Two-year-old Lela asks her mother, “Who built our house?”
The toddler has favorite places on the ranch and can name every horse and dog that trots around in the mud. She races down the road in dinosaur pajama bottoms, unconcerned with the chill in the air or the mud caked to her pink and purple sneakers.
Beth White considers her family ranch a gift — an opportunity to make a living and share knowledge with her daughter — not a collection of acres to generate cash. After taking over White Ranch from her father, Bill White, she said she seeks to preserve the land and their way of life with the time she is given.
“I think people that don’t see that it can be a good life, or if their parents didn’t enjoy it — it makes it look like a pretty miserable life,” Beth said. “I was lucky to have the example of someone who enjoyed it.”
Beth is grateful for the opportunity to make a living as a rancher and, despite the daily challenges, for having a little easier of a time than previous generations in the family bloodline.
Beth’s paternal grandfather came to Sheridan County after he exited the U.S. Army in 1946. His grandparents homesteaded and ranched the front range of Colorado. By the end of World War II, Denver was too crowded to make a living in agriculture.
A rancher all his life, Bill said he has yet to take his first job. He took over from his father in the mid-1980s and raised a family of two sons and one daughter, who traveled the world after college but always knew she wanted to return to White Ranch.
“She knew she’d be tied down here after that,” Bill said.
Both sons want to see the ranch remain viable but neither connected with the work enough to make it their life’s vocation. It was always their sister who had her sights set on becoming the primary operator. So far, the siblings have agreed on retaining the ranch, and she hasn’t faced any pressure to buy them out.
For more than five years, Bill and his daughter have worked on transitioning ownership, adding livestock and mediating small differences in opinion about how the ranch should run. They have their own cattle brands, which provide some flexibility in decision-making.
As the ranching world evolves, Bill is confident his daughter will adapt to innovations that may soon become necessities — like individual identification for animals and responding to fake meat trends. He tends to do things the way his grandfather did.
For example, he hangs onto Hereford cows for sentimental reasons, though they are not as profitable and face health risks because of their red and white coloring. Most ranchers transitioned to black beef cattle years ago.
More than 60 years in Sheridan County, Bill said he has seen some ranches, without another generation passionate enough to take over, sell outside the family. Many couldn’t afford to continue the ranch or agree between siblings how to run it.
“When I was a kid, a person could raise a family with 120 cows,” Bill said. “You can’t do that anymore. The scale has gotten bigger. It takes a little bit bigger place to be a so-called family unit because of it.”
Beth and her siblings were never forced or obligated to return to the ranch — her father always made their choice clear. Still, Beth knew the ranch was where she wanted to be. For some families, if ranching doesn’t appear to be a profitable and enjoyable lifestyle, many children choose not to return.
Like his daughter, Bill said he always knew he wanted to come back. Over the years watching beef cattle genetics change, neighbors come and go, land prices rise and work change with the seasons, Bill still enjoys seeing the fruits of his labor in the fall.
“I still enjoy what I have to do that day. I want to get it done,” he said.
In the fall, calves are mature and the workload is far lighter than in spring, when calving, fencing, farming and irrigation present an overwhelming work load. Beth takes to horseback almost every day in autumn weather.
Beth takes Lela out riding, shares lunch while she’s haying and visits the cows on her way to find mushrooms and asparagus. While she occasionally grits her teeth when she encounters disrespect as a female rancher, the moments spent with family make the experience worthwhile.
“It’s an easy place to have a family, even though you’re working all the time,” Beth said. “The ability to be together.”
Still, as Bill communicated at a public discussion on private working lands with local conservation groups, agricultural interests don’t always mesh well with others.
Bill has watched as some similarities with his father’s experience on the front range of Colorado have begun to impact Sheridan County agriculture, namely population growth. Placing subdivisions on productive ground has been a concern for ranchers all his life.
Beth recognizes a substantial push from state and local governments to spur the economy through tourism, and from her perspective, agriculture can’t compete.
While unrealistic to expect growth won’t occur, Bill said he is looking for groups to manage the growth to coexist with agriculture while growing the tax base.
The pressure to allow multiple uses on ranch land is increasing. In Beth’s observations, land prices based on proximity to recreation in the Bighorn Mountains will likely prohibit her from adding to the ranch’s acreage down the road.
“You can’t pay for these land prices with a cow,” she said.
While Bill was previously opposed to “locking up land,” he is now grateful for conservation easements that hold property in perpetuity and prevent it from being broken up into subdivisions.
Despite the concerns of a changing economic landscape, father-daughter duo Bill and Beth White still believe in the value of a family operation. Each season brings an engaging variety of work and its own life lessons.
“It’s still fascinating to see a calf born and get up and start nursing,” Bill said. “After all these years…Life is starting but you also have to come to terms with the fact that they don’t all live.”