All in the family: Wyoming’s Fitzhugh Ranch hopes to keep making improvements
The Fitzhugh Ranch, occupied by the third and fourth generations, exceeds the state of Wyoming in age.
The ranch, located 10 miles south of Douglas, Wyoming, was founded by 82 year-old Jim Fitzhugh’s grandfather, Gordon Vaughn. Fitzhugh and his family operate the current spread and leased ground.
Vaughn’s father, John William, was a doctor in Virginia. His plantation was located where the current Arlington Cemetery is located. William left the east cost in 1849 in search of gold in California.
He doctored in Fort Laramie for smallpox, Jim said, and continued to California in 1850.
His son, Vaughn, left his home in California traversing to Old Mexico to make five trails to Sheridan with cattle. He landed at the ranch homestead and staked his claim in 1874.
The current ranch has all of the original ground, though Jim’s dad bought and sold other land during his reign.
Jim took over the ranch in 1950 having lived there all his life, and was joined by his wife Marilyn in 1954. They still live in the original house that was homesteaded when Wyoming was a territory, not a state. Part of the horse barn remains as well.
Hereford cattle composed the original herd until 1984 when Jim decided to switch to Red Angus.
Jim’s son Dana, who operates the original homestead ground with wife Bobbe, said the new new genetics, “really made a change.”
The Fitzhughs received the title of Outstanding Commercial Producer in 1997 and 1998 by Wyoming Beef Cattle Improvement Association and were named the 2015 Pioneer Producer of the Year by Northern Livestock Auction.
“We’ve been blessed. For the last 20 years, we’ve had one buyer buy our cows 19 times,” he said.
The Fitzhugh Ranch boasts a large framed cow-herd.
“Our cattle are not classified as low-maintenance; they’re large-frame size,” Jim said. “We’re sizing them down some but we’re not going to low-maintenance.”
“We’re not afraid of an 80-pound calf on one of our heifers. We try not to buy bulls that produce over 90 pounds. We like the range from 80 and 90 pounds.”
Dana keeps records of each of the animals on the ranch including each calf’s individual weight and pre-conditioning in the fall, and specific information on what each cow produces.
“We keep structure in our cow herd. We prefer a 5’8” frame. Our heifers that we sold last fall weighed over 600 in seven months,” Dana said.
One of the originals brands is still registered to the Fitzhugh Ranch. The U Bar F, located on the left rib, is owned, but not used and the F Bar brand was lost in the “Dirty ’30s,” Jim said. “Grandad gave that one to his son, but the bank took his cattle and his brand.”
They have marked their Red Angus with a coffee grinder brand because it shows up better on the cattle, Jim said. Dana uses a mill iron lazy reverse S that was from Jim’s maternal grandfather.
Changes and improvements are necessary to survival, Jim said. In addition to gradually transitioning the herd to Red Angus, Jim sprayed the entire sagebrush population on the ranch and installed 46,000 feet of water pipeline, 15 springs, and 7 wells.
Electricity came to the ranch in the 1950s, which cost a minimum of $15 per month, but it had to be used monthly or they would lose it, Dana said, “They bought every appliance they could and plugged them in. They didn’t want to lose that electricity.”
The Fitzhughs transferred from saddle horses to four-wheelers in the late 1990s.
“We’re able to go out there faster and get done and be back,” Dana said. “We got a John Deere Gator with a spotlight for checking calves and to drop mineral. The cows don’t move at all. When we fire up the wheeler, they know they’re going to move; not so with the Gator.”
This also allows Jim freedom to keep ranching.
“We lease a ranch about 6.5 miles away. We can be there so much easier on a four-wheeler than regular pickup. It tears a pickup up; and you can still pack salt on a wheeler, and check water and be back in no time,” Dana said. “I don’t think dad’s stopping.”
Dana’s daughters hope to join the ranch, but “it’s not big enough for three families at the moment.”
Times have changed, Dana said. “Our family used to survive on 100 head of cattle and a hired man and now we have 200 and no hired man.”
The neighbors act as the Fitzhugh Ranch’s hired man.
“Branding, shipping, processing, we share with the neighbors,” Dana said.
“We’re blessed to have good neighbors that help us out and we do the same. We help them brand and ship and do what we can do,” Jim said. “They do the same for us, which is deeply appreciated.”
Their relationship with neighbors has been long-standing.
“Some of the neighbors have been here probably 50 years. Big money comes in and they’re not that way; they don’t neighbor with you,” Jim said.
Jim has no quit, as ranchers say.
“I bought this ranch; I’ve been here all my life,” Jim said. “Our goal is to keep improving the land and make it better for the next generation.”
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