Giorgis family produces popular club calves in Bridger ValleyWritten by Christy Hemken
“My kids were in 4-H and we were raising and showing our own calves and we weren’t competitive, but we wanted to be, so we went to buying them, then raising them,” says Ernie of how Giorgis Show Cattle began. “By the time they got out of 4-H we were raising good calves so we started selling them. We’d been AI-ing for 30 years, and we hated to just quit.”
Ernie says his four kids still live in the area, are all teachers in the local school system and all help part time on the ranch. “My youngest daughter wasn’t going to be a teacher, but after trying other things now she is,” says Ernie.
Ernie himself was told by his doctor some time ago that he better not plan on being a rancher because of his hay fever. “Staying in the area wasn’t planned – it just worked out that way because my dad needed help when I got out of college,” he says. Of the hay fever, he says it still bothers him when they first start haying, but not like it used to.
“We have three breeds in our cattle, which are Maine Anjou, Angus and Simmental,” says Ernie.
He cites the biggest challenge to the area as trichomoniasis in cattle. “We test all the bulls and open cattle to prevent it.”
“Managing the club calves is not a lot different than our commercial calves, although sometimes we begin marketing them in April and May, because everybody wants to be first,” he says. “Generally, if the calves are a month old and they look pretty good, they probably will be.”
He says sometimes the better calves fall behind in the fall and don’t look as good, but they tend to come around.
Marketing is done through a website, three sales and advertisement in livestock and local publications.
“We get a lot of hits on the website, and phone calls from California to Florida,” says Ernie. “We sell 20 to 40 club calves in a year, and our sales stay pretty constant, selling 14 through the sales and the rest through private treaty.”
Although Giorgis club calves took six grand champion honors last year – three in Wyoming, two in Utah and one in Idaho – Ernie says it was still an off year for sales. “We had more phone calls than ever, but sold less calves than we have in quite a while. Some people have started to think we’re so successful they won’t be able to afford our calves.”
The biggest win by a Giorgis club calf was one that went to a county fair in Colorado, won there and moved on to win the Tri-State Royal in Kansas, which accepts county fair champions from Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas.
Ernie says several things affect the club calf market, including the beef cattle market. “Even though it has nothing to do with it,” he notes, “seventy-five percent of the kids who show livestock aren’t in the livestock industry, but their parents have an idea of the cattle market even though it’s totally unrelated.”
In addition to the family’s cow/calf operation and club calf sales, Ernie has operated a Ranchway Feeds dealership for 25 or 30 years. He’s also delivered Nutralix for 15 years. “The feed goes mostly to 4-H show calves, horses, pigs and rabbits, although the majority is show feed for club calves,” he says.
Of changes to the Bridger Valley since he was younger, he says there’s more traffic on their local highway now than there used to be on Highway 30. “There’s a lot more people now. There were about 20 people in my class going through school in Fort Bridger and Mountain View, and we were one of the bigger classes.”
He says a positive change has been the construction of two reservoirs in the valley. “There’s a lot more water than there used to be, and water supplies have been really good this year.”
Ernie weans his club calves in late August after getting them started on creep feed. “We’ll start halter breaking them once they’re weaned, which used to be my job, but now my grandkids are getting old enough they do a lot of it,” he says. “We put a halter on them and let them drag it, then start tying them up and blowing them out, and they go pretty fast. If you start right after they’re weaned they settle down pretty good.”
Of his family’s involvement, Ernie says one set of his grandkids shows now, although, “It’d be better for me if they didn’t, because I’m pretty competitive,” he notes.
Moving into the future, Ernie says he’ll continue raising club calves. “It’s getting pretty good for us, and it keeps us surviving,” he says. Giorgis club calves have been sold into Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington.
Forest manages multiple uses in southwest Wyomingâ€™s Uinta MountainsWritten by Christy Hemken
Similar to the rest of Wyoming, the forest along the southern edge of Uinta County had a wet start to their spring and a cooler than normal summer.
“We’re unique in that we’re in the southwest part of the state, so most of forest is in Utah,” says Steve. “We don’t have confirmed sitings of wolves, we don’t have grizzly bears and we have very few black bears, although we certainly have coyotes and cougars.”
Because many producers with forest service allotments graze in both Wyoming and Utah throughout the summer, Steve says they have to comply with the different state requirements. “We have permittees that come up from Utah, because Utah is pretty tied to this part of the state, although a lot of our permittees are from Wyoming.”
“We have a multiple use forest here, with all the multiple uses, and a lot of recreation comes to this area from the Wasatch Front,” notes Steve. “We don’t generally have too many conflicts, although a lot of users in the wilderness are surprised to find livestock in those areas.”
He says one of the unique things to his district is the Henry’s Fork drainage – the easiest access to King’s Peak, the highest point in Utah. “There’s a lot of use in that drainage, and there are also active sheep permits there,” he explains. “We respond to a few concerns from the public throughout the year about livestock in the wilderness.”
“People aren’t aware of the history of livestock grazing, and the law, and a lot of them don’t like livestock in the wilderness areas and they don’t know why they’re there,” he continues. “It’s an education effort on our part, to let them know they’re there legally, under permit.”
“We’re here to disseminate information to try to educate the public, and to work with the permittees to make sure they’re using best management practices to minimize negative grazing impacts,” explains Steve.
One of the forest’s biggest challenges right now is, of course, the mountain pine beetle. “We’re in the midst of a major mountain pine beetle epidemic affecting our lodge pole pine,” he says. “We also have a spruce beetle affecting trees.”
He says the beetles have been a large focus this year – dealing with the epidemic by finding logical areas to salvage trees, finding areas where fuel reduction is needed and removing beetle kill trees from developed and dispersed recreation sites.
The Evantson/Mountain View district works closely with local sawmills to manage the beetle kill and the forest in general. The Ayers and Baker Sawmill is located in Mountain View and the Jones Sawmill is based in Evanston.
“We’re fortunate to still have a timber industry in this part of the state,” says Steve. “We’ve been in the fortunate situation to have good operators and a sustainable supply of timber.”
He adds that when timber supplies do fall on federal lands the mills are able to move to harvesting private lands.
“We’ve got a good working relationship with the sawmills,” says Steve. “We are often under the scrutiny of environmental groups, but some projects they’re supportive of, like treatments for aspen regeneration.”
“Fortunately we’ve worked with the local timber industry, because we do believe it’s a tool to manage the forest,” says Steve. “If we didn’t have them to help us with projects like aspen regeneration they’d be a lot more expensive for us.”
Steve notes off-highway vehicles are a big management challenge on forest land. “We have a lot of opportunities for people to recreate, and we’ve been progressive at providing them, so we want people to use the existing opportunities and not cause problems getting off the trails,” he says.
Currently the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache Forest is working through all its grazing allotments to ensure they’re compliant with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). “We have to do that so we can continue to reissue permits when their 10-year terms are up. It’s a major issue for every national forest,” says Steve.
A federal bill gave the Forests a window to reissue permits without official NEPA compliance, but it also gave them a schedule with a timeline by which they have to comply. “It’s been a challenge for us to prepare the environmental documents and also to perform the range monitoring to determine whether those allotments are meeting desired conditions,” explains Steve. “They’re basically the direction for livestock management contained in our forest plans.”
Of Uinta County producers grazing on the forest, Steve says, “One thing that makes the county unique is that we have a mix of livestock, with both sheep and cows, and the forest is nearby so many of them are close between summer and winter range, enabling a lot of our operators to have efficient operations.”
Maxfield brothers willing to try new things, grasp opportunitiesWritten by Jennifer Womack
“About 1968 we moved here,” says Kevin. He and his brother Rick were in high school at the time. Their father was a dairyman in addition to driving the milk truck and the local snowplow.
Kevin, along with his wife Nancy, returned to the ranch to raise their family shortly after graduating from high school in nearby Lyman. Spending two years working in the nearby mines, he says, made him fully appreciate the agricultural lifestyle. “I decided ranching wasn’t that bad,” he laughs.
“It’s a good way to raise a family,” says Rick. “It’s not a good way to make a lot of money if you’re looking to get rich.”
Rick spent a year attending trade school to study building construction, followed by a two-year church mission to South America, before returning to the ranch with his wife Bobbi.
“It was a dairy farm and we milked 35 cows back then,” says Kevin of their move to the ranch in the late 1960s. The dairy expanded to the point they were milking 100 cows daily before milk prices dipped below the cost of freighting the milk to the Utah-based markets.
“There used to be 18 to 20 dairies in the valley,” says Rick.
“Everybody went out and we were the last ones to stick it out,” says Kevin.
Rick explains, “They hauled our milk to Salt Lake and the freight was costing us more than the milk was making. That pretty well made the decision.”
“We were the only ones left on the route,” says Nancy.
Simultaneous to operating the dairy, the brothers were building houses in nearby Lyman. It was a routine of milk cows in the morning, build houses during the day and then home to milk again in the evenings. When there was a spare moment, Kevin shoed horses for extra income.
It’s been nearly a decade since the Maxfield ranch exited the dairy business and began growing the beef cattle side of their operation. “We do a lot of backgrounding,” says Kevin. “We buy a lot of local calves and background them until spring or late winter. This year we kept them until now. We have a bunch of yearlings near Rawlins and a bunch at the Pathfinder Ranch near Casper.”
“We background all of them here,” says Rick, noting they normally market their stock in the spring, but this year went to grass with a large portion of the yearlings. “We don’t know if we’ll do it again. We usually sell them in the spring rather than run them through. We did a few last year and a few more this year. We’ll see if it works and if it does we’ll continue. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something different.”
Closer to home, the Maxfields winter cattle near Lyman and summer them in the Uinta Mountains on Uinta County’s southern flanks. A two-day trail drive, often joined by numerous friends and neighbors, sees the cattle to summer pasture and home again in the fall.
“The cows are at 10,000 feet in elevation,” says Rick of summer pasture. The elevation makes bloodlines a factor on the bulls the family selects and the bloodlines they choose. “We still loose some,” he says of the high altitude disease some cattle are susceptible to.
Over the years Rick says the family has transitioned away from federal grazing permits, instead looking toward private land ownership and leases. “There are too many Robert Redfords and environmentalists,” he says. The Maxfields maintain one private Bureau of Land Management allotment and, along with a around a dozen other ranchers, belong to the Lyman Grazing Association.
The Maxfields have worked to maximize production on their ground. “We’ve cleared sagebrush off of a couple of hundred acres and put it in center pivots to grow alfalfa where there used to not be anything growing at all,” says Kevin.
“We hire very little help,” says Rick. “We try to keep it in the family and that keeps us together.” Kevin says the fact that both of their wives were raised in agriculture and know what to expect from the ranching lifestyle has made that approach much easier.
The Maxfields use a variety of methods to buy and sell their cattle. “A lot of them go on the video and we use the Internet,” says Rick. “Some people call and want them. We have some repeat buyers. Most of them go on the video and we buy some off of the video.” With a scale on the ranch, the family also sells some of their cattle private treaty. Kevin says the secret to marketing cattle is the ability to put together multiple loads of a certain class of cattle, making the job a little easier for the buyers.
Bidding on cattle from all across Wyoming, the Maxfields are an asset to people across the state marketing the types of calves they are interested in. “In the month of August,” says Rick, “I bet we bid on 20,000 calves. We didn’t buy that many, but we did bid on a lot of peoples’ calves. We’ve had reps from Western and Superior calling. We tried to help everyone whose calves we thought would work for us.” The Maxfields ranch also serves as a receiving station for Torrington Livestock Auction.
Hay, from harvest to feeding, is an important aspect of the Maxfield operation. The ranch’s irrigation water begins in the Uinta Mountains with stop-offs at reservoirs along the way. “A lot of our place is flood irrigated,” says Kevin. “All of our water comes down the Black’s Fork. I’m on the board and Nancy is the secretary of the Black’s Fork Canal Company. We try to keep track of what’s going on as much as we can.”
“We’re pretty fortunate in terms of water rights,” says Rick. “We have a lot of the earlier water rights and that makes a big difference.”
The Maxfields native hay is some of the best producing in the nation, drawing the attention of the equipment engineers at Hesston. “We’ve had two or three of the prototypes Hesston has built for rotary swathers and the big chopper balers,” says Rick. “We’ve had the prototypes here and the engineers. We put up some grass hay that brings in six ton to the acre in one crop. It’s not all that productive. We’ve had demonstrations here where there were three different prototype swathers broke down.”
Rick says they work to keep top-of-the-line equipment around to avoid the need to hire additional labor. “We had the first cutter baler in this country,” he says. “We don’t have those anymore, but we did when we were milking cows.”
The ranch has added an innovative feed truck to their equipment line-up and Kevin says it’s significantly reduced the time and labor involved in feeding. “It has a chopper on it,” he explains of the implement that can mix two bales. Alfalfa can be place on one side while a bale of straw or lesser quality hay is fed in on the other side. It’s mixed evenly.
“It makes it a lot easier to feed our yearlings,” says Kevin. “I can feed them by myself in 15 minutes and it used to take two of us a pretty good hour.” While they haven’t used it, Rick says the truck has a compartment for grain so that it can be placed right in the hay.
“We use alfalfa for protein and we mix it with some pretty poor hay,” says Rick. “They eat every bit of it because that feeder mixes is right up. It puts it in a nice little windrow.”
“I remember when our biggest tractor was 44 horsepower,” says Kevin. “Now our littlest tractor is 100 horsepower. Things have really changed.” Maybe not all that much, however, he laughs, “Our first tractor we bought was $5,000 and we wondered if we would ever get it paid for. Our last tractor we bought was over $100,000 and we don’t know if we’ll ever get it paid for.”
“You can’t do things like the old boys did,” says Rick. “They used to get by, but today you’ve got to be pretty aggressive. You’ve got to stay on top of things, watch the markets and do everything you can.” He says it takes a lot more cattle to feed a family than historically was the case.
“We used to sell 300-pound calves,” says Rick. “Now 600 pound calves are pretty common and the cows really haven’t got any bigger.”
“I remember the old boys saying 650 pound yearlings were huge,” says Kevin. “We ship several semi-loads of 700 pound calves right off their moms.”
The weights, and the added potential to market more pounds from a single cow, are the bright spot. “In 1975,” says Rick, “we got a dollar for our calves and now they’re about a dollar again. That’s a challenge. Our input costs have at least quadrupled or more. I think diesel was 40 cents a gallon in 1975 and last year it was $4.”
Kevin says, “The old boys used to say if your calf prices stay the same as your diesel prices, you’ll make a go of it.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to sell a $2.65 a pound calf?” asks Bobbi.
Foreign ownership of the meat industry’s infrastructure and poor policy coming out of Washington, D.C. may equal, if not surpass, the markets when it comes to the challenges facing Wyoming and the nation’s ranchers, say the brothers.
Kevin would like to see the United States return to those days when American agriculture was truly appreciated.
Bird family produces bulls, colts in Bridger ValleyWritten by Christy Hemken
Vearl Bird says his family moved into the area from northwest Utah when his older brother and sister were old enough for high school and there wasn’t one nearby. Vearl’s wife Patsy Ann Bird is originally from the valley, and all four sets of her great grandparents were homesteaders in the valley.
“I had to move in so she had someone she wasn’t related to,” jokes Vearl.
Today Vearl and his son Lane Bird, who lives on the ranch with his wife and three girls, run the Crowfoot Simmental Ranch cow/calf operation. In addition to selling their calves in the fall they also sell a few yearling bulls private treaty each year. Vearl says Lane is chief bull-seller and PR man for the bulls, as well as doing most of the synchronization and AI work, while Lane refers to himself as “chief grunt.”
“We run cows here, on the other side of Mountain View, on a forest permit and on some BLM in the foothills,” says Vearl from his ranch house, a log home the family built themselves from timber brought from the mountains.
The Birds’ breeding program consists of synchronizing their heifers for AI and injecting a couple hundred head of cows.
“The best way we’ve found to market our calves is through Superior Livestock Auction,” says Vearl of the video sale, which is popular in Uinta County as it lacks a nearby livestock auction.
Of the yearling bulls, Vearl says the ranch starts with 70 held back each year. “We cull them pretty hard in the fall as calves, and by the time we start selling them as yearlings in March and April we’ve got the oddballs kicked out,” he says, noting they usually market about 50 bulls each spring.
The Birds sell the bulls through private treaty, print advertising and correspondence with customers. “It works pretty well. Some years it’s pretty smooth, but if the economy’s down a little bit ranchers tend to get one more year out of their bulls,” comments Vearl. He says problems with trich in area bulls outside their herd have also been a challenge.
The Bird ranch also produces Quarter Horses from three stallions. Lane and the ranch’s hired man Matt spend the winter training colts.
“The horse market’s gone to pieces,” says Vearl. “The only ones we can really sell with much advantage are the horses we’ve ridden for two or three years. Everybody wants a horse that’s well finished, not a 30- or 60-day rode horse anymore.”
“It’s not been a good situation,” he continues. “We used to sell cull horses at $350 to $600, anymore it’s $100 to $150.”
The ranch has cut back on bred mares, but Vearl says that’s also to get caught up on colt breaking and spend more time on their horses. “It’s a hefty drive to the market in Billings, Mont. And a three-year-old colt with 30 to 60 days will only bring $1,200 to $1,500, while a five- or six-year-old will bring $2,500 to $3,500. We ride them hard, then change them out.”
“Tourism and campers are our main issue on the forest allotments,” says Vearl of managing federal grazing permits, adding that they’re working with a new rangeland management specialist on pasture management. “His main push is to move the cows through so that the cows will only eat off a plant once during the growing season and not come back to it.”
Vearl says their allotments are in an area with a lot of sub-irrigated meadows along one of the main rivers that come into the valley, so there’s good water. “We have three pastures, and we rotate first into a different one every year,” says Vearl. “The Forest Service has also come in and fenced off the lakes and camping areas to create some buffer zones between the cattle and people.”
“Half the time when we go up there we can’t find any cows because they go back up into the parks,” he adds.
Vearl says his family has enjoyed their location in Bridger Valley because they like being away from everybody else. “Relatively, we haven’t had that many people come in, but they’re moving in steadily with ranches being sucked up.”
He says the area trona mines have kept the area alive since the mid-1970s. Wyoming has the world’s largest deposit of trona, and supplies about 90 percent of the nation’s soda ash. The trona is mined, then processed into soda ash or bicarbonate of soda, for a variety of uses, including glassmaking, which consumes about half of soda ash output.
“A lot of ag people have jobs out at the mines and farm and ranch on the side. We’ve tried to expand enough so we don’t have to go to outside jobs, although we might have been farther ahead,” comments Vearl.
Of the family operation, Vearl says they all work together. “Lane knows the bulls, breeding lines, genetics and cow records. I try to keep finance records and ranch books, while Matt’s the horse breaker. Any time he’s got spare time he’s supposed to be breaking horses.”
Vearl says cell phones have really helped the operation’s efficiency. “We cover a lot of the valley with our ground, and with cell phones if Lane breaks down he can call the parts house in Denver, Colo. from the middle of the field instead of waiting until he gets back to the house and calling them the next morning.”
One of the best things about a ranch is it’s a good place to raise kids,” says Patsy Ann.
Covolos operate five businesses in oneWritten by Christy Hemken
After attending WyoTech in diesel mechanics he returned to the Valley and began repairing tractors in the garage of his house. That soon led to a decision between his mechanics and the mines.
“I got so busy fixing farm machinery that I had to make a decision. I worked at the mines as a maintenance superintendent and I was too busy to do both,” says Dennis.
“In 1978 I owned about 20 cows and a good rope horse. Now that rope horse is in the floor downstairs, because I sold him and the cows to pay for the cement in this foundation,” says Dennis, sitting in his office above the NAPA parts store that is just one part of a handful of businesses that compose Covolo Auto-Farm Service.
“I built the initial building with an old Super C tractor with a tie chained in the bucket to get high enough. That’s how I got started, and I kept getting busier and the first year I was open I built onto the building twice,” he explains.
“And then it got busier, and we got into tires and I ended up with Massey Fergusen along with other related brands as well as Napa Auto Parts. That’s what I started with in 1978,” says Dennis. “It’s something the valley and our customers needed, because there was nothing.”
For the first few years Dennis ran the shop while his wife Vicki ran the parts store, but then they started to hire people.
Of his business philosophy, Dennis says it’s all about his customers. He relates the story of how in 1995 a fire burned the whole place down. “I wanted to quite – I was done,” he says. “But then four or five good customers came and said, ‘You can’t quit. You’ve got to come back for us.’”
Although his children wanted him to quit because of the long hours, he built again. One of his sons is now the service manager for the business.
“It was running along well, but we were so busy the building wasn’t good enough, so in about 2001 I built the service center on, which doubled the size of our building, and now we’re too small again,” says Dennis.
“I like doing it, and the people need it,” he says of the business. “I’m the only official ag dealer in Uinta County. They needed us, and we try to accommodate them, although I’m sure we don’t all the time because it’s overwhelming.”
Currently the Covolos have around 18 employees in their business, which includes the NAPA store, the full-service automotive service center and a full-service equipment dealership with Massey Ferguson, Branson, Kuhn and Hesston. “We also custom-spread fertilizer in the spring. That’s our main operation – five businesses in one,” says Dennis.
“With the full-service automotive shop, all of the valley is our customer,” says Dennis. “When it comes to ranches, we’re a full-service ag shop, servicing balers, swathers, tractors, you name it.”
The shop also maintains a service truck available for calls in the country.
In addition to the mechanics business the Covolos run a cow/calf operation, with one full-time and several part-time employees. Of keeping track of everything, Dennis says he wears out a pair of shoes about every week.
Dennis is also involved in planning and zoning with the county, and he says one of the top issues right now is maintaining open space and protecting the ranchers. “On the other hand, if we don’t grow we die, so we have to have subdivisions and more people,” he says. “We need to figure out how to get everybody on the same playing field so the housing’s not a detriment to agriculture and it’s a happy mix. We need growth and I’m really in favor of it, but I really love my open space and favor that.”
He says he’s for growth, but not at the cost of agriculture. “We’re doing a new comprehensive plan for the county, and they’re on top of the issue and trying hard to make it best for both interests.”
Of wind energy development, and the wind farm on the ridge west of the valley, Dennis says, “Wind energy is a mixed emotion because of viewshed. It’s really helped the county with revenues, but it’s a viewshed detriment to some people. It’s a really controversial issue.”
Of sage grouse in the area, he says, “If we could get rid of the predators, the fields would be black with sage grouse. Their decline has nothing to do with ranching or development. I’ve seen more this year than I have in years, but they’re still not as plentiful as they used to be.”
Predators have been coming in for years, he says. “When I was growing up we never saw a fox and rarely a raccoon. The predators are the sage grouse’s problem, not industry.”
Of the future of his business, Dennis says, “I think our big focus right now is to increase our service, but not really expand. I want to fine-tune our operation to be a better, more customer-oriented business rather than have people unhappy because we were so busy we can’t take care of them like we should.”
“I know all the people in the valley and consider them all friends,” says Dennis of living in the Bridger Valley community. “We’re right in the middle and part of every town.”