The Fight for what is Ours

This ranch is more than just my heritage. It's part of me.

– Kellen Smith

Agriculture, the backbone of America, employed 70% of all Americans in the early 19th century. Today, that number lies below 1%.

As the world changes, it becomes harder to preserve long-held traditions. Progress has come at a cost. Within agriculture, the price is being paid by ranching families as they grapple with financial pressures, bureaucratic hurdles, and a changing economic landscape that gives an edge to real estate investors and large corporations over the family ranches whose legacies span centuries.

Running a ranch is expensive, and prices can be unreliable from season to season. The price of cattle largely determines whether the family’s income from an entire season of ranching was enough to pay the bills. With a volatile cattle market, ranchers are finding it increasingly difficult to plan according to how much they will make when it comes time to sell. And when their real income falls short of what they had planned for, they might end up in the red.

As a result, many small ranches barely break even after accounting for their expenses. In some cases, one unprofitable season can force them to sell their land. Historically, ranchers could rely on loans to provide just enough cash to stay afloat during economic downturns. But with interest rates at their highest point in decades, these lifesaving loans are harder to come by and unbearably expensive to pay off.

With droughts and extreme weather becoming more common, having an unprofitable season has never been more 
likely—and the safety net of lending is slipping away. To add to these challenges, reliable workers are increasingly hard to find, and younger generations are opting to leave the ranch rather than stay and carry on the family business.

Meanwhile, those with more cash on hand, more credit for loans, and higher profit 
margins—mainly large–scale farms and ranches run by corporations—are gaining more market share. They can offer higher wages for employees, leaving smaller ranches to scramble for whoever is not on the corporate payroll.

When times are tough, big businesses weather the storm and buy up the land from ranchers who had no option but to sell. This trend has brought countless ranching legacies to the brink of extinction, forcing them to come up with new ways to increase cash flow without compromising their long–held traditions.

The Daly Ranch stands among those who refuse to be squeezed out of the industry. Their story demonstrates the determination of ranchers across the nation fighting to keep their heritage alive in the face of enormous challenges.

An Unbroken History

Founded in 1894 by John. T. Daly, the Daly Ranch continues to serve its original purpose as a working cattle ranch driven by the pride and determination of the Daly and Smith families.

Kellen Smith, John T. Daly’s great-great grandson, oversees the family’s 100,000 acres of pristine Wyoming land. As a proud working cowboy and country music artist whose music depicts ranch life, the significance of his heritage is not lost upon him.

Living on a ranch with so much history is beyond words, really, Kellen explains. I don't know how I got so lucky to be born into this, but it's rewarding to be able to carry it on.

Kellen and his brother Cameron follow in the footsteps of their great-great-grandfather. John was among the first pioneers of Gillette, Wyoming who established the ranch in an era of outlaws and untamed land as far as the eye could see.

Things look different today. While the Daly Ranch still has open ranges and grazing cattle, many of their ranching neighbors have fallen to the wayside, replaced by investors, corporations, and others outside of agriculture. Keeping the nation’s ranching traditions alive seems to be more and more difficult with every passing year.

I don’t know exactly why ranches sell, Kellen says. Sometimes, mom and dad give brother and sister half-and-half of the ranch, and brother and sister don't see eye-to-eye and brother wants out, so he sells his half. Other times, it’s financial—you can’t have the land without making enough profit to hold onto it after taxes and other expenses.

Prices have gone up for everything ranchers depend on, from pickup trucks to animal feed. And while consumers are paying more for beef at the grocery store, cattle ranchers are not seeing an increase in income. The corporations that dominate America’s meat packing industry, on the other hand, are making record profits.

Another issue might be generational, according to Kellen, who sees a growing number of young people that are not interested in putting in the work. And even among some young people who do want to help out, their eagerness to challenge the status quo can be met with disapproval among older ranchers.

There is a simmering conflict between tradition and innovation that Kellen sees as a major hurdle facing ranchers all over the nation.

We can’t be stuck doing things a certain way because of tradition, he argues. I think agriculture is years behind other industries for that reason—people are hardheaded, and they’re stuck in that mindset, living within those paradigms.

In a rapidly changing world, this conflict grows more dire every day.

New Ways of Thinking

Like many other ranchers, Kellen was raised by the idea of land rich, cash poor. That is, you can own miles and miles of land, but that does not guarantee a steady income. And with real estate taxes along with the need to repair and replace infrastructure on the ranch, the only way to hold onto the land is by generating income through ranching or by other means. Ranchers need to fight for their land and their legacies by making profits without sacrificing their values.

With two seemingly opposite goals, Kellen and Cameron often find themselves balancing the need to stay profitable with the importance of honoring their heritage. In places where they could cut corners to turn more profit—such as using cheaper cattle feed—Kellen and Cameron always defer to doing things the way they’ve always been done.

People ask me, How can you get by without feeding hay? Aren't your cows starving? They wonder how we make it work without supplementing our cattle, but it’s really something my grandpa Jim Daly did, Kellen explained. We’ve carried on his approach of not grazing all of our pastures during the growing season to ensure we’ll have grass through the winter, thus not needing to feed hay.

But there are ways to improve the ranch’s financial situation without disrupting long–held traditions. Hunting, which aligns with the Daly family’s heritage, is an important and relatively new income source at the Daly Ranch, which now runs Daly Ranch Outfitters. Other ranches, Kellen says, boast stargazing, bird watching, or lodging, while others provide a venue for weddings to supplement their agricultural revenue.

By increasing their income from alternative sources, ranchers are demonstrating their ingenuity as they adapt to fluctuating cattle prices and high costs across the board. But a lot of the time, Kellen says, creative attempts to bring in more money are met with pushback from within the family.

People just keep doing things the same way without adapting to change or being enlightened by new ways of thinking, he explains. It’s very hard to get dad or grandpa on board, and sometimes the younger people are never given the opportunity to try something new until it's too late.

Keeping a ranching legacy alive is not as simple as staying profitable. A ranch is so much more than its income and expenses. For thousands of families, the ranch is a symbol of their heritage and a pillar of their identity. The fight to hold onto the ranch is more than an economic battle—it is deeply personal.

Standing Their Ground

Kellen has seen countless ranches come and go, and each one is a reminder of what is at stake.

It worries me to see these ranching traditions fading away—that more and more people are buying land for other reasons than to establish an agricultural legacy, he explains.

Although the pressures are rising on all sides, Kellen and the rest of the Daly and Smith families are determined to hold onto what they inherited from John T. Daly. They are motivated not by greed, but by the vision of their children and grandchildren working on the ranch just as John did.

It puts a smile on my face every morning knowing that we're living out here, carrying on this legacy, Kellen says. That's what I'm here for—to make sure this keeps going down the road.