Abernathy ranch operates despite federal requirements
Beaver Rim – When Tom Abernathy’s father began putting the family ranch together in 1962 he started with a few cattle and a sheep outfit south of Lander, later adding Tom’s current location below Beaver Rim in southern Fremont County.
“He worked for ranchers in the Glenrock area and always wanted his own place,” says Tom of his dad. Tom has lived at his location, which used to be the Haley stage stop, since 1974. “It fit right in with the sheep ranch we already had, which was all the way around it.”
Tom says the family operation started with a few milk cows crossed with beef bulls. “He started building a herd and bought a few cows. The place he leased south of Lander had a 90-head permit, and he bought a few Herefords, too. He bought the sheep ranch four or five years later and ranch sheep until the spring of 1973, after which he built on the cow herd.”
A big component of the Abernathys’ operation is the Green Mountain Common. “We have one of the largest cow permits there, part of which we sold and lease back from the LDS Church,” says Tom of the ranch on the Sweetwater River purchased by his dad. “We later did a land exchange for winter range north of there, because the Church really wanted that location, which was the sixth crossing on the Sweetwater. After the BLM harassed us so bad and made us herd our cattle in imaginary boundaries, I was ready to sell, or do something, and it was a good opportunity for winter range. But now we’re still leasing it 13 years later.”
Tom says time has not changed the ability to reason with the BLM. “We still don’t have a valid plan. We’re operating on what they call the ’99 Decision, which has a lot of goals, and one of them is to rotate through the imaginary boundaries and pastures, using stubble height as criteria.”
Tom says last year the permittees did have some success with stubble height, as well as this year. “But they started the plan during the last 11 years, and part of those were the driest years in the last century, so we really had a tough time and only used 36 percent of our permit.”
The BLM had said if permittees would mitigate a permit and not use very much, they’d be moved up on a permit sooner after the drought. “Which isn’t the case,” says Tom. “But we are running 60 percent this year.”
Technically there are 19 permit holders in the Green Mountain Common, but Tom says many are consolidated, so there aren’t 19 different outfits running cattle.
In addition to extreme dry years, Tom says wild horses have been another challenge in living up to the BLM’s goals. “They’re a real problem. They gathered several hundred two years ago, which helped our stubble height last year, but it doesn’t take long for them to get their numbers back, and they’re always hovering right over the appropriate management level, which is frustrating.”
He says two years after the ’99 Decision the permittees weren’t allowed to turn out until June 15, and that year he went up to turn on a well project and found the ground covered with horse manure. “We took pictures and measured with a ruler, and the stubble height was already down below three inches,” he says of the horses’ affect. “I went over the hill to look at the next riparian area, and there they were.”
To get the herding accomplished, permittees in the Green Mountain Common have to hire herders. “They want us to have three people on just the west side, which is five cattle permits and one sheep permit. We have two guys out there this year,” says Tom, adding their herders are locals. “That’s costing us well over $2,500 per month, which is split between permits on that portion of the allotment, of which I hold 55 percent.”
Of the cowherd, Tom says his family runs mostly Angus now, still transitioning from Hereford. “The last three or four years we’ve sold our calves on video with Superior, and this year we went with Northern. It’s expensive, but that’s ok if the market’s up.”
Tom says his area is good for winter country, as there’s quite a bit of wind to open it up. “And, we’ll usually be about 10 degrees warmer than Lander, on average. In the winter of 1978/79 we were about the only open spot in Fremont County. A lot of people refer to it as the ‘banana belt,’ but it can be aggravating with the wind.”
The Abernathys don’t have to feed a lot of hay in the winter, but they do bale the ranch’s meadows and purchase some hay. “It’s a nice place to winter, if you can find a nice place in Wyoming,” he comments.
Tom and his wife Millie, a schoolteacher, have a married daughter Avery, who lives nearby with her husband Joshua Anderson and their son Joshua. Tom and Millie’s son Rhett is on the ranch. Rhett’s degree in range management from Chadron State has led to his responsibility for the monitoring on the ranch. “I’m turning the monitoring with BLM and NRCS over to him, because one guy just can’t do it all. He can’t run a ranch and be here and there,” says Tom.
“I really like living 27 miles out of town,” says Tom. “Our closest neighbor is two miles away, and I like the freedom, open space and being able to do my work at my own pace.”
Although he likes his area, Tom says federal agencies have become so much more intrusive into their everyday lives. “As ranchers we used to get together and talk about ranches and cattle, and now all we can talk about is bureaucracy, the agency people, BLM, DEQ and whoever. When the Mormons bought that place, I should have bought an all-deeded ranch in eastern Wyoming or Nebraska. But everyone says I’d miss the mountains. I like the fact that we’ve got so much room here, and that it takes five to seven acres per month for a cow and a calf.”