Iowa Public Television


Flitner Ranch

posted on October 29, 2004

The success of the beef trade deal reached with Japan depends in large part on the U.S. government's ability to document and verify the age and origin of U.S.-bred cattle. That may be a tall order, given the glacial pace of implementing the USDA's proposed cattle identification program.

Beef producers in Kansas aren't waiting. The state is putting together its own voluntary animal ID program to meet market demand for age-verified livestock. Kansas-based meatpacker Creekstone Farms, which already can verify the ages of up to 25 percent of its cattle, is well positioned to take advantage of the renewed trade prospects.

Resiliency is a hallmark of the American beef producer. It's a necessary quality in a business buffeted by everything from the weather to fickle consumer tastes.

In the scenic outback of Wyoming, there lives one family that well represents that unique rancher tenacity. Laurel Bower Burgmaier has their story.


Flitner Ranch

In 1905, Arthur Flitner traveled to Northwestern Wyoming at the base of the Bighorn Mountains on a hunting trip. Liking what he saw, he returned with his family a year later to put down roots, and immediately, began laying the foundation for Flitner Ranch. For more than100 years, Arthur's sons and grandsons have ranched the land, considered by many as one of the toughest places to run stock in the country.

David Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "It's blood, sweat and tears in every generation."

Today, the third, fourth and fifth generations of Flitners call this valley their home. Together, they combine the traditions of the Old West with the technology of the 21st century. It's not unusual to see cowboys on horseback gathering cattle, as a jet helicopter flies overhead for stragglers.

And while many things have changed over the years, horses and cattle have remained the cornerstone of the operation; the main difference being the vast Wyoming landscape in which they roam. From its original 160 acres, the ranch now covers over 300,000 acres.

Greg Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "And, it's a lot of acres per cow. Most people have cows per acre; out here we have acres per cow."

Ranching in the West is unique in that very little of the land is privately owned. Most of it is federal land under the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service and Indian reservations. The Flitners run their cattle on federal land, as well as private.

They operate on a rotational system, moving the livestock often. In the early spring, the calving season starts. From April through May, brandings take place with every new calf. They also brand their new horses. Throughout the spring and summer, the cattle need to be monitored closely and moved regularly up the Bighorn Mountains to keep grazing conditions at their peak. When fall arrives, the calves are weaned from their mothers. Then, as the weather becomes colder, the cows are driven back down the mountains to their winter pasture. Every move is made on horseback.

Greg Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "The horses are a big part of us and what we do. We've worked all our life to get horses like we have now and when I was a kid, I remember seeing my grandfather and my dad coming in with the horses out of the hills, and there would always be 100 head of horses. And, they always had a lot of good horses, even then."

Immersed among the painted hills and magnificent red rocks, the scenery and solitude of Flitner Ranch can take a person's breath away. Along with its traditional cowboys and pristine horses, it's easy to get caught up in the romanticism of it all. But, it doesn't take long for reality to set in. Known for its rough and rocky terrain and the great distances of pastures, it's a tough life for both livestock and cowboys.

Greg Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "There's good places to be a cowboy and there's bad places. And, this is one of those that might not be on the good side if you're a cowboy."

This year is no exception. The ranch is in its sixth year of severe drought, causing great concern for the Flitner family. Despite creating miles and miles of intricate irrigation systems, the lack of rain has forced them to reduce their livestock numbers, both cattle and horses.

Pam Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "It is frightening. It is hard enough work anyway; when you don't get rain it becomes a fight that you don't know if you're going to win. I think it's difficult on everybody. You can see the emotional toll it takes on people."

Along with drought, ranchers in the West also are dealing with the rapidly growing wild horse population. According to the Flitner family, they are damaging the fragile environment. Another growing concern is the planting of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, which is only 100 miles from parts of Flitner Ranch. David claims the action was opposed by many in agriculture. Yet, he says the Clinton administration, along with environmental groups, re-introduced the Canadian wolves into the park in 1998.

David Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "It is one of those situations that is only getting worse because now they're migrating out of the park. There has to be some part of this country reserved for production agriculture. Consequently, we are subject to the policies of people that really have no knowledge of agricultural production in many cases."

Through the years, David has been involved in the corporate world, as well as running the cattle operation. This allowed him to gain an understanding for the world outside the ranch. But, he wants non-ranchers to understand his family's way of life, as well. To accomplish this, David and his wife, Paula, opened a dude ranch called The Hideout in 1994. The lodge serves as a way to supplement the working cattle operation.

David Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "It became evident to me that if we were going to survive another generation, we should try to develop an additional enterprise that wasn't subject to all these tremendous aberrations."

Greg and Pam Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "People are dropping out like flies in this business and they're subdividing, which is really the only thing a lot of them can do. From the environmental pressure of the federal land rancher, the economics of high priced labor and fuel, and all the inputs with the product that we're selling remaining at prices that we saw in the 70s, 30 years ago. It's just damn tough to make it."

Greg and Pam say their four young children already are showing interest in being the fifth generation to work on Flitner Ranch.

Pam and Greg Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "Our kids have already put in the long days, the two little ones haven't, but the eight- and ten year-olds, they have put in an eight- to ten-hour day. They do know and it's good to see them want to get up in the morning and go with you and do that kind of thing. You have to wonder how smart they are."

Joking aside, ranching is a life the Flitners wouldn't trade for any other. They say there is a freedom on the ranch like nowhere else. And while their business of choice is filled with more downs than ups, they maintain it's the cowboy way to take things in stride.

Pam Flitner, Flitner Ranch: "It would be nice if there's somebody from PBS 40 years from now interviewing the next, or maybe two generations after that. Hopefully, they'll be here having the same interview, talking about what kind of challenges they face. I guess that's all you can hope for."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


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