Ties to the land: Barnes family develops land for cattle production
LaBarge – Eric Barnes has lived on the family ranch outside of LaBarge near Fontenelle Reservoir his entire life on land that his father acquired early in life.
“Dad was working for the owner of this ranch, a man named Arnold Larson, When Arnold had to leave to take care of his place in Opal,” explains Eric. “He started leasing the ranch, but he wasn’t making enough money, so Arnold offered to sell it to him.”
At the young age of only 21, Calvin Barnes, Eric’s father, began the legacy that he left to his family of eight.
“We’ve been in a partnership on the ranch since dad passed away, and I’m one of the general partners,” says Eric. “I’ve stayed with dad through it all.”
Called back to ranching
As the youngest of eight siblings, Eric felt strong ties to the land and his family.
After his mother passed away when he was only 12, Eric was raised by his father on the ranch.
“My sisters went to town to live with our older sister,” says Eric, “but I stayed out here with dad as his right-hand man.”
“My dreams are dad’s dreams, and dad’s dreams are something I’m hoping to fulfill,” he adds.
He left the family operation for a short time on a bull riding scholarship to attend Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington.
“Dad needed help, and I decided to put bull riding on the back burner and come home to help on the ranch.”
Today, Eric continues the legacy his father began, raising cows and putting up hay with his wife April, three-year-old son Timber and dedicated hand Kevin Megayhey.
Making the land work
“We put up alfalfa and the native grass,” says Eric. “On average, we get two to three ton per acre, and usually we can get two cuttings. This year, our second cutting has been short because it’s been cold.”
“Dad was one of the first ones to try growing alfalfa in this country,” Eric mentions, explaining that his father removed the sagebrush from the land and worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve the soil. “Some of the land had ditches and water rights, but he put sprinkler systems in as well.”
He adds that when they started, it was warmer and a second cutting was guaranteed, but it seems their growing season is getting shorter.
“I try to keep the land productive,” Eric emphasizes, mentioning that he is trying some new strategies to produce a better crop. “We’ve been trying some different grass mixes with our alfalfa.”
Experimenting with alfalfa
Following the lead of his father, Eric saw some varieties growing in some of the fields on their land that Calvin planted before he passed away and decided to increase the amount of grass in the mixture.
To encourage the growth of the crop, they also irrigate with pivots and wheel lines, flood irrigating their native hay land in the river bottom.
The couple also runs a herd of Angus cows that calves beginning in February. The ranch is a 350 cow/calf operation.
“Our heifer calves develop a lot better if we start them in February,” remarks April, adding that they keep their replacements to sell as bred heifers. “We feel like with the direction the nation is going, as far as low cow numbers, there is opportunity in bred heifers.”
They also run on BLM range, which has proven difficult in the drought year because grass is short.
“Depending on the weather, we don’t have to start feeding our hay until January,” he adds. “But if we get colder weather or run out of grass, we have to start earlier.”
Into the future
With uncertainty about public lands issues, they say, “If we can survive the public lands changes, that is a big stay-or-go issues for a lot of small ranches like this. We need the public lands grazing to work.”
As long as the range is available and productive, however, the couple will continue to grow, develop and improve their operation.
Eric adds that he is trying to continue the legacy his dad set forth and accomplish the long-term goals the ranch has had since it’s beginnings.
“We have all been raised to be good stewards of the land,” he says, “and we are trying our best to help the environment.”
“I also like the challenge of surviving out here with the skills and the tools that Dad taught me,” Eric comments. “That’s why I stay here.”
Eric says, “I am very excited about the eagerness of the younger generations in the family being involved in the fall and spring work and learning the ropes.”