Irvine Ranch: Duncan Irvine and family continue Western lifestyle and ranching traditions
Duncan Irvine and his wife Brady reside in Platte County near Wheatland on a ranch the Duncan family homesteaded in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I grew up here and ended up coming back to the ranch. My brother Jason and I run it now. We lost our dad in 1994, but our grandfather was still alive at the time, and he helped out a lot,” says Duncan. “We lost him a few years ago. He was 90-plus years old and still going strong.”
“We have about 500 commercial Angus cows and an extensive heifer development program. We artificially inseminate (AI) the heifers. We keep most of the heifers we develop, but we also sell a few bred heifers,” Duncan says.
The ranch, strictly a cattle operation, has been raising cattle for a long time.
Duncan’s sister Amanda Sorenson and her husband Neal continue their involvement in ranching by running Powder River Angus near Gillette.
“When we were kids, everyone around here had Hereford cattle. Then we went to straight Angus,” he notes.
Located in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains, the ranch leases some additional private ground for grazing while also utilizing a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotment. The cattle are able to graze nearly year-round.
“We are a cake outfit, we don’t feed a lot of hay. We usually get enough wind to clear away the snow. This is a very windy area,” Duncan says.
Cows at the Irvine Ranch calve fairly early in the year. Heifers start calving in the middle of February and the cows start around the 10th of March. The ranch finds importance in using windbreaks for their cows and calves.
“Getting through the dry years has been a challenge. We’ve had numerous droughts here, which has made it a real struggle. Also, the expenses keep going up. We’re probably making nearly the same amount of money every year, but we are not keeping up with inflation,” says Duncan.
“Today, it takes a semi-load of calves to buy a pickup. A person has to be shrewd and pinch pennies because there is no extra money. All it takes is one little mistake, and we might go under,” he continues.
The Irvine Ranch is a family operation. Duncan’s brother Jason and Jason’s girlfriend Kelly manage the south end of the operation, which is located along the Richeau Hills. Jason also has a son, Chase, who helps on the ranch but also builds panels, chutes and has a welding shop.
“I have a son and a daughter who help when they can. My son Curran has his own excavation business and my daughter Logen and her husband Thain have a photography business. But, any time we can pry them away from their schedules, we gladly take their help,” says Duncan. “We can’t afford to pay them, but they are really good about coming back when we need them to.”
He adds, “They all have an interest in the ranch, and they’d all like to come back. However, there’s not enough money in it, so they have to do sideline jobs,” he explains. “Everyone helps, though. My wife Brady does all of the books and manages all the of banking, while also working a full-time job and running the local conservation district. It’s a family deal and a team effort.”
Duncan notes ranching is a tough business, and it’s hard to get into. If the next generation wants to get into ranching, it shouldn’t be about the money, but continuing ranching traditions and the Western lifestyle.
“If the next generation wants to ranch, they have to realize there is no money in it. It’s not about the money – it’s about the lifestyle,” Duncan says. “A person has to believe in what they are doing, find a way to make it work and be content with not having money. This is why most ranch families have at least one person who works at another job.”
“We struggle and work hard to stay afloat, but we love the lifestyle. There are a lot of private leases available. Many people have gotten older, are tired and don’t want to do the ranch work anymore but don’t want to sell their land, so they lease it to someone else,” he mentions.
“There seems to be quite a lot of desire to hang on to the land, especially if it’s been a ranch that’s been in someone’s family a long time,” Duncan continues. “People don’t want to give it up, but they are at a crossroad because they can’t make any money on it so they lease it out.”
He explains some of the land in his area has been subdivided, but not very much.
“This is such a windy place therefore not many people want to live here. This area is best suited for cattle grazing,” Duncan says.
“Right around Wheatland there is a large irrigation district and some farming where they raise a lot of corn and crops, but aside from the irrigation district, moving into the hills it’s all ranch land,” he shares.
“My brother, myself and our sons all belong to a fire district which covers about 300,000 acres with approximately 30 families. It’s hard to generate much revenue for the fire district as it is mill levy supported,” he adds.
The cattle do well in this area, even though it is a harsh and windy environment.
“If we get a foot of snow, within about 24 hours, we get a Chinook wind. It will blow 50 to 60 miles per hour and clear the snow off most of the grass. I’ve seen two to three feet of snow, and after a good Chinook there may be drifts that fill the creek bottoms, but it opens up a lot of area for the cattle to keep grazing,” he says.
There can be extreme wind chill, but cattle have shelter in many places throughout the landscape.
“We can’t winter them out on an open field. In our region, a lot of cattle winter in the Richeau Hills in the southern part of the county. This is rougher country with mahogany and limestone breaks, which allow cattle to get out of the wind,” he concludes. “A lot of cows also winter down along the river, west of Wheatland and up into the Laramie Range where our north ranch is located. The rougher it is, the better it is for wintering cattle.”
In summer months, cattle are moved out into more open areas and some are shipped to the Laramie Plains, located on Highway 34 at Morton’s Pass. It is higher in elevation but excellent summer country for grazing.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.