Who hasn’t fantasized about riding off into the sunset on your own horse through beautiful Western terrain that is all yours for as far as the eye can see?
Yet running a ranch is a 24/7 existence with a lot of hard work and sacrifice. For those I’ve met who have made that commitment, they wouldn’t trade their lifestyle for anything else. I spoke with three ranchers to explore the highlights and the challenges of owning a ranch. We live in a time when ranches are disappearing; water is increasingly dear; land and taxes expensive; and good help difficult to find. As we’ll see, running a ranch requires one to have extensive skills. Above all, it demands flexibility, ingenuity and perseverance.
Sweetgrass Ranch in Big Timber, Montana, has been in the family since the 1880’s. Shelly Carroccia raises Angus cattle and horses, and welcomes guests who want to get their hands dirty. If cows need doctoring while you’re visiting, you may be learning a new skill.
Shelly’s Background—Shelly grew up on the ranch. She knows firsthand about land management and the tremendous amount of work that it takes to keep the ranch going. Over the past few decades, she has been challenged by skyrocketing ranch costs, especially when it comes to machinery and maintenance.
Shelly’s Lifestyle—Shelly says that ranching life is the perfect way to raise a family. For her, it’s the only way to live. Diversifying will help her keep the ranch alive for the next generation. That’s why the ranch took in guests. She also puts the ranch’s needs before her own—a new tractor comes before a new pair of jeans. This isn’t a sacrifice for Shelly; she’s just “doing what needs to be done.”
Shelly’s Advice—Future ranch owners should get as much financial backing as they can, because land costs have driven up the purchase price of a ranch. Be sure to learn range management, and be prepared to work when required, like 24 hours a day during calving.
A guest who vacationed at Sweetgrass Ranch once said to Shelly, “We used to really envy you. Now you can’t hand us your job.” Maybe not, but Shelly’s not giving it away either.
Tarryall River Ranch in Lake George, Colorado, is a dude ranch owned by the Tesch family, new to ranching. Kevin Tesch gives his guests the modern-day amenities they want—like a heated swimming pool—while still portraying an authentic Western lifestyle.
Kevin’s Background—Kevin was a frequent guest at a ranch in southern Colorado. When the opportunity arose for him to purchase Tarryall in 2003, he took a big risk and quit his government job—five years before retirement. He did not want to uproot his son, who was in middle school in Iowa, or his wife from her job, so the family commutes during the off season. Some of the other Tesch children have moved close by and chosen to work on the ranch, helping to make these sacrifices worthwhile.
Kevin’s Lifestyle—Kevin rises at 5:30 a.m. and takes care of morning chores before meeting his staff at 7. Then he handles ranch maintenance, e-mails and phone calls, coordinates guest activities and manages his staff. His workday ends after 10 at night.
He enjoys his version of ranching life: “horses, fresh air [and] not always taking the easy way to getting the job done but making sure it’s done the right way.”
Kevin’s Advice—Future ranchers should make sure they’re “efficient in all aspects of running a ranch,” Kevin says. “You have to have a lot of faith. You have to enjoy long days and hard work. Owning a dude ranch is not about making money or getting rich and, no, you don’t get the winters off…. You have to love the lifestyle, which we do.”
63 Ranch near Livingston, Montana, is a ranch owned by the same family since 1929 and dates to 1863. Sandra and Bud Cahill run the guest ranch, with the reins being taken by their son Jeff and his wife Deanna. Deanna shared what it is like for an outsider to adjust to life on a ranch.
Deanna’s Background—Deanna grew up in Georgia with a love of horses. A college graduate, she headed west to work on 63 Ranch, where she fell in love with Jeff and then moved to the ranch in 2003.
Deanna’s Lifestyle—Deanna is getting used to the quiet of the ranch and the planning that it takes to live off the beaten track. She has learned the value of staying put and enjoys the rewards of ranch life, especially when she sees happy smiles on the faces of guests.
Deanna’s Advice—Folks who want to marry into a ranch, or are introducing a spouse to ranch life, should look for a “partner who loves the lifestyle and hard work as much as you do, and someone who wouldn’t give it up for anything.”