every animal she meets—cattle, goats, dogs, even people.
She once had an eye kicked out by a stallion she corralled, but
the loss hasn’t stopped her. In fact, right now, as her cowboy
trudges through the snow to steer his horses behind a fence, she
is ahead of him, running an imaginary circumference around the animals.
Alzada, the other dog present, hangs back with me to watch.
After securing the gate, the cowboy walks back to us and notices
my gaze on Lilly. “You should see her with the cows,”
he says, “just like poetry, the way she does it. Alzada isn’t
much for herding, but she runs like the wind. It’s a beautiful
thing to watch.” He passes me, slogging through the slush
and back to his rumbling pick-up. Without turning around he says,
“You can’t make that beauty happen. But when you let
something be itself, then it comes naturally. It’s all about
Now I live in Northern California, and therefore am accustomed
to hearing talk of things like “self-actualization.”
But coming from this man, who fits the cowboy of fiction to the
last curve of his hat—well, it threw me off.
And yet for
every bit of Tony that is a classic cowboy, there
is another part that shatters the stereotype.
Tony Malmberg is a wrangler by blood: His Swedish grandfather ran
away from home at age 12 to ride for the Matador Ranch. Tony himself
was raised in Nebraska’s Sand Hills, and has been riding since
he was a child. He passes no morning without an eye on the weather
rising over Sheep Mountain. He goes nowhere without a hat—dusty
straw for chores, black felt for dinner in town.
And yet for every bit of Tony that is a classic cowboy, there is
another part that shatters the stereotype. He has been a leader
of the Farm Bureau and Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association,
but he also rubs elbows with the local Nature Conservancy chapter
and belongs to a book group at the library. His back still hurts
from an incident with a bucking bronco, but he treats it by doing
yoga. He runs cattle as well as anybody, but he also keeps goats.
He has even milked them.
Tony will gladly tell you any of this, even illustrate it with
a quote from Emerson or Kahlil Gibran. Oddly enough, he credits
it to being tough—“like a true cowboy,” he says.
He is quick to explain: “Being tough doesn’t mean bitching
about the damn environmentalists, it means breaking your leg five
miles from the ranch and being able to ride home because you have
to. It’s about being able to survive.”
Tony found that as a rancher in the ruthless beef industry, being
tough meant changing who he was and how he saw the world. He began
one grim winter while working in the mines of Battle Mountain, Nevada,
a town voted “The Armpit of America” by The Washington
Post. Most workers there prove the stereotypes true, blowing their
riches in casinos, bars, and brothels. During his stay Tony did
play Texas hold-‘em once a week, but the other six nights
he spent reading books on three subjects he felt were missing from
his education: economics, philosophy, and self-improvement. He was
perhaps the first person ever to be enlightened in Battle Mountain.
“I made more money there than I ever had in my life,”
he says, “but at the same time I realized that something else
meant much more to me. That was the first time I decided consciously
to be a rancher. It came clear that I needed to return to the ranch
and make it work, somehow.”
To survive, Tony threw status quo out the window. He replaced it
with a process of self-actualization. Today, he evaluates the ranch’s
tools—land, animals, people—and allows their strengths
to determine how the business grows. It has turned out to be his
most radical departure of all.
Finding your edge—and using it
A more business-like version of Tony’s philosophy is described
in the book Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap…and
others don't, by Jim Collins. Using case studies of the world’s
most successful companies, Collins argues that to succeed, one must
be the best at something. He goes on to say that everyone and everything
has a distinct competitive advantage; being the best is simply a
matter of determining what that advantage is and how to use it.
The distinct competitive advantage of Tony’s Twin Creek Ranch
in Lander, Wyoming, is not immediately apparent. His 16,500 acres
lie at the base of the Wind River Mountains, so his ground ranges
in elevation from 5,600 to 7,440 feet. “It’s tough country
we’re ranching here,” he says. “It’s cold,
sagebrush steppe. Cold winters, hot summers. A tough place to make
The road to the ranch is a rutted track of red clay that stretches
a slow nine miles from the highway. It passes two flat, irrigated
pastures, but otherwise the land here is untamed: rough hills, thick
creekside brush, and sandstone spires carved by eons of rough weather.
In 1978, Tony and his parents bought the ranch and started a cow-calf
operation that was augmented by pasture cattle in summer—the
same as most local ranchers. It wasn’t until 1987, when Tony
attended his first holistic management seminar, that he thought
to question the routine. For three years he changed nothing, instead
just watching and thinking about the land. When he finally applied
HM's basic herding techniques, his stocking rates improved. Anyone
else would have responded by buying more cattle, but Tony had gained
a reason to think twice.
On the cliffs above his best pasture he had found petroglyphs depicting
sheep, antelope, and men with spears. They were carved by the ancient
Arapahoe as they waited there each fall and spring, ready to ambush
the animals they knew would come through. Twin Creek turned out
to be a grazing animals’ migration route.
that the place was naturally a passageway rather than a destination,
Tony reconsidered his large, year-round operation.
changed my view of being in the cattle business to being in
the grass business...a cow is just a package to put the grass
in and transport to sale."
In realizing that the place was naturally a passageway rather than
a destination, Tony reconsidered his large, year-round operation.
He increased the cattle he pastured for others from May to October,
but downsized his own herd. The move made business sense, too: He
had a major debt load, and investing in a volatile commodity like
cattle didn’t guarantee him a reliable return.
“I changed my view of being in the cattle business to being
in the grass business,” he wrote to me before I met him. “I
realized that a cow is just a package to put the grass in and transport
to sale. There are times when we can add more value to the grass
by owning cattle, and other times when we prefer to transfer that
risk to someone else.”
A few years later, Tony opened a lodge. The attention required
for holistic management had increased his labor costs; having tourists
stay at the ranch would pay for the new hired hands. He made sure
that the place remained a traditional cattle ranch that had guests,
rather than turning into a guest ranch that had cattle. Still, the
act itself defied the notion that no rancher worth his saddle would
do anything but raise livestock.
And that was just the start. Tony’s wife, Andrea, suggested
they raise goats and make cheese. Even Tony balked this time. Sheep,
perhaps, but what self-respecting rancher would raise goats? Then
he considered the landscape. With only cattle, a significant part
of his land went unused because it was too steep or rocky. But on
those slopes and cliffs, goats would be right at home.
Today a small herd of goats munches sagebrush on a 70-degree slope
behind the barn. The day before I arrived at the ranch, Tony had
found them on top of a sandstone spire that even he couldn’t
climb. The year before, a neighbor had returned a doe after finding
her out on the range, alongside his cattle. Talk about a distinct
competitive advantage: she had been missing for 14 months—surviving
in the wild—and came home without a scratch. “This land
will never be the best cattle country in world, but it’s excellent
goat country,” Tony told me. “Maybe we’ll be the
best in the world at making goat cheese.”
wife, Andrea, suggested they raise goats and make cheese. Even
Tony balked this time. Sheep, perhaps, but what self-respecting
rancher would raise goats? Then he considered the landscape
. . .
land will never be the best cattle country in world, but it’s
excellent goat country.”
The Malmbergs still run a handful of their own cows, but none for
the old markets. Instead they have refocused on a new goal: to feed
the local community. They sell their “Beyond Organic Beef”
to neighbors and a local restaurant, through several retail stores
in town, and online. The yield is much less than in past years—in
2003, they processed only 17 head—but the return is just the
opposite. Hamburger is $5 a pound, steaks are maybe $15 a piece,
and nearly every cent of that returns to the Malmbergs. In the past
year, they have even expanded the lodge business to host private
dinners showcasing their beef and other locally-grown foods.
Each new piece of the business emerges from what Tony figured out
early on: holistic management doesn’t stop at grazing. “You
can go ahead and do environmentally sound range management, but
people don’t just start throwing money at you for it,”
he told me. “You still have to package those values into something
they can buy, pieces that are familiar to consumers.” Hence
the retail sales, the lodge, the dinners—the Malmbergs even
Reaching out to the local community—and
So, are they sell-outs? To be honest, when I first heard that Twin
Creek no longer did conventional cattle sales, my interest waned.
Who wants to write about a hobby rancher? And yet Tony showed me
that there’s no longer only one definition of what makes a
ranch real. Really, what is more honorable than feeding your community?
Granted, the local community—about 35,000 people in 100 square
miles—is not enough to sustain the Malmbergs and their employees,
barring major reorganization of the regional economy. Hence the
lodge, the pasturing of other people’s cattle, the burgers
sold to tourists at the local grill.
Then again, for Tony those things no longer feel like compromises.
Take the lodge, for instance. It provides the Malmbergs with an
influx of international culture and varying viewpoints, a great
gift considering the relatively homogenous community around them.
They, in turn, educate visitors about how the land works, what it
means to grow food, and how the table and the range are connected;
they give tourists a reason to care about this place. In an era
when ranchers are widely scorned and the working landscape of the
High Plains dismissed, that education is invaluable. Better to have
people introduced to Wyoming by a rancher than by a real estate
What his critics don’t understand is that, more than anything,
Tony wants to save the cowboy way of life—and not just preserve
it on so many 400-acre hobby ranches, but make it a working part
of modern life. What makes him so different is that he accepts that
the West is no longer populated solely by cowboys.
can go ahead and do environmentally sound range management,
but people don’t just start throwing money at you for
it . . . ”
still have to package those values into something they can buy,
pieces that are familiar to consumers.”
“To be a rancher in the 21st century, you need the language
to communicate with other ranchers, which is story-telling,”
Tony told me. “We’re task-oriented. We talk about, Is
your branding done? How’s your calving going? Ranchers communicate
by telling stories about the tasks that we do.”
But to communicate with the agency people, a rancher needs to learn
the language of data. “With the BLM range con [rangeland conservationist],
you have to talk about percent bare ground, plant density, species
diversity—numbers—or it won’t connect. Then we
have the environmentalists. To communicate with them, you need poetry.
By that I mean you have to ask what their values are. If they value
biodiversity, you can explain to them how your approach to range
management encourages that value. If you just talk about your tasks,
they think you’re a goddamned redneck.”
It makes sense that the best-liked BLM employees are those who
can shoot the breeze, and the most productive environmentalists
are those who value agriculture. In holistic management terms, being
“multi-lingual” is a powerful tool. The talking inevitably
reveals common goals; the common goals lead to compounded power.
For instance, a few years ago Tony invited the government to catalog
plants on his land. Naturally, everyone called him crazy. “But
think about it,” he says. “If there’s an endangered
species here I want to know about it. Pleading ignorance down the
road won’t help me.”
In fact, several rare plants turned up. One of them was Barnaby’s
clover, which is otherwise found only on The Nature Conservancy’s
preserve down the canyon. Naturally, the organization took an interest
in Twin Creek Ranch. Today, as the Malmbergs figure out how to protect
their ranch in the future, there is a chance that the non-profit
will buy a conservation easement on the land. The deal is spurred
by Tony’s outstanding stewardship, but also undeniably by
the presence of the clover.
The specific details of Twin Creek Ranch are hard to replicate.
Not every landscape hosts an endangered species. Not every ranch
is located in a place that tourists want to visit. Not every cowboy
wants to make goat cheese. But, as long as there’s a willingness
to think differently, the process itself can apply to anyone. After
all, every rancher knows his or her land is special; the trick is
just to make that matter.