Maxfield brothers willing to try new things, grasp opportunities
Lyman — Building on more than a quarter century of experience in the dairy industry, brothers Kevin and Rick Maxfield have transitioned their Bridger Valley-based operations to meet the agriculture industry’s changing times and markets.
“About 1968 we moved here,” says Kevin. He and his brother Rick were in high school at the time. Their father was a dairyman in addition to driving the milk truck and the local snowplow.
Kevin, along with his wife Nancy, returned to the ranch to raise their family shortly after graduating from high school in nearby Lyman. Spending two years working in the nearby mines, he says, made him fully appreciate the agricultural lifestyle. “I decided ranching wasn’t that bad,” he laughs.
“It’s a good way to raise a family,” says Rick. “It’s not a good way to make a lot of money if you’re looking to get rich.”
Rick spent a year attending trade school to study building construction, followed by a two-year church mission to South America, before returning to the ranch with his wife Bobbi.
“It was a dairy farm and we milked 35 cows back then,” says Kevin of their move to the ranch in the late 1960s. The dairy expanded to the point they were milking 100 cows daily before milk prices dipped below the cost of freighting the milk to the Utah-based markets.
“There used to be 18 to 20 dairies in the valley,” says Rick.
“Everybody went out and we were the last ones to stick it out,” says Kevin.
Rick explains, “They hauled our milk to Salt Lake and the freight was costing us more than the milk was making. That pretty well made the decision.”
“We were the only ones left on the route,” says Nancy.
Simultaneous to operating the dairy, the brothers were building houses in nearby Lyman. It was a routine of milk cows in the morning, build houses during the day and then home to milk again in the evenings. When there was a spare moment, Kevin shoed horses for extra income.
It’s been nearly a decade since the Maxfield ranch exited the dairy business and began growing the beef cattle side of their operation. “We do a lot of backgrounding,” says Kevin. “We buy a lot of local calves and background them until spring or late winter. This year we kept them until now. We have a bunch of yearlings near Rawlins and a bunch at the Pathfinder Ranch near Casper.”
“We background all of them here,” says Rick, noting they normally market their stock in the spring, but this year went to grass with a large portion of the yearlings. “We don’t know if we’ll do it again. We usually sell them in the spring rather than run them through. We did a few last year and a few more this year. We’ll see if it works and if it does we’ll continue. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something different.”
Closer to home, the Maxfields winter cattle near Lyman and summer them in the Uinta Mountains on Uinta County’s southern flanks. A two-day trail drive, often joined by numerous friends and neighbors, sees the cattle to summer pasture and home again in the fall.
“The cows are at 10,000 feet in elevation,” says Rick of summer pasture. The elevation makes bloodlines a factor on the bulls the family selects and the bloodlines they choose. “We still loose some,” he says of the high altitude disease some cattle are susceptible to.
Over the years Rick says the family has transitioned away from federal grazing permits, instead looking toward private land ownership and leases. “There are too many Robert Redfords and environmentalists,” he says. The Maxfields maintain one private Bureau of Land Management allotment and, along with a around a dozen other ranchers, belong to the Lyman Grazing Association.
The Maxfields have worked to maximize production on their ground. “We’ve cleared sagebrush off of a couple of hundred acres and put it in center pivots to grow alfalfa where there used to not be anything growing at all,” says Kevin.
“We hire very little help,” says Rick. “We try to keep it in the family and that keeps us together.” Kevin says the fact that both of their wives were raised in agriculture and know what to expect from the ranching lifestyle has made that approach much easier.
The Maxfields use a variety of methods to buy and sell their cattle. “A lot of them go on the video and we use the Internet,” says Rick. “Some people call and want them. We have some repeat buyers. Most of them go on the video and we buy some off of the video.” With a scale on the ranch, the family also sells some of their cattle private treaty. Kevin says the secret to marketing cattle is the ability to put together multiple loads of a certain class of cattle, making the job a little easier for the buyers.
Bidding on cattle from all across Wyoming, the Maxfields are an asset to people across the state marketing the types of calves they are interested in. “In the month of August,” says Rick, “I bet we bid on 20,000 calves. We didn’t buy that many, but we did bid on a lot of peoples’ calves. We’ve had reps from Western and Superior calling. We tried to help everyone whose calves we thought would work for us.” The Maxfields ranch also serves as a receiving station for Torrington Livestock Auction.
Hay, from harvest to feeding, is an important aspect of the Maxfield operation. The ranch’s irrigation water begins in the Uinta Mountains with stop-offs at reservoirs along the way. “A lot of our place is flood irrigated,” says Kevin. “All of our water comes down the Black’s Fork. I’m on the board and Nancy is the secretary of the Black’s Fork Canal Company. We try to keep track of what’s going on as much as we can.”
“We’re pretty fortunate in terms of water rights,” says Rick. “We have a lot of the earlier water rights and that makes a big difference.”
The Maxfields native hay is some of the best producing in the nation, drawing the attention of the equipment engineers at Hesston. “We’ve had two or three of the prototypes Hesston has built for rotary swathers and the big chopper balers,” says Rick. “We’ve had the prototypes here and the engineers. We put up some grass hay that brings in six ton to the acre in one crop. It’s not all that productive. We’ve had demonstrations here where there were three different prototype swathers broke down.”
Rick says they work to keep top-of-the-line equipment around to avoid the need to hire additional labor. “We had the first cutter baler in this country,” he says. “We don’t have those anymore, but we did when we were milking cows.”
The ranch has added an innovative feed truck to their equipment line-up and Kevin says it’s significantly reduced the time and labor involved in feeding. “It has a chopper on it,” he explains of the implement that can mix two bales. Alfalfa can be place on one side while a bale of straw or lesser quality hay is fed in on the other side. It’s mixed evenly.
“It makes it a lot easier to feed our yearlings,” says Kevin. “I can feed them by myself in 15 minutes and it used to take two of us a pretty good hour.” While they haven’t used it, Rick says the truck has a compartment for grain so that it can be placed right in the hay.
“We use alfalfa for protein and we mix it with some pretty poor hay,” says Rick. “They eat every bit of it because that feeder mixes is right up. It puts it in a nice little windrow.”
“I remember when our biggest tractor was 44 horsepower,” says Kevin. “Now our littlest tractor is 100 horsepower. Things have really changed.” Maybe not all that much, however, he laughs, “Our first tractor we bought was $5,000 and we wondered if we would ever get it paid for. Our last tractor we bought was over $100,000 and we don’t know if we’ll ever get it paid for.”
“You can’t do things like the old boys did,” says Rick. “They used to get by, but today you’ve got to be pretty aggressive. You’ve got to stay on top of things, watch the markets and do everything you can.” He says it takes a lot more cattle to feed a family than historically was the case.
“We used to sell 300-pound calves,” says Rick. “Now 600 pound calves are pretty common and the cows really haven’t got any bigger.”
“I remember the old boys saying 650 pound yearlings were huge,” says Kevin. “We ship several semi-loads of 700 pound calves right off their moms.”
The weights, and the added potential to market more pounds from a single cow, are the bright spot. “In 1975,” says Rick, “we got a dollar for our calves and now they’re about a dollar again. That’s a challenge. Our input costs have at least quadrupled or more. I think diesel was 40 cents a gallon in 1975 and last year it was $4.”
Kevin says, “The old boys used to say if your calf prices stay the same as your diesel prices, you’ll make a go of it.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to sell a $2.65 a pound calf?” asks Bobbi.
Foreign ownership of the meat industry’s infrastructure and poor policy coming out of Washington, D.C. may equal, if not surpass, the markets when it comes to the challenges facing Wyoming and the nation’s ranchers, say the brothers.
Kevin would like to see the United States return to those days when American agriculture was truly appreciated.
Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.