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Mixing ranch business with pleasure

Kindra Gordon Published on 01 August 2011
Cattle at Padlock Ranch, Wyoming

Headquartered north of Sheridan, Wyoming, at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, the Padlock Ranch has been in the business of raising cattle for nearly 70 years.

The operation was started by Homer and Mildred Scott in 1943 with 3,000 acres and 300 cows. In the seven decades since, the Scott family has significantly increased the size of the ranch to raise and market approximately 10,000 calves a year on nearly 500,000 acres across Wyoming and Montana.

Key to that success has been the ability to adapt and diversify. Today, in addition to the cattle, the Padlock Ranch has diversified to offer hunting ventures and working ranch vacations, and touts the tagline “Live Our Legacy.”

The modern-day Padlock Ranch is still devoted to raising cattle, but also recognizes the added revenue opportunity that tourism can provide for the ranch, explains Les Nunn, assistant operations manager for the Padlock Ranch.

Nunn says another important reason the Padlock has branched into bringing guests to the ranch is to build that all-important connection with the urban public and ranch stewards.

“Our ranch vacations provide an opportunity to share the Padlock story with others and how we manage our cattle and natural resources. It’s helping put a voice to the cattle industry,” Nunn says.

Flourishing future

Ranch and hunting ventures like those offered by the Padlock are becoming an integral part of many ranch operations today – and we can expect to see the agritourism trend flourish in the future.

Jan Jantzen of Emporia, Kansas, confirms the burgeoning interest in agritourism, saying, “People are longing to understand what goes on in rural America.

They view our rural life as amazing.” Jantzen is director of rural tourism development for the Flint Hills RC&D and has offered guided horseback rides and prairie and range burning tours on his own Flint Hills property for more than a decade.

With rising land and production costs in agriculture, Jantzen notes that agritourism can be a viable way to generate income that helps keep many traditional ag operations afloat.

He reports that agritourism can add $5,000 to $8,000 a year to an operation’s annual income – and it can take off from there. “There are people in agritourism making $100,000 annually,” he says.

Jantzen says that as long as farmers and ranchers keep the agritourism experience authentic, informative and participatory, “Demand is incredible.”

Lariats and leisure time

At Wyoming’s Padlock Ranch, authenticity is truly a part of the “ranch vacation.” Nunn says guests often ride horses six to eight hours a day and pitch in with whatever ranch work is being done that day.

“Guests help with gathering and moving cattle to pastures, branding, vaccinating; it’s all part of the experience.”

And since opening the Padlock to guests in 2009, Nunn reports that the response from vacationers has been positive.

He notes that the majority of their visitors are horse enthusiasts – some are even fellow cattlemen. All of the visitors have an appreciation for the West and Western lifestyle – which is likely why they sought out a ranch vacation in the first place.

“Our guests are usually attracted to the Padlock because of the sheer size of the ranch,” says Nunn, who notes that the Padlock is ranked as the eighth-largest cattle operation in the U.S. and is the only American ranch of that size to offer working ranch vacations.

Many of the Padlock’s visitors are from within the U.S., but they also attract a large international clientele. Nunn says the bulk of their visitors find the Padlock’s ranch vacation packages via Internet searches.

In addition to the ranch work that guests help with, they do also have leisure time – often in the afternoon when they might choose to go for a scenic horseback ride or lounge at the ranch’s log-style guest lodge that overlooks a valley and creek that is home to mountain lion, bear, bobcat, mule deer and more.

Cattle drive on hillside at Padlock Ranch

Hunting popular, too

Fee hunting can also be a profitable form of agritourism, as Martin, South Dakota, landowner David Hauck learned years ago.

Hauck, who has been a lifelong pheasant hunter, hosted his first group of Colorado hunters 13 years ago.

When they left, they handed him some money. “There was $400, and a lightbulb went on,” says Hauck about his foray into the agritourism business.

Today, he calls his business Lazy H Hunting and hosts hunters on his cropland most weekends during the pheasant hunting season.

He adds, “People in the Midwest don’t realize the added value tourism has for their land. A lot of people are scared of starting an agtourism business.”

Over the years, Hauck has also learned that people will pay for a great experience. He says, “I’m always afraid I’m charging too much, but if you provide quality, people are willing to pay.”

He reminds those who are interested in starting an agritourism venture that it does require people skills. “You have to like being around people; think about how you would like to be treated.”

With that he says, “Bite the bullet and do it. Agritourism is not going to be an overnight success, but if you work at it, it can be a success.”

Finding a balance

It’s been three short years since the Padlock Ranch jumped into the tourism business, but Nunn says they see the potential it offers as an asset for the ranch.

“It is a good thing. We need more agritourism,” he says, noting the revenue it can generate as well as the connection it can help foster between the urban public and the ag community.

How can you tap agritourism opportunities on your property? Jantzen encourages looking at all you have to offer through the eyes of a potential guest.

The stars, coyotes howling, the scenic views, the opportunity to experience the cowboy culture … “People find those things spellbinding,” says Jantzen.

Nunn adds, “Focus on what makes your operation unique and different. At the Padlock we focus on our size as a means for providing ample ranch and cowboying experiences. We also focus on the ranch’s rich cowboy history.”

To others considering a ranch tourism venture, Nunn also says, “If you can delve into this with the least amount of added fixed cost, you may find profit.

But you really need to be careful to manage – and minimize – your overhead expense.”

He continues, “It must be managed with a sound business vision that fits your individual ranch, and is not an entity that should be added to a ranch without appropriate consideration.”

Additionally, Nunn and Jantzen emphasize the ability to work with people. “The success of your business hinges on their satisfaction,” points out Nunn.

He adds, “You need a good set of people skills and must enjoy catering to guests’ needs and desires. You must have the desire to share your ranch with people coming from backgrounds that may be quite different and even conflicting from your own.

You have to be prepared for that. But overall, if you enjoy people and sharing your way of life with others, agtourism can be a rich and satisfying experience that allows you to meet people from all over the world.”  end_mark

PHOTOS

TOP: The expansion of the Padlock Ranch since its origins in 1943 has grown to include agritourism. Photo courtesy Robin Vinson.
BOTTOM: Padlock guests participate in a cattle drive on the ranch. The Padlock’s Wolf Mountain Lodge is situated on a hillside overlooking Ash Creek in the valley below. Photo courtesy Padlock Ranch.

More about the Padlock’s ranch vacations

The Padlock Ranch offers its ranch vacations from May through September – with hunting packages offered during the fall.

Guests stay at the Wolf Creek Lodge, which the ranch built specifically for its ranch vacation venture in 2008. The lodge can accommodate 10 to 12 people and ranch vacation packages require a five-night minimum stay, with meals included.

Cattle drives and stockmanship are an integral part of the Padlock ranch experience. Over the course of the summer, guests are frequently moving cow-calf pairs to pastures, assisting with branding, sorting cattle and trailing them to summer rangeland, and then gathering yearlings as fall approaches.

For more information, visit www.padlockranch.com

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