Wasserburger family success: optimism, hard work, diverisificaion
December 17, 2012
Today the Wasserburger ranch is a large-scale, highly diversified and progressive operation. Four generations of the family have survived a lot of change since 1916, when their ranching story began with Henry Wasserburger purchasing a homestead in eastern Wyoming.
"My grandfather's family came out of Germany into Wisconsin, then rode a train to Ardmore, SD. They were Catholics, and from Ardmore they walked across the Nebraska state line to a little German Catholic community at Montrose. When he was old enough my grandfather homesteaded there, but he didn't think he could ever grow in that area so he came to Wyoming and homesteaded here in 1916," explained JD Wasserburger of how his family started ranching 25 miles north of Lusk, WY.
Initially, Henry grew squaw corn and raised pigs and sheep. Cattle were added to the operation shortly after. JD said his grandfather would trail roughly 60 pigs at a time to Ardmore, SD on foot, where they were loaded on a train and shipped around the corner to Fort Robinson, NE.
"We always ran sheep here too up until about 10 years ago when the coyotes and poor prices weaned us off them. My grandfather always said you ran cows for a hobby and sheep for a living. I remember one year in about 1950 or 1951 when we lost about 1,000 head of sheep down on Buck Creek in a flood. Some of them washed clear down to Edgemont, SD," commented JD.
JD's dad, also named Henry, was born in 1931. He attended college for one year and returned to the ranch in 1950. Henry married Lorraine Wilson, a plumber's daughter from Lusk, WY, and the pair raised five kids on the operation. JD said his dad would frequently discuss the blizzard of 1949 and other challenges of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
"One story occurred in the early '50s, when grandfather had bought some yearlings. That fall he was going to sell the calves and those yearlings, but they were under water and losing money on them at that point so he kept them another year and made two-year-olds out of them. Then, when he sold the two-year-olds they brought less than what he had paid for them as calves. If that happened to us now it would be a total disaster, and yet my dad still talks about how my grandfather came home from the sale that day, told grandma what had happened and ate dinner. Then he went over and sat in his easy chair, smoked his pipe and went to sleep. Nothing seemed to bother him, and he was an eternal optimist," noted JD.
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"He told me when I first came home, 'don't worry about going broke, I've been broke three times.' And he'd always get refinanced somewhere and go on." JD Wasserburger, speaking of his grandfather's advice when he returned to the family operation in the late 1970s.
JD returned to the operation after college in 1978. His wife Laurie came to Lusk to teach school that fall, and the two were married Aug. 10, 1980.
"The 1980s weren't fun, and I don't remember anything good about the '80's when I was just getting started here. We had PIK programs, dairy herd buy-outs, grasshoppers, droughts and hard winters, and high interest rates. But I can tell you that we've never seen tough times like my grandfather's generation did.
"Droughts aren't anything new around here, and at least this year we don't have so many grasshoppers, and the cattle prices aren't as tough. I keep saying to myself that I wouldn't mind my boys having to go through some periods of time like the 1980s, but I just don't want to be there when they do," he commented.
Despite the challenges involved in ranching, the Wasserburger family expanded and improved their operation over time. Since JD's return it has roughly tripled in size, an oilfield business has been added, and two of his three sons have returned to the operation. He added that his family has been very fortunate over time to have their sources of diversified income and the several better years since the 1980s.
"My middle boy Eric kind of runs the oilfield business and my youngest Andrew is more in charge of taking care of the ranch. My oldest Jason is an attorney and currently works as a policy advisor to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, and I think eventually would like to come back as well," explained JD.
On the livestock side JD said he buys a lot of good bulls, including some he collects semen from and AI's his heifers to. Cows are expected to be efficient, and are typically wintered on two pounds of 20 percent cake a day. Calves are kept over to yearlings with additional yearlings purchased each year.
"Our cows are too big according to everybody, but they still have a calf every year. My dad always said it doesn't really matter why, but if they don't have a calf they go to town, with no excuses. I suppose there will have to be some downsizing of our cattle in the future – it has to be done with the bottom line involved – but I don't know when that will happen with us. I still like selling the 950 pound yearlings they produce," said JD of the livestock, adding he also likes the diversity that yearlings provide to the operation.
"Yearlings are versatile. I think a cow-calf deal with yearlings on top of it cuts back on some of the labor and leaves you with more options in tough times. This year our yearlings are all gone and our replacement heifers are already in a feedlot in North Dakota," he stated.
All family members are also very involved in the local community. They have supported the Legend of Rawhide and Niobrara County Fair and market sale for years, JD has coached and taught wrestling through the school system, where Laurie has taught in the elementary school since Andrew started first grade.
Looking to the future, JD said he anticipates the opportunity to expand, and hopes that the older generation will help the younger people lease or purchase land in his area.
"Ag is a commodity business, and if you don't get bigger, you get smaller. It's been that way since the beginning of time and it will always be that way. It takes more and more cows for each family to make a living, or else you have to find some outside income. So, I imagine there will be some expansion here like there always has been. These days it's also pretty tough if you're not diversified, and we will continue to work in the areas we have diversified in as well. I also wouldn't mind if these boys of mine would settle down and give me some grandkids," he concluded with a chuckle.
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