Forced to diversify, Wyoming ranchers launch USDA-certified meat processing plant

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Cathryn Kerns isn’t living the ranching life she thought she was when she married husband Taylor six years ago.

In 2016, the couple thought they were raising their family on the Kerns Ranch near Sheridan, the sixth generation to work the plot of land and raise beef cattle.

But that dream never fully materialized. Instead, Taylor, Cathryn, and other members of the Kerns family had to shift gears to survive.

They first branched out into dude ranching and tourism-oriented cattle ranches, and the Kerns now operate one of only three USDA-certified meat processing plants in Wyoming.

The Double Herringbone Ranch

Located near Ranchester, the Double Rafter Ranch was established before Wyoming was even a state. The family legacy was passed down for five generations before economic conditions caught up with Taylor’s father, Dana, and his brothers, who made the difficult decision 30 years ago to sell off large tracts of land, Cathryn said. .

“Between the ranches breaking through the generations and still having to support three families instead of just one, but what really did was those years with those 18% interest rates,” a- she told the Cowboy State Daily. “It killed the family business. And in one generation, we went from about 15,000 acres to about 1,000.”


Wyoming meat is processed at Western Heritage Meats in Sheridan County. (Courtesy picture)

“real” experience

Cathryn said Dana and her brothers realized they had to do more than just sell land – they had to change their business model. So they imagined the Double Rafter Cattle Drives, an intense and immersive “real life” experience in which tourists from all over the world drive cattle from one pasture to another.

“We move cattle about 30 to 50 miles, just like we have for 130 years,” Cathryn said. “It has allowed our family ranch to support Generation Six, and now our son (aged 2) is the second youngest of Generation Seven.”

really beef

Opening the family ranch to tourists was just one of the Kerns family’s initiatives to keep the Double Rafter Ranch alive. In 2017, Cathryn and Taylor launched “Truly Beef,” a farm-to-table operation in which the couple sold their beef to guests at cattle drives.

However, they soon realized that from an economic perspective the processing costs were unsustainable, and in June 2020 the Kerns discovered that the processor they had to drive for three hours to use was closing its doors.

“The processor closest to us retired, and the new owners had their own business, so they had to cancel everyone on the books,” Cathryn said. “What has left a whole group of us farm-to-table producers scratching their heads and wondering what do we do now?”


Wyoming meat is processed at Western Heritage Meats in Sheridan County. (Courtesy picture)

Western Heritage Meats

The answer, it seemed, was to diversify the ranch even further.

Last year, with the help of investors, the Kerns launched Western Heritage Meats, which became the third USDA-certified meat processing plant in the state of Wyoming. The plant serves hundreds of small farmers and ranchers across the region, processing beef, pork, lamb and even yak.

“Our meat processing customers are farm-to-table people looking for a USDA-inspected meat processing facility that will allow them to sell their own products,” Cathryn said. “So all of our customers sell their own products to grocery stores, to restaurants, to customers across the country.”

Along with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their meat is processed to the highest safety and health standards, Cathryn said there are other benefits for customers.

“We actually have a kind of DIY shipping station with a cold, clean room and people can spread their beef out on the table, put together little packages – and we have all the shipping supplies they need in this room,” she said. “This is a free service for all of our Western Heritage customers.”

But what Cathryn calls the “coolest” part of the DIY shipping operation are the discounted shipping rates the operation has negotiated on behalf of customers.

“It cost $400 to ship 20 pounds of meat to California, which was one of the cheapest places to ship to and from,” she said. “We were able to bring those prices down to $100, which allows our customers to maybe incorporate some of that price into their business model. So that opens a lot of doors for a lot of people.

Every percentage point counts

The “Big Four” meatpacking plants (Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and Marfrig) do more than 80% of the processing in the United States, Taylor said.

“Because they have an oligopoly in the market, they can pretty much fix the price,” he said.

And since there are thousands of small ranching operations in the United States, ranchers are often forced to accept whatever price is offered to them.

“It’s so extreme that the 2017 Wyoming census showed ranchers in Wyoming operating on a 2% margin,” Taylor said.

“In 2017, if you look at what the market was like at that time, let’s say a five-and-a-half-week-old calf would have made you about $800,” Cathryn explained. “So 2% would be $16. How many cows do you need to keep your electricity bill? »

strength in numbers

That’s why the Kerns chose to go through the rigorous steps required to establish a USDA-certified meat processing plant in Sheridan County to benefit more than the family operation. Their mission became to help other small ranches survive.

“Since 1980, 40% of family ranches have closed,” Taylor said. “And so for there to be any sort of long-term sustainability in farming, the power has to go back to the rancher to be able to actually earn a living.”

Cathryn said that through her experience she has learned that small livestock operations cannot succeed in the industry without an outside source of income. And for many family ranchers, farm-to-table sales are that outside source of income.

“The ranch didn’t pay for itself,” she said. “We couldn’t pay for our land only with cows. We had to branch out to survive – and we branched out into livestock transportation, into Truly Beef and into Western Heritage Meat Co.”

miracles

Cathryn said she also believes divine intervention played a role in saving the family ranch.

“We had a few guests at the cattle drive in August 2019, the year before this business was started, who asked if they could pray for us,” she said. “And in that prayer, they said the Lord meant that you’re going to leave the family ranch for a while, and your family will take over while you start something else.”

With no intention of leaving the land they loved, the statement seemed ridiculous. But less than a year later, their meat processor retired, and the Kerns found themselves at a crossroads: leaving the ranch to start something new or witnessing the end of their family’s legacy.

“We were desperate for something, and Taylor happened to have a draft business plan for a meat processing plant,” Cathryn said. “And it just so happened that a retired USDA inspector (who had become a) consultant became available, and they fell from the sky. We had the right investors with the right hearts that fell from the sky. The right property became available at the right price which ticked all the boxes for everything we needed.

This “miracle” has become a blessing not only for the Kerns family, but for dozens of other smallholders who can now use the USDA-certified facility at a lower cost, allowing family ranches like theirs to continue to exist.

“It’s just a miracle that it happened, especially in the time frame,” she continued. “I know of many other factories seeking USDA inspection who have been trying for years, and we did it within months. So, that’s just mind blowing to me.

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