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Bringing together old and new: Ista Ranch combines 70 years of hard work, tradition with new ideas, innovation

Written by Jennifer Womack

Hulett – After 70 years in business and four generations having called the land home, Ista Ranch continues to have a youthful energy and a willingness to implement new ideas.

After marrying in 2008, Alan and Hannah Ista made the ranch their full-time home in 2012. Both had been working at the coalmines and helping at the ranch on their days off. The move from Gillette to Hulett meant a better life for their family including Emma, now 6, and her younger brother Bridger, 5.

The family joined Alan’s parents, Jerry and Judy, who have operated the ranch since Jerry’s dad, Ernest Ista, passed away in 1966.

Early beginnings

“My folks got married in 1937 and leased a place until 1947, and then, they bought 800 acres here,” says Jerry. “They expanded it in the 1960s, and that’s how we got started.”

When Ernest Ista first arrived in the Hulett area to work, it was the beginning of the Great Depression.

“During the 1930s,” recalls Jerry, “he said he earned a dollar a day and his room and board in the summer and just his room and board in the winter.”

Jerry’s mother Helena, who came to the area to teach school, earned $75 a month and taught until she and Ernest were married. At that time, married women weren’t allowed to teach.

Following graduation from Hulett High School, Jerry attended the University of Wyoming for a year and then transferred to Black Hills State University, where he played football.

While attending college, Jerry met Judy Mick, and they married in 1965. After teaching just two years in Buffalo, where Jerry started the wrestling program, the couple was faced with the decision of whether to return to the family ranch in Hulett or continue teaching.

Both Jerry and Judy are tremendously thankful for the path that they chose.

Growing and developing

Three times during the 1970s, Jerry and Judy purchased land and further added to the ranch’s holdings.

Alan and Hannah also added real estate to the ranch when they returned home. Alan also brought skills he’d developed earning an ag degree at Dickinson State University and later on a nine-month agricultural exchange to Australia.

In the mid-1980s, Jerry and Judy sold the cattle, so they would be free to attend the kids’ activities.

Looking back, Jerry laughs, “I thought I could be a farmer and sell wheat and grow hay in Crook County, but we needed something else and to be diversified.”

Rebuilding a cowherd

As the family rebuilt its cowherd with Black Angus genetics, they also altered their approach and moved to fall calving. Calving season at their ranch ends in August, and by mid-September, the calves are branded.

“We wean in February and sell a load of steer calves with late April to May delivery,” says Alan.

The calves sell on Superior, a place the Istas say they’ve found strong interest in their calves.

Marketing tools

They choose to participate in several programs, hoping to earn the attention of additional bidders. Their calves are certified all-natural with no hormones given.

Their calves are also Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certified, an endorsement pertaining to the way the cattle are handled. Jerry said that most of the practices outlined in GAP, such as table branding and not using a hot shot, were things they were already doing.

“We’ve got to keep good records,” says Jerry.

Sick calves, for example, can be treated with antibiotics and should be, but those calves must be marked and become ineligible for shipment with the all-natural calves.

“We use two calf tables,” says Hannah.

While one person bands and brands at one table, another person is giving vaccines at the other table, and then, they switch. It’s a set-up that she says adds efficiency to branding.

New this year, the ranch added a grassfed endorsement.

Because they supplement winter feed with peas and wheat hay, they weren’t sure they qualified. Peas, explains Jerry, aren’t considered a grain, but are a legume under the grassfed program standards. Wheat hay is within feeding guidelines so long as it is hayed before it gets to the bloom stage.

The family is looking forward to May to see if the endorsement further bolsters the interest in their calves.

Before growing field peas, they first tried soybeans and a few other crops. The deer liked some of the crops a little too well. Field peas, however, have worked well and can be fed using the grain tank on the EZRation bale processor that the family uses during the winter months.

The processor also allows for two bales of varying quality, such as the alfalfa and wheat hay the family raises, to be ground into a single windrow.

Family

Jerry and Judy’s daughters both live in eastern South Dakota with their families, and both are married to farmers. Sheila is married to Bob Berndt and is an elementary school teacher. Paula is a veterinarian, operating her own practice in Browns Valley, Minn. She’s married to Bryce Heinje.

While attending Colorado State University, Paula drew on the resources there and sent home corral plans that resulted in the present design. Pie-shaped with an alleyway along the perimeter, cattle worked in the corrals can be sorted one of six different directions. The alleyway feeds into a loading chute along the county road, ensuring access from the gravel during inclement weather.

As Alan and Hannah look to the future of the Ista Ranch, they hope to carry on the family’s ranching and farming traditions while keeping an eye on new opportunities and a desire to pass the ranch along to their own children.

Jennifer Womack is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..