oriented county. If you take out the county governments, pretty much everyone is involved in agriculture.”

For his future, Riley looks to maintain where he is and continue raising both row crops and cattle.

“Things aren’t as good as they used to be, when I wasn’t stretching myself so much,” adds Riley, “but the lifestyle is good, and I like it.”

“At times, I wonder if there has got to be an easier way,” says Riley, “but I like agriculture.”

Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..