GRASS FARMERS: A three-part series on sustainable ranching in Wyoming

In search of the real tough cowboy
To survive in the 21st century, ranchers need to be skilled natural resource managers—and good communicators.

By Lisa Hamilton, Posted July 20, 2004

Lilly herds 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 self-actualization.”

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 a living.”

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.

In realizing that the place was naturally a passageway rather than a destination, Tony reconsidered his large, year-round operation.

"I 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.”

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 . . .

“This 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 do weddings.

Reaching out to the local community—and beyond

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 agent.

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.

“You can go ahead and do environmentally sound range management, but people don’t just start throwing money at you for it . . . ”

“You 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.