An American icon looking for work: the cowboy

Economic woes threaten the ranching lifestyle

Another article about how the custom and culture of the ranching lifestyle is under threat but this one explains what the real threat is. Not so much environmentalists or government regulation but the economy and low beef prices combined with high beef processing prices are changing the economy for them.

The small, family rancher is having a hard time competing with big agribusiness which forces them to cut corners. Their children are leaving the ranch for better paying jobs elsewhere and the ranchers themselves often have to find other work to supplement their income or forgo hiring help.

Of course there are those who still hang on and stories like these are written about them.

An American icon looking for work: the cowboy
With costs up and the demand for beef down, ranchers have cut back hiring





  1. dewey Avatar

    The two most underpaying entry level professions I know of are cowboying, and journalism. Those who choose to employ themselves in either field should know they are doing it for personal satisfaction , not a healthy paycheck.

    I feel sorry for the small independent family rancher being squeezed out of viability by market forces. But you have to ask: how much more should the American taxpayer be expected to subsidize a failed economic model ? I have only crocodile tears for corporate ranchers and cowboys riding for the Wall Street brand and modern day cattle barons. somehow, we need to invert the business model so it favors the small producer and family operations over the giant spreads and meat packers.

    I still don’t know what to do about paying young journalist’s their real worth.

    1. ProWolf in WY Avatar
      ProWolf in WY

      Don’t forget teachers’ wages in mot states as being poor. I agree, it is strange how taxpayers are paying into a failed business model.

    2. dewey Avatar

      ProWolf— teacher’s wages in Wyoming are among the highest in the nation, to its credit. My local Cody Wy newspaper published the list of school district annual salaries this week in the Legals as required by law.

      Nothing under $ 44,000 year for full time first year elementary teachers, and it goes up into the $ 50k-60k realm at the high end. A Living Wage in Cody WY is approximately $ 35,000

      Entry level Journalism is the lowest paid genuine profession I am aware of ( not counting seminary and theological endeavours) that requires 4+ years of college and an internship. If you can find reporting job at all… I recall a statistic a few years back that the nation’s colleges and universities graduated 8 students with journalism/communcations B.S. degrees for every available job . And that was before the Great News Media Fratricide of 2008.

      But we’re digressing a bit here. I wish someone would chime in with real reports on what cowboys and ranchhands ( not the same these days) are being paid across the West currently. I’ve fallen somewhat out of touch with the ranching industry and my old cowboy friends, but in the 90’s the hired hands got room and board and a whopping $ 500.00 month riding for the brand of the bigger better ranches, or crude oil-calf operations. Health insurance was a la carte ad hoc. If you got bucked off a horse, you were fired before you hit the ground. Thankfully , the wives and girlfriends usually had jobs in town.

      Who’s got the job and salary numbers for ranching these days? My info is getting dated.

  2. Ken Cole Avatar

    Interesting discussion going on with the story at the Statesman.
    FYI, Marr Flat Cattle Co LLC received payments totaling $215,003 from 1995 through 2006

    1. Chris Harbin Avatar
      Chris Harbin

      Ken, interesting numbers there. I wonder what happened in the year 2000 that would have initiated the payments? I wonder………..

  3. Taz Alago Avatar
    Taz Alago

    To connect to the story about the wolves in Wallowa County, the Marr Flat Cattle Co. is owned by Todd Nash, one of the most vehement opponents of wolves there. Seems like the hated feds, who are the cause of all these wolves, have given him a bundle of money. Kind of a hypocrite.

    1. WM Avatar


      According to the website above from Ken, Nash owns a 1.00 percent interest. The balance of 99. is owned by the Buehler Family Trust. Drill down on the website to Ownership interests.

      Interesting breakouts of various subsidies. No way on the website to tell what many really are, since there are no details under the headings.

  4. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Seems like the hated feds, who are the cause of all these wolves, have given him a bundle of money. Kind of a hypocrite.

    Not kind of a hypocrite, pretty extreme hypocrite.

  5. Taz Alago Avatar
    Taz Alago

    Clarification : Nash is a minority owner (1%), but has a management arrangement.

  6. Taz Alago Avatar
    Taz Alago

    So my comment about hypocrisy might have to be scaled back.

  7. Layton Avatar

    So what are “conservation payments”? It looks like the majority of it is CRP. Isn’t that a program which pays folks to keep land out of crop production?

    Don’t see how that has anything to do with cows and wolves.

  8. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson


    Lots of different “conservation” programs for cattlemen. Clearing brush and scrub trees (90% govt.cost share), fencing for rotational grazing (75%),water tanks and stream crossings (75%), “permanent” 20 year seeding (90% govt. cost share), full cost of converting crop ground to hay ground….and more ….. and more.

  9. Layton Avatar


    The stuff you mention isn’t CRP — as I understand it anyway. CRP is what a lot of the $$ were paid to this ranch and I’m under the impression that CRP is payment for NOT growing certain crops.

  10. Layton Avatar

    OK, I looked it up. Here’s a small blurb on what CRP is.

    From Wickepedia (no – not the best source but it should work for this)

    The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a cost-share and rental payment program under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and is administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). Technical assistance for CRP is provided by the USDA Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service(NRCS). NRCS’s natural resources conservation programs help people reduce soil erosion, enhance water supplies, improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat, and reduce damages caused by floods and other natural disasters [3]. The CRP program encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips, or riparian buffers [4].

    Of the $215 K that the ranch got, over $123 K of it was CRP money. If I read correctly what the CRP $$ buy, it would seem to me that this ranch participating in this program is something GOOD for the land and range in general. Seems to me that folks here should be APPLAUDING rather than making accusations.

    Could someone show me where I’m wrong??

  11. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson


    There are different forms of CRP. The one you are familiar with is taking land out of production. The other well known one is riparian area CRP. Others are wet lands etc.

    I am a participant in riparian CRP as a livestock producer. Because of this I get alternate water sources installed (concrete water tanks and lots of piping) and I get stream crossings bull dozed and rocked. Plus I get a whole lot of fencing for free…enough so I can pretty much put in new fence for all my pastures since I planned the riparian designated areas as part of my rotational grazing .

    Plus, I get paid for preparing the fencing area, which means the govt. pays me for taking out all the brush anywhere near the fence to be (it also means I essentially get roads to travel). Plus, I get to seed in and out of the CRP (riparian) designated area along this fence all at the taxpayers expense.

    Plus I get paid for conservation practices (gully repair etc.) well away from riparian areas to insure those reparian areas and structures stay in place. I also got several ponds put in at 90% cost share so there could be water gravity flowed to those stock tanks.

    So you see, Layton, the amount of land put into CRP is insignificant compared to what the govt. pays the rancher for their “hardship” and inconvenence incurred in removing
    their cows off of those streams.

    And any rancher can work the system to get a LOT of their stock cow needs done at govt. expense. Plus they can get all this for signing up for as little as 10 years. They sign up for ten years then they take it out of the program and end up with water, fenced pastures, brushing and seedings that last 40 years and much more.

    As long as the ranching family mentioned has land in multiple farm units each one is entitled for the whole set of programs available. My farm is made up of 3 “farm units”. I imagine a family trust has a lot more farm units than I have…thus lots of money coming in from govt. CRP to facilitate cattle ranching…without taking hardly any land out of grazing.

    I don’t know this ranch talked about but since a lot of ranchers take advantage of this program then I have to imagine this ranch does also.

  12. Layton Avatar

    Oh, I see.

    But it’s OK that YOU get the $$ from Uncle Sugar — Right??

  13. steve c Avatar
    steve c

    Maybe the Village People are hiring.

  14. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson


    I signed up for the “honorable” reasons. Max is fifteen years and this is what I signed my John Henry for. Plus I had the impoundments put in gullied lands directly above my riparian, not located so I could best pipe to all corners of that agricultural unit.

    I just wanted you to know there are a lot of payments being made for those ranchers that work the system for other than the intended conservation purposes that I did. Do you now know more about CRP?

    1. Layton Avatar

      Yes Bob,

      I do now know more about CRP. I’m just suprised that you admit to using it, being one of the “chosen” ones here.

      Aren’t you afraid of having the fact that you (gasp!) are using a govt. subsidy program published?? 8)

    2. Layton Avatar

      by the way, thanks

  15. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    Steve C.,

    I usualy “get” what folks are referring to but I don’t get the “village people” reference. By “village people” do you mean the once popular singing group?

    1. steve c Avatar
      steve c

      Yes. Bad joke I guess…

  16. Taz Alago Avatar
    Taz Alago

    THANK YOU BOB JACKSON! A neater explanation of the benefits to ranchers of CRP I haven’t read.

  17. pointswest Avatar

    We have 600 acres of dryfarm land that is in CRP. We are paid something like $25k to do nothing with it. CPR paid the cost to have it seeded with grass and also paid for the construction of about 100 embankments or small dams to prevent gully erosion. It is great grouse hunting now and has a couple of fox dens, dozens of burrowing owls and I regularly see deer. It has geat Teton views. It was, at one time, covered with aspens with a few junipers.

    I have been wanting to grow trees on it since the real estate started booming in Teton Valley about five years ago. Do you think CRP would help us pay for planting trees?


  18. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson


    You are wanting to plant trees so you can sell the land…parcel it up… for more money? Correct? Or sell it all in one piece to a developer who does the “dirty” work? This means more houses, less burrowing owls and less foxs, correct? Plus, the detrimental environmental effect on the whole area goes well beyond your 600 acres after all those people in their houses go out with their four wheelers and start playing in the public lands.

    If so I’d have to say you are working the system. Farmers in the South log all the native trees, put the land in crop production for three to five years to create a “farm history”…which then makes them elgible for CRP. Then this marginal land is put in tree plantations with annual govt. payments paid for by yours truly. This land is turned in to monocultures that have little wildlife in them. Yes, more than the crops they put in but a lot less than the mixed hardwood or pine forest of yore.

    Here in Iowa, they take highly erodeable soils with hills steep enough it was never was and never should be cropped or plowed (native prairie mind you), and no till it for soybeans. These beans are sold as organic for a premium, the farmer killing all the prairie is touted as being enlightened and “green” by the food consuming public, and in 3-5 years, viola has his “farm history”. Then he seeds it back into CRP with a “native grass mix”….which, by the way, is sort of a prairie monoculture plantation. It supports some wildlife but nothing near what the former real native prairie supported before in way of diversity of wildlife.

    These farmers are then recognized for their conservation efforts by NRCS and it is a big joke to all except the naive govt. folks who give the awards.

    So yes, you probably can have your CRP amended to include aspen trees, beautiful shimmering branches with that rustle of poplar leaf sounds…and all that golden flood of color in the fall…all conducive to selling acreages and concrete….if you go to your FSA office and tell them your earnest desire is to “bring back the land”.

    Of course those elected farmers and ranchers setting on this committee that doles out these checks may be personally insulted that their way of life is being slapped around by all those outside money schemers and deny you your request. That is when you need to enlist the services of real estate developers. With them on board they will advise you to appeal the FSA decision to the state level.

    There one has folks more in tune with CRP national standards…..and money grubbing …. and they will probably overturn way of life prejudices “back home”.

    There you have it, a way to get those aspens and higher land values. Then as you retire to a modest gated community in Sun City Arizona you can look back and tell all those other shriveled up old people playing cards with you in the poolside activity center how you saved the land, restored it to its original aspens….but you are angry that developer you so trusted put in half acre lots instead of the 25 acre conservation plots he told you. Then you can say further you even went to the county planning commission before signing on the dotted line and they told you not to worry, their zoning would stay intact forever.

    All the while you are doing this sharing of the conservation soul with old farts with bright purple blouses, blue hair and red lipstick, however, deep down you know what you did to that land after you got the advice from Bob Jackson on Ralph Maughans forum.

    1. pointswest Avatar

      Thanks for the info.

      No…I will not be treated as an outsider. The land has been in my family for a hundred years and my great great grandfather was the first settler in the entire region. He was the first settler north of the Snake River. I grew up Ashton.

      No matter what we do with the land, it will better for wildlife and ecology than dryfarming and it will certainly be better if the aspen stands were restored.

      Teton Valley is destine to be second home territory. Land values are already far above what they would be if sold purely for farming or grazing. The challenge is to control developement so as not to degrade the scenic beauty of the area.

      That area west of Ashton was all covered by aspens to the foot of the Tetons before settlement. Some believe it was the largest stand of aspens in the world. I would like to restore some of it.

  19. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I doubt it was one of the largest aspen stands in the world, but probably in this latitude of the West.

    I’ve wanted to see this forest restored since I was a boy too.

    1. bob jackson Avatar
      bob jackson


      Somehow, maybe because it was 4:30 A.M. when I posted it, I got this in the wrong story. So here it is.

      Have you ever seen a block of land in the middle of a housing development that has not been developed, that is still natural and the kids from all over go in there for solitude and daydreaming. These lands were perserved by its owners and they resisted its development and these lands have been the inspiration for many of those kids to either go into the resource field or avocationally support conservation for their entire lives.

      Some of these owners were not rich either but rather had a deep feeling for that land. You and your family have that option.

      Taxes will go out of sight? A lot of states have options that keeps taxes down for these kind of committments.

      Our family of five kids (3 with F&W degrees) sold some of the family farm in the estate process, a farm in the most agricultural heritage of 5 feet of black dirt in NC Iowa. Before we did we put a lot of it in longterm riparian and wetlands. Its Prairie Ck. hillsides had a bunch of Indian camps we had “explored” as kids. We went to the native prairies and railroad tracks around the farm and gathered seeds and transplanted to this too be protected land. No govt. non sustainable “prairie seed mix” for us. Plus the act of actually putting back a bit to this land with our own hands gives a deeper sense of satisfaction for us as brothers and sisters…..for our passed on father and mother and their farmer father and mother before that.

      None of us are rich and by so doing we locked in that land for sale at a lower price than if sold as agricultural land….and speculative (because a casino is going in closeby).

      I am not saying everyone has to have our commitment but you, pointsweet, do have a choice. just because “it will all be developed someday” doesn’t mean you have to give up and fall over. Now to wonder if you can get govt. money to put back what was there …. to me is honorable but to do so you can then sell the land at a higher price to put in houses is just working the system. Which is it?

    2. pointswest Avatar

      You may be interested to know that I called the Yellowstone Soil Conservation District in St. Anthony today to talk about planting trees. I was told that CRP does pay for forest and woodland restoration but that it is not done in Fremont Country…or at least, it has never been done. CRP would want proven results and the conventional wisdom is that most of Fremont is too arid and trees would not grow without irrigation and so would not be true restoration. I pointed out that the entire area east of Ashton was once aspens to which she said I might try convincing CRP when our contract is up for renewal in five years. They don’t want to waste money on seedlings that will die.

      Aspens will grow. There are still plenty of aspens still in the area in spots. It just may be difficult to get them restarted on farmland seeded in grass. First, you would need the right genetics and so would need to grow seedlings from trees still growing in the area. I do not think you could expect seedings from a wet climate such as Oregon, for example, to grow east of Ashton. You would need to grow your own seedlings (there is a way to start seedlings from aspen roots) from local trees.

      There is a lot of CRP land east and south of Ashton…thousands of acres. I think most land owners who have CRP would love to see aspens growing again…for all the same reasons I would. Much of the land will never be farmed again but will become vacation property. It sounds like CRP might pay for aspen restoration if it could be proven to work.

      It would be nice to get some program to start the seedlings however. I’d do a pilot program but live too far away.

  20. pointswest Avatar


    Fremont County already has density zoning. I am not certain how our land is zoned but most of Fremont County is one dwelling per 40 acres. So this is what might happen. We might break the 600 acres up into 15 40-acre ranches. We might have small ponds and a commons area. We might restore the aspens with scattered pines on north slopes and junipers on south slopes. We might write requirements into the covenants of title that dwellings be concealed in trees and that a certain percentage of land remain treed. All these requirement will make the land worth more money and will certainly be more beautiful and be better for wildlife than dryfarm or grassland CRP.

    I believe more land should be preserved. I am for designating nearby Island Park as part of Yellowstone and moving all of the real estate development out of Island Park down into the valley…restoring aspen stands at it goes. Island Park would become the new American serengeti. It was, at one time, packed full of big game including griz and wolf. In fact, if I can semi-retire, I may make this dream a hobby. I’d like to see the fisheries restored in the valley streams too as I previously posted. But real estate development has to be somewhere. I think dryfarms are a great place for it.

    1. pointswest Avatar

      I should mention how valuable the land in the Teton-Yellowstone area is becoming. Some farmland in the Ashton area that was worth $800 per acre 10 years ago is selling for $20,000 an acre. Our land, subdivided, might be worth $10,000 per acre now but, when the market picks up again, could easily double. For 600 acres, that is $12 million. It will be very hard for me to not develop it for that kind of money and it is possible that, in several years, it might be worth $40,000 per acre. Some people are putting their land into land trusts such as the Teton Regional Land Trust. But I have a family and I do not want to deprive them of this wealth…and I wouldn’t mind a vaction home in Hawaii…love floating on that big surf they have there in December.

      Again, development is going to ocure somewhere. The farmland of Ashton, Driggs, and Victor are good places for it.

      Where it needs to be stopped is in Island Park.

    2. bob jackson Avatar
      bob jackson


      If I had to say so, I’d say the CRP person you talked with is just being ‘Govt” and putting you on the , “Don’t want to be bothered” list. The FSA (technical assistance by NRCS) can amend CRP’s at any time. In fact if this person or district had any initiative at all they could put you in a CRP PILOT PROGRAM to see if aspens will grow where they once did!!!

      Aspens grow from both seedlings and as root expansion.
      At West Yellowstone I got them to grow in black sand “soil” (very dry and little moisture holding capabilities) at our govt. barn by digging up a few little trees from Fir Ridge and then transplanting them directly into that sand.

      Aspen are hardy. The main problem will be deer and other animals nibbling off the new growth. I’d say your NRCS just doesn’t want to deal with what I consider a win-win situation for everyone. I’d say call them on it….or take it to their area conservationist. My experience is if you put the effort into it (which includes asking FSA for a free copy of the CRP rules and regs…and all its supersedes…4″ thick and nights and nights of reading …. to show them how it can be done ) they will eventually capitulate. The question is do you want to do the work to make it happen?

    3. pointswest Avatar


      I’m sure you are right. I will probably continue to pursue this.

  21. RE Chizmar Avatar
    RE Chizmar

    Really have enjoyed this discussion. I hope Pointswest does what is right for the land and the area — restoration and preservation may be, perhaps, (likely is the best word I guess) to his own financial detriment, but the long term affect would be appreciated by those who have seen commercial/real estate development forever decimate / stain certain wilderness / open space areas — which diminish each day.

  22. Linda Hunter Avatar

    I have a question? Has anyone ever put into CC& R’s that new land owners need to take a class in living with wildlife and maintain habitat in part of their land? I live on a very small piece of land but we have black bear, raccoons, deer, birds, skunks and bobcats here who use our creek and thick cover to move through the land. It is possible for people to live with bears, wolves and mountain lions if they know how to do it. . and if they don’t, then they want to kill all the animals after they move there. I think that unless we can convince people they don’t really all need to have kids, pointsweet is right that development is inevitable . . but can we do it in a better way?

    1. pointswest Avatar

      The Jackson Hole market (that now includes Teton Valley) is about the hotest real estate marked in the US now. The reason everyone wants a piece of it, over Colorado or New Mexico, is because of the wildlife.

      I think it is inevitable that much of what is now farmland will be restored to natural so people can have bears and elk out their front window. The biggest development of all, Huntsman Springs, includes a wildlife refuge with their own buffalo heard.

      I have even been considering pushing the idea of a buffalo commons for the area. It is what most eventual owners of the land will want to see. Much of it is marginal farmland. It is prone to hail and early frosts. It has a short growing season. People are wanting to own land their to be near wildlife. Why not make the private land of the area more wild?

  23. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson


    Dysfunctional herds of bison are not much better ecologically than dysfunctional cattle. A buffalo commons is great as long as establishment focus is on socially structured extended families of bison….and management (hunting, reductions etc.) is geared towards maximum infrastructure development of those herds.

    It is not in the individual it is in the family that makes herd animals and sustainable ecology work.

  24. pointswest Avatar

    …if only I ran the world… .

    There is a so called conservation group in Ashton called The Smart Growth Coalition. They are, in theory, for conservation and for protecting the beauty and the ecology of Fremont County from rampant real estate development. They are, in theory, in support of wildlife conservation. It sounded so good, that I joined.

    I soon realized, however, that they are not really a conservation group at all. What they turned out to be is the more rednecked of Ashton’s farmers and ranchers who want to push the farm and ranch agenda. They do not want any more land preserved as parks or wildlife reserves of any kind and they want more grazing rights and privileges for famers and ranchers. Their wildlife conservation efforts consist of lectures and literature on how bad wolves and grizzlies are on wildlife because these big mean predators kill and eat all the wildlife.

    They do not want any laws or ordinances, such as safety controls placed aerial spraying of pesticides, being established in Fremont County by newcomers who might complain when farm pesticides kill their cat.

    They did file a lawsuit which prevented an illegal lot split and forced the county to repeal an amendment that allowed for higher density. However, they do nothing to establish view corridors or aesthetic building codes or to limit ambient lighting or anything to preserve the beauty of the area. They just want to keep everyone out and kill the wolves and grizzlies.

    It was organized by this guy named Chan Atchley. He grew up in Ashton and then went to college to get a degree in agriculture. He worked on large corporate farms in South America where he spent most of his life. He is now back in Ashton representing himself as a conservationist. He does not own any land. His younger brother, Clen Atchley, stayed in Ashton and farmed. Clen now owns thousands of acres and is probably the largest land owner in Fremont County. Clen and his wife Emma donate tens of thousand to Republican politicians. Emma was recently appointed by Governor Otter to some position in the State’s education department. She was my English teacher in high school but nearly had a nervous breakdown (partially due to my behavior) and retired after just a few years. They all live together on the Atchey farmstead east of Ashton.
    I have been told that Chan leaned on several of the old farm widows to support him financially and to place their land (now worth tens of millions) into land trusts…but to keep them as farm ground; not wildlife habitat. Clen, probably the richest men in the county, is a big financial supporter of Smart Growth Coalition. I do not believe he put any of his thousands and thousands of acres into land trusts.

    They will be a problem to anyone like me who would like to see the area restored to a more natural state. I really don’t understand them. The area is not that great of farmland. Other owners have told me they would love to get out of the farm business. Hail and drought is a much larger problem than it once was. But so many are just being rednecks and want to keep everyone out of their domain.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole