Cheyenne River Legacy: Sixth generation being raised right on Wyoming’s 4W Ranch

Rhonda Sedgwick-Stearns
Tri-State Livestock News
Chad, Laynie and Gill Sears carry on family tradition, ranching on the Cheyenne River. Photos courtesy Sears family

A wide and wrinkled 500,000-acre chunk of Earth’s crust, now known as the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, surrounds and includes today’s 4W Ranch. In fact, about 50 percent of the surface fenced into the ranch is State or Federal.

Grazing livestock within those boundaries strips owners of autonomy over many decisions which can severely impact their personal success or failure, along with the welfare of the grasslands and livestock they are responsible to steward. For the first few 4W Ranch generations it hardly made any difference. But in today’s world ranchers are all-too-often viewed as enemies, thieves and robbers by the government; and endangered victims in their own eyes.

Vast tracts of land have to be jointly administered with State and Federal entities, whose many and varied priorities are written in regulation books handed down from government headquarters. Such priorities rarely coincide with the belt-tightening financial planning and land/livestock-friendly priorities of ranchers who know and listen to the living, breathing land like family. Sometimes they’re almost totally at cross-purposes.

Chad Sears, representing the sixth generation of Sherwin family descendants living on and operating the 4W Ranch says, “Just trying to keep up with the prairie dog situation is defeating. We have to keep our cow numbers up to make a living. We own the same acres as we did a decade ago, and the same amount of cattle, but it won’t work.”

The only thing missing is the vegetation, tons of it gone from the land. The only reason it is missing is that huge colonies of ravenous prairie dogs have eaten it, leaving even the soil that nurtured it so damaged all it can do is be blown or washed away by voracious erosion.

A variety of wildlife graze the 4W, including whitetail and mule deer, American pronghorn antelope, some elk and wild turkeys, but none of them are destroying it. Only the insufferably overstocked destructive prairie dogs

Hunting is a 4W Ranch staple. Steeped in strong Western traditions of hospitality, for decades they hosted an area-wide party the night before season opened. A whole hog was barbecued, car lights had the dirt road glowing for miles, and dozens carried in side dishes for an old fashioned country party of visiting, feasting and card playing in the airplane hangar. The tradition continues as 4W Ranch makes hunting of all legal wildlife available to the public.

Bob Harshbarger, whose wife Jean is the 3rd generation of her family to own and steward the 4W Ranch, grew up in Illinois farm country. Rangeland renovation is an ongoing practice on the 4W, starting with his arrival on the ranch. He abhors the vastness of destruction the untenable prairie dog situation has wreaked upon these once verdant grasslands now stripped, eroding and heavily cactus-infested

“As the ranch had heavy equipment, small areas of Prickly Pear removal was started in January and February while the ground was frozen and little or no snow cover,” Bob explains. “A road grader was used to lightly blade the heavily infested areas of cactus into windrows. This is very effective in immediately removing and killing the cactus. The native grasses responded the coming spring stronger and more dense than previous to the treatment.”

“Later, a 15 foot Aeroway was purchased and mounted on a Massey 1130 tractor along with a Leon Dozer Blade on the front,” Bob says. “This machine is very effective in leveling the prairie dog mounds and aerating the soil in the numerous colonies that infest rangeland on the ranch. Again, the native grasses respond to this treatment, but it is an ongoing battle keeping the prairie dog population low enough that they do not completely destroy the rangeland as they do on the unmanaged, untreated federal national grasslands which are a big part of the 4W Ranch Unit.”

Chad says, “I’ve worked with Bob some in springtime to no-till-drill oats in the prairie dog towns, and that’s worked very well for us. It creates shade and ground cover to help native plants recover, and the oats restore soil nutrients, plus creating some root structure to deter the awful wind and rain erosion.” The oats also attract grazing cattle, further fertilizing and stabilizing the barren ruination.

The 4W management team is tireless in trying to improve the land for both livestock and wildlife. Bob says, “In 2007 some sagebrush treatments were done in prime sage grouse habitat on the deeded lands that proved effective for the sage grouse population on the ranch. Overall, we try to do about 40 acres of Rangeland Renovation annually, including the hay meadows that are in the Cheyenne River Valley. The Cheyenne River meanders six miles across the lower portion of the ranch unit.”

Bob Harshbarger, along with his wife Jean, have devoted countless hours to in-depth study and planning toward the goal of protecting their property against mismanagement and destruction.

“Bob has done a tremendous amount of research and has catalogued a wealth of knowledge in volumes of paperwork,” Chad says. “He’s become involved in many organizations and been elected President of the Association of National Grasslands (ANG). I’m becoming involved in some organizations as well, to be informed on issues and keep up with all the change. I’ve been elected Vice President of Weston County Farm Bureau, and the entire family goes to State Farm Bureau Convention annually. I was recently put on the board of the Thunder Basin Grazing Association, too. It’s important to understanding the working of that, since we’re about 50% through the Forest Service.”

They say “time is money” and Bob Harshbarger has literally devoted years to researching and documenting the so-called “public lands” from their very roots and beginnings. His quest is always to define and interpret the true original intent of rules and regulations enacted for landowner benefit, which have over decades been twisted into chains that now separate landowners from their God given rights. Across the last few years literal months of Bob’s life -- and Jean’s – have been spent traveling to and from meetings, then sitting for hours on hard chairs in stuffy meeting rooms.

“I’m thankful our being here and ‘putting out fires’ on the ranch enables Bob and Gramma to have the freedom to be at so many meetings and take care of that side of the business,” Chad says.

Drive south down Lynch Road from its Wyoming Highway 450 intersection between Newcastle and Wright. Follow the twisting, turning pink gravel 15 miles or so and you’ll sight a tree line in the lower elevation distance. You suddenly come to the edge of the world there, falling down off the ridge your road’s been following, headed straight into the Cheyenne River and the bridge that takes you around a bend to climb out of Weston County and into Converse County. You’re on the historic 4W Ranch, roughly 29,000 acres of deeded and leased land that’s home to a 6-generation ranching family and their 500-600 mostly Red Angus cows, some high quality Red Angus and Charolais bulls, and their offspring.

Watch out, the roads aren’t fenced, and cattle hang out there. And don’t go to that bridge, but turn East at the “4W RANCH” sign. Keep takin’ right forks, don’t stop ‘till that road ends, and you’ll be at the historic headquarters of one of Wyoming’s oldest ranches. Some Cottonwood’s towering overhead and some logs comprising barn, bunkhouse and blacksmith shop have known this outfit from day one . . . priceless history and traditions. Any 5th generation rancher living in their shadows has big boots to fill.

That would be tall broad-shouldered Chad Sears, ably sided by his beautiful Scottish-bred working dynamo wife Gillian and their precocious 8-year-old home-schooled daughter Maclayne Avery Sears (Laynie to her friends) who represents the 6th generation. As part of the 4W Ranch Family Limited Partnership, their work-worn boots are perfectly at home in the Cheyenne River sand, among those historic landmarks.

Get out and stand by Chad as his gaze caresses promontories, ridges and canyons beef cattle have grazed continuously since 1878. After he tells you, “Bein’ out here is a good place for a family; the way of life is special and you love the land and the openness”, you’ll hear determination in the statement, “We hope to maintain strong traditional ranching values here, while mixing in the best of modern ranching techniques.” That very idea was a 4W Ranch tradition long before Chad – or even his dad — were born. His great grandfather Gus Sherwin, introduced “ranching by airplane” and Charolais bulls to the 4W Ranch – two of the most revolutionary ideas possible in the 1950’s and 60’s!

Nestled against the twisting banks of the upper Cheyenne River, not far from her headwaters, the 4W Ranch stood alone on 1880 maps of Wyoming Territory. Early owner and Longhorn rancher J.W. Hammond first branded cattle there with the 4W that names the ranch. In its heyday, guided by Texas-native foreman William Keating, the outfit carried 10,000 head of cattle.

In 20th Century’s early dawn a cowboy named Len Sherwin — born and reared in an innovative risk-taking family who helped “save the buffalo” of Colorado – thrilled fans with his traveling Wild West Show! Amid such distractions, Len discovered the 4W ranch around 1920, was awed by its beef-producing prospects, and soon owned the brand and more than 30,000 acres there. His granddaughter Jean Sherwin (Sears) Harshbarger grew up on the ranch, put down roots, and lives/works there yet, 3rd generation of the 4W legacy.

Jean and Engineering student Bill Sears met at the University of Wyoming in the mid-1950’s. After becoming the first woman to receive a UW degree in Agriculture, Jean married Bill and began raising the 4th 4W Ranch generation – Nicky, Tony and Elana. Gus Sherwin’s accidental death on a Florida fishing trip in 1964 left Jean’s mother Char alone with the ranch, so the Sears family moved back to help, allowing that generation to grow up there.

After Char’s passing in 1970 Jean and Bill managed the ranch until his untimely death in 1981. That dumped the whole load on Jean’s shoulders, but with good neighbors and the competent help of her kids she managed it all – from drought to flood to her house burning down – raising and campaigning race horses and winning Old Timer’s Rodeo Queen titles for diversion.

Jean’s only son, the late Tony Sears, was Michael Chad’s father. Growing up only an hour and a half from the 4W, Chad spent most summers and every other moment possible there, joying Jean to see yet another generation root down like her.

Then, according to 4W legend, “a new set of wings dipped over the horizon in 1989” and Jean was swept into marriage with Illinois native Robert Harshbarger, Air Force Major, Ret. If that version of the legend doesn’t suit you just ask Bob – he’ll tell you he “came to the 4W to hunt and got shanghaied!”

“The Major” enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the start of the Korean Conflict, 1950, applying for and entering Aviation Cadets in 1952. Across two decades of service in the USAF Bob flew more than 100 Combat missions in Vietnam in an RF- 4C Phantom. Most were low-level high-speed reconnaissance flights, earning eight Air Medals, plus the Distinguished Flying Cross. And yes, Bob’s Navion is now part of the 4W, occupying the hangar Jean’s dad Gus (a Bellanca distributor) built.

The 4W Ranch is primarily grassland, but pilot Gus Sherwin bladed a strip near the house for a runway. That led to an adjacent alfalfa field, and now a few small fields of crested wheat or alfalfa can be found near the main headquarters.

The original 4W Ranch was massive. Eventually the portion Jim Sherwin (Gus’s brother) owned and operated sold to a neighboring rancher. That coming up for re-sale some years ago seemed like destiny. Jean and Bob, thoughtful of their age and future needs for help, purchased half the available land; thus restoring one broken edge of the old 4W.

“It’s hard to justify purchasing new property when you compare today’s land values with beef prices,” Chad says, “But if you’re not growing you’re dying. Gramma and Bob used wise foresight buying that, making it easier for another family to be incorporated into the ranch and make a go of it. In 2000, just after Gill and I were married, we came here for a visit,” Chad remembers. “They approached us then, about moving here sometime to help, and eventually take over the ranch. They were laying plans, yet not quite ready so I re-enlisted, and we didn’t move here until my 2004 discharge.”

Born and reared in Scotland, trained and employed working with the public in finance, Gill says, “Nothing prepared me for the vastness and solitude of the 4W, something I have come to appreciate and love dearly. I had horses before . . . but riding circles in an arena with an English saddle couldn’t prepare me for the grit needed to chase down a wild cow or bull. Will & Rhonda Stearns were my mentors . . . and proved to me that I could do things that seemed impossible and somewhat scary. Knowledge passed to me, with humor and grace, from Jean always proves true . . . staying upwind of a cow relieving herself . . . the wise words that ‘fences are just a suggestion’, all brought humor to my greenhorn education. My wildest dreams as a child in Scotland pale in comparison to this real life adventure!”

Chad, Gill and Laynie’s home is on the River a few miles above the original 4W headquarters, well located for the upper end spring branding. They have good horses, working dogs and a sweet set of pens and facilities for branding, and to manage those home bred 2-year-old heifers through their first calving, starting in February. Scheduled night-rounds get closer together during cold snaps and storms, but calving problems are minimal.

For years Gill endured the drive (at least 30 miles of gravel road and 50 after reaching the pavement) to work a fulltime job in one or another of the “closest” towns. Now she keeps even busier at home, devoting hours daily to Laynie’s home-school program, then tying into riding, feeding, fencing, checking cattle, working with horses and the many other joys all ranchwomen share.

4W Ranch’s beef herd was once colorfully eclectic – hardy, healthy, and happily acclimated to their range. Money follows trends, and livestock uniformity was in, so the 4W bovines began bending toward order in size, class and color. From an early-1990’s calico mix of black, black-baldy, a moderate amount of red, plus a few Hereford, Dutch belted, and Beefalo crossbreds, that mob has transformed into very uniform size and shape with just two basic colors — the vivid henna/cinnamon/gingerbread glow of Red Angus and the ambiguous vanillacaramel/creamedcoffee/rodeodust of Charolais-crossbreeds.

“Bob started the ranch down that road soon after he came here,” Chad says. “There’s been a huge transformation — and they’re uniform – except for the few colorful misfits my wife loved from birth and I enjoy keeping for marker cows.”

The “calico cows” were big mama’s. The 4W ideal is smaller-framed, lower-maintenance, with a weaned calf tipping the scale at a high percentage of her weight. “To keep our cows smaller we roll-over our heifer bulls into the cow herd and buy only what Charolais people consider ‘heifer bulls’”, Chad grins. “We keep between 50-80 replacement heifers annually, so birth weight and calving ease maternal epd’s are important. The 4W’s ideal birthweight is right at 70 pounds, and we have it right where we want it. They mostly just calve on their own, and that’s really good.”

“We were in severe drought the summer of 2012, and desperate to supplement the cows. That’s when I discovered Rio Max tubs,” Chad enthuses. “We switched from feeding cake, and it kept the cows going real well even in those conditions, plus weaning weights increased about thirty pounds! Another benefit with feeding tubs was not having to call the cows to cake, because that method caused a large portion of cows to expend more energy than I was giving them.

“The greatest benefit,” he adds, “is when preg-checking the fall of 2012 – in spite of the drought — we had maintained a 90 percent breed back. The last couple years it’s run above 96 percent on the cows and around 98 percent on the heifers.”

Feed or no feed, there has to be water. “Water is ever so important to every ranch. The 4W has opted to drill water wells instead of installing pipelines,” Bob explains. “We now have 27 water wells throughout the ranch unit. Seventeen of these are pumped by solar power, which is very efficient, cost effective and requires minimum upkeep. When a windmill goes down, it is replaced by solar. New wells are always solar powered.”

Some 4W Ranch fences were built well over a century ago, and given the nature of hard natural cedar posts it’s impossible to know how long a lot of them have served their purpose. Gill is the ruthless dynamo of fence repair, covering great distances hauling posts and wire on her ATV. “We just mainly try to get to the corners and re-do them solidly so there’s something to stretch to,” Chad jokes.

Chad and Gill are also constantly repairing/replacing around both headquarters and another remote branding pen with continuous fencing. “You can get a lot of that up pretty quickly,” he says, “It is very tough, holds cattle well, and doesn’t cost any more than boards that break easily when a wreck happens.”

Octogenarians Jean and Bob are amazingly active, heavily involved in spring and fall works with the cattle, and trading work with their neighbors. Laynie heads to their place as often as possible so she and Gramma Jean can hike, explore, cook, play cards and visit. The little cowgirl has two horses, rides confidently on the ranch and in arenas, and won the Weston County Junior Rodeo Rookie belt buckle last fall. Her 4W family is even prouder that Laynie’s fellow competitors in the Weston County summer Gymkahnas voted her in for the 2016 Friendship Award.

Laynie knows a lot about the 4W ranch and cattle and definitely ‘gets’ the business, even the whole heritage thing, better than adults realize. As the gate swung closed behind the cattle she’d helped gather on a lengthy ride when she was five, Laynie sighed and quipped from her saddle, “I suppose I’m go’nna be doing this for the rest of my life!”