Abernathy, Martin lease Red Canyon Ranch from TNC, will continue to develop agriculture potential
Lander – The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has leased their Red Canyon Ranch to Rhett Abernathy and Garric Martin. The cousins will be running a cow/calf herd on TNC deeded land, as well as the adjacent state and federal leases.
“We’ll continue what TNC has been doing here,” Martin says. “One of the draws to this place is that it’s not going anywhere. TNC does not want to sell it, and they’re looking for a long-term relationship with someone.”
“We do conservation really well, and we do ag production less well,” says John Coffman, TNC Southern Wyoming land steward. “TNC is not set up well procedurally for us to take advantage of buying feed or selling cattle at the right time. We had the satisfaction of raising high quality beef with Red Canyon.”
Coffman continues, “By leasing the ranch out, we will continue to do so and have the opportunity to partner with ag producers and keep working landscapes productive, as well as free up TNC staff to do more conservation work. In some respects, we are gaining two new land stewards with Rhett and Garric.”
TNC utilized the Wyoming Agriculture Owner Network (WAGON) to identify young producers and guide the application process for finding lessees for Red Canyon Ranch.
Martin and Abernathy were selected based on their references, community support, access to winter ground and comparable lease bid.
“All the folks applying were young producers,” Coffman says. “We’re trying to conserve not only the land but also the livelihoods of ranching and farming. The average age of a rancher is 57, and there are not a lot of young folks coming in on the lifestyle. The land prices alone keep most people from being able to do so.”
Abernathy and Martin have a five-year lease on Red Canyon Ranch and TNC’s cattle, maintaining the TNC herd to hold the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lease and are also bringing their own herd into the operation.
“We will re-evaluate the lease in five years, and Martin and Abernathy have an option to extend it,” Coffman says. “I would like to see them out there for 15 to 20 years.”
“If this is just a stepping-stone for them to get their own place, then we’ve met our objectives to support young producers, as well,” he says. “If they end up staying out there, the conservation value increases with long-term lessees.”
Working out an agreement
“The negotiations were a lot more than the price of the lease,” Martin says. “TNC wanted someone who would live here and take care of the ranch like it was their own.”
He also notes that the opportunity to work with an organization with goals aside from the financial piece is exciting.
“On other land we have leased, the highest bidder got it,” he says. “It is nice to work with somebody who has more goals in mind than the rent check.”
“TNC holds this place in high regard, and it is nice to be a part of it,” Abernathy adds. “We won’t be changing much as a Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) team manages the grazing rotation. We’ll be working closely with the Wyoming Game and Fish, Forest Service and other lessees.”
TNC recently increased irrigation infrastructure, and Abernathy and Martin are hoping to be able to irrigate the meadows to their full potential. TNC partners with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to irrigate meadows along Red Canyon Road for winter elk habitat on the same system as TNC’s deeded meadows.
Martin and Abernathy, along with two other lessees, will be rotating the common herd every 21 days to a new pasture based on the CRM plan.
“There are around 20 pastures on the rotation but no fences,” Abernathy says. “We’ll be riding a lot to keep them from going up early, to keep them off certain places and then to keep the herd from coming off the mountain too soon.”
TNC has retained Travis Lucas to ride this summer with Abernathy and Martin. Lucas has been riding for Red Canyon for over five years and brings his familiarity of the pastures to the new lessees.
“We are going to need to get a summer under our belts to see how things operate,” Martin says. “TNC hasn’t been keeping heifers, but we’re going to start doing so and culling out the older cows.”
He adds, “We’ll keep improving the quality of the cattle, the same as our own. We’re always looking to improve and trying to get better bulls and replacements.”
While Red Canyon Ranch is now leased to Abernathy and Martin, the CRM will remain the governing body. TNC is the private landowner and also has its conservation goals for the land.
“Red Canyon is not just a ranch,” Coffman explains. “There are certain things we spend money on that wouldn’t make fiscal sense if a producer was trying to make a living off the place. Our budget cycles are strange and don’t work well with ag markets. With the lease, we get a flat fee every year, and it will make conservation project planning easier, as there will be an established income.”
“If TNC hadn’t bought this place then it would have sold to a developer,” Martin says, “and it would have houses all over it like the rest of Red Canyon. TNC cut the number of cattle that run on it, but it’s still a viable ranch, and they want to keep it that way.”
Martin continues that TNC leases most of its Wyoming land for grazing, and he’s gained perspective on TNC’s goals in working with the organization since the summer of 2013.
“They have been real good to work with,” Martin says. “They want us here and to succeed with cattle.”
“TNC is conservation-oriented,” Abernathy adds, “but they are keeping the ranch intact and in ag production. They want to show that a sustainable ecosystem and keeping the integrity of the land is possible with good grazing management. We’re for the same thing.”
Classroom for many
The Red Canyon Ranch hosts educational activities for all ages.
This summer, the Wyoming Conservation Corps will be doing wildlife-friendly fencing and invasive species control.
Garric Martin and Rhett Abernathy will also be working with a rangeland intern through a partnership The Nature Conservancy has with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts.
“This is a great place for people to learn and experience ranching,” Abernathy says. “I remember when I was in high school, we would shock fish and do range classes out here.”