Torrington â€“ Since 1987 Dean McClain and his wife Candy have operated Ag Flyers out of Torrington,Written by Christy Hemken
“I started out in Wyoming in Casper as a diesel mechanic, and I learned how to fly on a lark, with no real intention to carry it on, but I liked it and I had a background in ag,” says Dean, adding of the Torrington base, “My wife and I got married, and we wanted to live in a small town and I’d always wanted to do this anyway.”
Ag Flyers keeps three airplanes in the business – an Ag Cat, an Eagle and a Brave. “The Eagle stays in Torrington, the Ag Cat does most of the work around the state and up in the mountains and the Brave is strictly for mosquitoes,” he says. “It’s fast, with a long range and a lot of fuel capacity.”
Dean is the only pilot in the business, while Candy keeps up the book work, answers the phone and washes airplanes, as well as helping to load planes from their state-of-the-art loading pad built to EPA specs, even though Wyoming isn’t regulated.
“We keep the airplanes running, because you’ve got to keep them busy just like a truck,” he says. “We try to run them all we can. Initially it was a summer job, starting in April and done by mid-September, but things have changed in weed science and now a lot of weeds are sprayed in the fall.”
Dean says he starts flying in March with alfalfa, beginning wheat in April and rangeland in May. “In June mosquitoes are big, and July and August we go as hard as we can on corn and beans. In mid-September we start rangeland again, spraying cactus and toadflax. When we get all that done we start putting out the dry pellets for sagebrush.”
With all that, Dean says they work about every month of the year save January and February. “We maybe do more rangeland than crops anymore,” he says.
The winter sagebrush treatments are a pellet that dissolves, killing sagebrush over the winter. “It requires a special applicator on the airplane that meters them out at a low volume – only one to two pounds per acre,” says Dean.
He says at that rate you can thin sagebrush and avoid killing it all, which is popular right now in Wyoming with sage grouse and wildlife issues. “When you thin sagebrush, if you take out 50 percent you can double grass production, while if you take out 100 percent it doesn’t really help the grass all the much,” notes Dean. “The greatest benefit is to thin at 50 percent. It looks really nice when we’re done, and the wildlife really like it.”
Dean says mosquito programs have gained popularity over the last few years in response to West Nile virus. In addition to Goshen County and the Torrington area Dean flies for the city of Laramie, the Natrona County Health Department, the town of Saratoga and two mosquito districts – the Little Laramie River Mosquito District in Albany County and the Platte Valley Mosquito Abatement District near Saratoga.
“When spring runoff floods meadows the mosquitoes all hatch, and they’re really something,” says Dean of the mosquito districts. “Cattle lose weight, and calves are lighter in the fall. If the producers take care of mosquitoes haying is a lot more enjoyable and it’s better for the livestock.”
Dean says the airplane application will control 90 to 95 percent of mosquitoes. “Mosquito programs are very popular and the airplane’s cheap,” he says. “I can treat a 300-foot swath at 135 miles per hour, and that’s a lot of mosquitoes in an evening.”
“The business is always changing,” says Dean of the different programs and clients he flies for. While he anticipates mosquito programs will drop off in the coming year due to budget cuts, he and others are already gearing up for grasshopper treatment.
“For years people thought a cool, wet spring would take the grasshoppers out, but last year we had as cool and wet a spring as we’re ever going to have, and we had an almost record infestation,” notes Dean. “There’s every reason to believe there are a lot of eggs laid out there, and the state is weighing its options and getting organized for next year.”
Dean says the biggest problem is there aren’t many applicator airplanes in the state. “There are around 2,000 operators in the U.S., and there are three or four in Wyoming,” he says.
A new program under research with the University of Wyoming addresses horn fly problems, and Dean’s been flying test plots with them. “They confine the cattle in a small pasture, spray the pasture with the cattle in it so they consume the Dimilin, so what they graze in a day is in the cow pie and as the maggots hatch they go through the molting process, which is when the Dimilin kills them,” he explains. “They know it works, now they’re working on management schemes.”
To keep track of where to spray and how wide to make his swaths Dean flies with GPS in each plane, which draws a line across a field on the first pass and moves it over so many feet for each pass after that. “It’s straight as a laser, and accurate to within a foot or two,” he says.
“Torrington and the state of Wyoming are wonderful places to do business. I get to travel all over the state and we really enjoy working with the people in agriculture,” says Dean of his business. “They’re my pick of all the people. Ag as a whole is the jewel of our economy.”
“Some sectors are always down when others are up, but it’s always been that way. I hope we can keep it as the jewel of our economy,” he continues. “There are a whole bunch of issues coming down the pike with endangered species and activists and judges. My feeling is we’ve lost touch with reality.”
Of the future of Ag Flyers, Dean says he’ll keep flying as long as they can lift him in the airplane. “I’m very fortunate because I like what I do, and after 23 years I still enjoy coming to work and the people I live with. At this point I have no intent of retiring, although we need interested young people in the business.”