How one Wyoming ranch family rose up after the flames died down
By Melissa Hemken
Windmills turn slowly in the pale sunshine. Morning light filters onto three generations of Ochsner men cradling mugs of steaming coffee. They sit at George and Ruby’s kitchen table for their daily meeting, as regular as the postman. Talk isn’t so much what needs to be done on the George Ochsner Ranch north of Torrington, Wyoming, rather who is going to do it. “They make plans, and away they go,” says Ruby Ochsner. “George bosses our sons and grandsons, but they try not to pay attention.”
The five families’ homes spread along 24 miles of Van Tassell Road — the last paved north-south road before the Wyoming/Nebraska border. Soon there will be six mailboxes on the blacktop with grandson B.W. Ochsner joining the ranch business. Morning meeting conversations now turn to how to be big enough to financially support everyone, but keep the workload manageable as older generations retire.
The fourth generation — Rodney and Debbie Ochsner, Blake and Chrissy Ochsner, and Steve and Dixie Roth — when first starting out together, purchased cattle from parents George and Ruby according to their three families, but hazardous weather events intervened. “We had a heck of a storm,” Ruby recalls, “and it hit the area where Steve and Dixie’s cattle were and they lost a lot. Steve and Dixie were equal with the rest of us, and it didn’t seem fair the storm got their cattle only. So we became a corporation with families holding equal shares, and cattle belong to the corporation.”
Now it’s just up to B.W. and his cousin Rustin Roth, the fifth generation, to plug in where their skills match the ranch, and attend morning meeting as shareholders. “The main thing is for family to get along,” Ruby declares, “the meetings play a big part in our communication. I always say, ‘Get along or get out.’ Nobody wants to get out. We sent Rodney, Blake and Dixie to college and it didn’t do any good. They all came home.”
The Ochsners produce award-winning registered Hereford and Angus bulls, and farm four irrigation pivots to meet their need for hay and corn silage. “This week I waited along the feed bunk as we sorted bulls,” says Dixie Ochsner Roth. “The Hereford bulls came up to eat, and they lined up like 40 peas in a pod. I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, there’s a little one.’ A board could have lain straight across them. That’s quality we want: the best.”
Calving begins in late January, and first-calf heifers are moved through four rotations of pens and barns. There is the birthing barn, processing barn, doghouse pen where cows are in a group of five, feeder pen with 25 pairs, and then new mother cows head to pasture.
“Every one says we do way too much,” Dixie says, “but we have close to 100-percent calf crop. So why stop? Getting up all through the night, and having no bathroom in the calving barns is not the good stuff. Then, in the barn, twin calves were born. The rains come, we have grass for the cattle and it’s beautiful as I come over the hills to home. Good things.”
On those hills the Ochsner family stood after evacuation on July 11, 2016. They watched, stunned, as 11,000 acres of their land flamed with the lightning-caused Prairie Center wildfire. Haystacks and silage, calving barns and pens, all their winter pasture, and 125 head of cattle: burnt. Sustained 60-mile per hour winds and three-percent humidity whipped flames across 25,000 acres total. “It really could have been much worse,” Ruby says thankfully, “it could have burned our homes too.”
Neighbor became a loose term, as friends from as far as Thedford, Nebraska stood beside flatbed trailers of heavy equipment and stock trailers ready for cattle hauling the morning after the devastation. “We had close to 250 people in the yard,” Dixie says. “I popped over the hill and there were six horse trailers coming, one loaded with panels. We needed to gather cattle, but with the shock we hardly knew what to do.”
“The alive cattle from the burnt pastures had no hair and eyes swollen shut,” adds Chrissy Ochsner. “That was the hardest part for Dixie and I: seeing the cattle in pain.”
Friends helped sort cattle to determine treatable injuries, cattle for meat processing, and which cattle to euthanize. “Their help was such a relief,” Dixie says. “We couldn’t shoot our own cattle.”
Damage from the fire continued after over 90 fire engines controlled the blaze. “The corn bins started on fire three days later,” Chrissy recalls, “from the warm metal bin walls. We didn’t think the water tanks would burn because they were full of water, but in a week the rubber tire tanks melted from slow burning. The date 7/11 will be in our minds forever. I don’t think we’ll ever get all the nails picked up from the burnt barns and corrals.”
The family reeled with decisions: finding pasture to lease, continuing to farm their pivots and care for cattle, replacing lost hay and silage, and planning for coming winter. But their main concern was for Rodney Ochsner who collided head on with a water tanker when first driving to the fire. “Rodney was same as dead,” says George Ochsner. “It was a terrible wreck. He claims he had 300 stitches. Every part of his body broke, repaired or cut.”
“Things like this remind us how wonderful people are,” Ruby says. “People sent donations from far away. Materials things can be replaced. We thank God Rodney survived.”
Born two and half miles away from ranch headquarters in a homestead shack, George bought his first registered Hereford cow in 1956. In 2001 a Hereford bull calf named Go Excel L18 hit the ground, and grew into their finest calf that year. “L18 caught like wildfire across the United States,” Dixie explains of L18’s popular looks and performance. “You can go to stock shows and find L18 and our breeding in most cattle.”
To continually improve their bloodlines, the Ochsners AI to grand champion bulls at Denver and Black Hills stock shows. After several years of Hereford bull buyers asking where to purchase quality Angus bulls, the family bought 20 registered Angus cows in 1990. “We didn’t start on the bottom with Angus bloodlines, like we had to with Herefords,” George says of building the Angus herd. “A neighbor ranch had a dispersal sale, and the ranch manager went around with me and pointed out their best cows.”
“We have more Angus than Herefords now,” Ruby adds. “We’re about two-thirds Angus and a third Hereford.”
The approximately 250 bulls sold annually are uniform in quality. Private treaty customers often call and ask for a gate cut to number out the amount of bulls they will purchase. In 2010, the Ochsners began annually buying 1,500 heifer calves back from customers who purchase Ochsner bulls. The family feeds out and AIs the commercial heifers to sell as bred heifers.
“Our buyers know we’ll never sell a bull we don’t think is good enough buy back calves from,” George explains of customer trust.
“It builds partnership,” Chrissy adds. “People know if they buy our bulls, we’ll bid on their heifer calves. Because of the fire we aren’t buying back this year. A bull buyer told me, ‘That fire didn’t just hurt you, it hurt us too because you didn’t bid on our calves.’ People are feeling the affects of the fire with us.”
The fire provided an opportunity of which many ranchers dream: building an entire calving facility at once. “We’ve always patched buildings together,” Dixie says. “Unfortunately that’s why we were underinsured.”
Available cash limits their dream calving barns, but they are building one of the size they’ve always eyed on other ranches. “The interior design is ongoing,” Chrissy says of pen arrangement. “But it is big enough to drive down the middle and throw bedding straw off the truck on both sides.”
“In the future Chrissy and I want a bathroom really bad in the barn,” Dixie says wistfully. “When you get to be my age, I’m older than Chrissy, it’s freezing cold to go outside. But with the overwhelming cost of everything, we can’t have that luxury right now though.”
No live water flows through the billowing grasslands on the ranch. The family maintains 30 windmills, several destroyed in the fire, and miles of pipeline to water livestock. When Dixie taught school in Torrington, she brought all her students out to the ranch. “The students would ask me, ‘Why are there fans in the pastures?’,” Dixie recalls. “They didn’t know windmills pump water.”
Prior to teaching in Torrington, Dixie was the bus driver, clerk and teacher for 17 years at the one-room Prairie Center School up Van Tassell Road. She transitioned south to town when ranch families ran out of school-age kids, shuttering Prairie Center. “The most students I had at once was 15,” Dixie says of Prairie Center. “I taught my kids and all my nieces and nephews. My students are now preachers and teachers and nurses. I could go through the list and they have wonderful jobs, but not many returned to ranching. One has a fencing business and is busy re-building 44 miles of our burnt fence.”
Every family member specializes in certain ranch tasks, which includes overseeing the pastures. “George always says, ‘Leave grass and it’s money in the bank,” Ruby quotes. Unfortunately, the knee-high grass intended for winter feed in their calving pastures caused the wildfire to burn intensely.
“The neighbors’ fences and pastures hardly burned as cattle had grazed those pastures this summer, causing the fire to skim,” Chrissy says. “Our pastures burned a long time, and it’s costing us $10,000 a mile to re-fence.”
“This time our grass bank backfired,” Ruby shakes her head. “It burned money in the bank.”
With no winter grass, the family is leasing scattered pastures and they, and the cows, don’t know the landscape. “We just moved pairs,” Dixie says, “and it’s an adventure driving across pastures we’ve never driven. George led with hay in the pickup and he drove, froomp, into a deep hole. Then I got my front Ranger wheels stuck going across a ditch, one back wheel spinning air. My husband [Steve] is my hero. He hears when I’m in trouble even if he’s miles away. He came racing back and pushed me out.”
Ranch size and checking cattle every third day necessitates the use of ATVs and dirt bikes. “It would take us forever on a horse,” Chrissy says. “We don’t have a horse on the place anymore. I’m not sure the fifth generation would want to ride horses, as they grew up driving dirt bikes and four-wheelers.”
After college graduation, the fifth generation of Ochsners are working in marketing, education, and ranching. College professors expressed surprise the future Ochsner ranchers chose to raise cattle and work the land, seeing more potential in other careers. “You need to be smart, ranching is a complicated business,” Dixie says of her son and nephew’s return to the ranch. “People think it’s a hired man thing and it’s not.”
“Our sixth generation, my granddaughter, visited from Oshkosh [Nebraska] yesterday,” Dixie continues. “She’s three and loves cattle. Knows the difference between Angus and Hereford. She told us, ‘I can’t go home yet because I haven’t worked cattle.’ That’s our future.”