On July 14, roughly 200 people gathered south of Upton, WY to help the Rankin family celebrate a milestone. The family has lived continuously on the original homestead for four generations, and weathered a lot of challenges and changes in the last century.
“My dad homesteaded this ranch in 1912, and he and mother came from western Iowa on an immigrant car. You put all your belongings – your team, wagon and all other things you might need on your new homestead – in this immigrant railroad car, and you came west,” Charlie explained of how his family landed in northeastern Wyoming.
When asked why his father picked the location he did, Charlie replied, “I have no idea, I wasn’t here.”
He does know that in addition to the 320-acre homestead, his father also took advantage of a provision that allowed him to file an additional homestead of 160 acres, which is still part of the operation today.
“At that time there was quite a diversity of crops they raised. We had oats, barley and wheat, and they farmed some corn. Of course, all the early farming was done with horses, and my dad took a lot of pride in his work horses and had some good ones.
“We also milked a few cows and brought the milk to the house and would run it through the separator and put the cream in the cream can down in the cellar where it was cool. When it was full we would take it to town to the railroad depot and ship it in a passenger car. Then the check would come back to us on a penny postcard. You would cut the bottom off and cash it at the grocery store for groceries. We also sold eggs at the grocery store and took it out in groceries,” Charlie said of his family’s early years.
Charlie’s wife Dee adds that as a whole, people didn’t have very much in those days, and no one knew different than to be self-supporting. Everyone raised big gardens, butchered their own beef and pork and did a lot of canning to provide for their family.
Charlie and Dee both grew up in Weston County, and knew each other through 4-H and various social functions, most notably community hall dances, that occurred around the country.
“It wasn’t an overnight affair,” commented Charlie of their relationship, which lead to marriage in 1951. The couple raised five children, the oldest being twin girls, and also had a niece come to live with them when she was 13 years old. During that time Dee worked for 13 years as a Weston County Extension agent, and the couple slowly transitioned away from farming and into ranching. Today their son, Curtis, his wife Mary and daughter Sara, run the operation.
Today’s livestock operation
“We ran cows and calves and some yearlings, then in later years we sold our cows. It just costs too much to run a cow. Today we run spayed yearling heifers on grass; a lot of which we lease. The yearlings are not as labor intensive, and where we usually sell them in August, we’re out of cattle here then until January,” Charlie explained.
Curtis buys all the heifers each year, typically from a video sale in Billings, MT. Heifers winter in feedlots and arrive on the ranch around May 10 weighing in the mid-700s. On a good year they leave in mid-August weighing 925.
A rotational grazing system that utilizes electric fence, 25 miles of pipeline and 40 recycled 12-foot tire tanks allows the Rankins to maximize utilization of their forage and cattle on much of land they graze during the summer months.
“Cattle are also weighed on the ranch. We have a portable scale plus a stationary scale, and we’ll catch the weight on the heifers during the summer to see what they’re doing gain-wise. Then when we sell we use both sets of scales, and that allows us to weigh about 700 head per hour.
“There are two things I don’t care to do: one is to pay freight, and the other is to pay commission, so we do as much of it as we can here,” Charlie said.
Curtis and Sara handle the majority of the cattle-related work each year, and Charlie says neighbors also help on big days.
“The neighbors here are real good about helping back and forth. For instance, it took us three mornings to ship our yearlings to the feedlot this year, and we had all the help we needed each day,” he said.
Then and now
Heifers were shipped early this year due to the drought, but Charlie says 2012 is nothing compared to the 1930s.
“At that point in time people tried to farm, and of course it wasn’t as technical as it is today, and there were a lot of open fields and the dirt blew like a blizzard days on end. Drifted into your house, or the thistles would catch on the fence and the dirt would drift on the thistles and cover your fence up. Grasshoppers were so bad that in the heat of the day they would climb up the shady side of a fence post to where you would swear you couldn’t get another hopper on there. This isn’t that bad of a year,” he explained.
Another thing about open-field farming that Charlie clearly remembers is the excellent crop of Russian Thistle they could grow. He recalls cutting Russian Thistle for hay on dry years, then hand pitching and stacking them for winter feed for their cattle.
“It wasn’t always easy, and while there are a few families around here who have made it a 100 years, a lot of people go on to something else,” Dee said about a century of ranching. “I know there was one time we were about to give it up because we thought we couldn’t make it, and this was after we were married and had some kids. I remember it was before Christmas one year, and one day I went with Charlie so we could kind of think about it and be rid of the kids for a while. But, fate went with us and we struggled through.”
“Well, we didn’t know of anything different,” Charlie added.
Dee said the family operation is under good management with their son. Though Charlie has stepped back, Curtis still asks him questions and listens.
“Then goes and does it his way anyhow,” Charlie replied.
When asked about the future, Charlie grinned and said, “Probably more of the same.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of our “Ranching Legacy” series, featuring stories about individuals, families and businesses that have survived the ups and downs of agriculture and contribute to their community. Know someone that should be featured? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grasshoppers were so bad that in the heat of the day they would climb up the shady side of a fence post to where you would swear you couldn’t get another hopper on there. This isn’t that bad of a year,”
– Charlie Rankin