Staying in business: Flitner family finds success in diversityWritten by Christy Martinez
Shell – Ranching in country that ranges from 4,200 to 10,000 feet, Stan and Mary Flitner focus on quality cattle and horses that can work in many environments.
The Flitners, along with their son Tim, are mainly a cow/calf operation, but they also stock light calves in their feedlot, raise ranch horses, manage some irrigated ground and run a small electric fence company in addition to leasing out an outfitting business from their cow camp on the Big Horns.
“We’re busy, and we had to do a lot of things to stay in the business in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Stan.
“Everything we grow we feed through cattle – we don’t raise any cash crops. We grow a little corn for silage, and we raise alfalfa and grass hay.”
The Flitners ran their outfitting business with a partner for 25 years.
“We built the first cabin at the cow camp in 1968, and most of the other cabins are old homestead cabins we improved. We were always looking for cabins to rebuild, and there were a lot of cabins on the mountain that were melting down, so it was a good way to preserve them,” says Stan, adding that one of the buildings is even the old post office from Beaver Creek.
Of the ranch horses they breed, Stan says most are Doc Bars. A son of Docs Jack Frost is now the Flitners’ main stud, while they also stand a Paddys Irish Whiskey stud and Tim is a partner on a Blue Valentine stud.
“We aren’t into marketing horses, so much,” says Mary. “We don’t have a sale – we sell private treaty – and our preference is to sell weaned colts. There’s a high demand for well-broke ranch geldings, but we only part with one or two of those each year. We use a lot of those horses ourselves.”
Of the few they have sold, Stan says Amy Shepperson of Midwest won the College National Finals Rodeo breakaway roping on one of them, and her brother Les Shepperson also uses one for steer wrestling.
“We sell some around the state and other places, but there’s not a whole lot of money in the horse business, so the only way we can justify having horses is because we use them so much,” says Stan of their ranch work. “It’s a lot easier to have a good bunch of horses, and sell a few to help maintain the broodmare herd.”
“We don’t work any livestock with ATVs. Our terrain wouldn’t allow it,” comments Mary of the 75-mile round trip they make with their cows each year to the mountain and back.
To get to their permit, the Flitners trail up a rough, rocky road that used to serve sheep camps.
“The horses have to be tough, and they have to be shod,” says Stan of the trip. “They’re not as tough as they were 30 years ago, because of horse trailers. Thirty years ago we went out all day, and we don’t do that anymore, but they’re a lot more pleasurable to ride than the ones of that era. Some of them just kept your feet off the ground, and these are a lot better horses.”
When Stan and Mary were first married their operation’s income was 80 percent sheep, but they transitioned to cattle in the 1970s. Another change came in the 1980s when they moved from a registered Hereford herd to all black cattle. Stan credits his son Tim with the quality of the family’s cowherd today.
However, along with the switch to black cattle came the concern of high altitude disease. The Flitner’ strategy includes high-altitude bulls bought mostly in-state from other high altitude producers.
Speaking of changes in cattle genetics, Stan says, “When we first started out we were selling 375- to 400-pound calves, and in the ‘50s or ‘60s we thought we were doing a pretty good job. Now we precondition and wean, and if our cattle aren’t over 600 pounds, then we’ve failed.”
The Flitners manage a rangeland monitoring program, and Stan says that anything a producer can do helps – even as simple as taking some pictures or writing something down.
“Many of the old cowboys monitored – they just forgot to write it down,” he says. “They were pretty good at it, but you have to have some type of documentation, looking at increases and decreases and knowing exactly how many cattle and how long they’re out there.”
In working with the Forest Service, Stan says it’s easy to get mad at the agency.
“We could solve a lot of the problems, and there are plenty of empty permits on the mountain, if they’d just let us use them. But, because of public pressure, they have a hard time doing it,” he says. “It’s not their fault, but it’s frustrating for people like us who see the things we could do, that we do on our own ranches, that could make the pastures so much better.”
Of his area of Big Horn County, Stan says he appreciates that, although the drought affects them, they always have water, thanks to reservoirs constructed before 1950 and other improvements.
“What I think is unique about this country is the elevation,” says Mary. “There’s a low elevation of operations for us, with the farm, pasture and our croplands, and then we go dramatically up, so it’s two completely different styles of operation, and we really never have a slow season.”
“There are many different management systems going from 4,200 feet to 10,000, because we going through three different rainfall areas,” notes Stan. “It’s a challenge, but there are advantages.”