In 2009, I had the good fortune to help Bob Taylor acquire the Lonetree Ranch in southwestern Wyoming. At that same time I met his wonderful daughter Marissa, whom I subsequently served with on the Western Landowners Alliance board.
An Idea is Born
Of course, board work isn’t Marissa’s day job: She works on the ranch, where they raise organic, grass-fed cattle. And for about a decade she also handled its administrative duties. But doing all that admin work, while balancing the demands of a daughter, wife and mother? That’s a lot of hats to wear. Based on her brother’s suggestion, Marissa outsourced the administrative duties to a specialist, which gave she and her husband more head space to ask smarter questions about ranch procedures.
“Getting outside administrative support made a big difference,” she told me. “The questions were beginning to get outside my scope, so I was open to bringing in outside expertise to make our operation better.”
The additional help didn’t just relieve Marissa of some onerous duties – it improved organization of the ranch’s data, which enabled them to ask better questions about how to improve operations. Which is why she sat down next to veteran rancher James Rogers to talk at breakfast during a Western Landowners Alliance meeting in 2021. (As it happens, I also met James through the alliance.)
A “Master’s Degree” in Ranch Management
In 2019, James had completed a nine-year effort to “rebuild and rebrand” the historic Winecup Gamble Ranch. And if the challenge of turning around the massive Nevada ranch’s infrastructure while dealing with issues such as drought wasn’t enough, the nearly million-acre ranch also is an enormous “checkerboard” of private and public lands, subject to different land rules. As he told me: “I call it my master’s degree in ranching management.”
Fresh from that ‘ground-up’ experience, Rogers recognized the genius in what Marissa had been able to accomplish by hiring a remote administrative assistant for the ranch. “I always had administrative support and had seen the value of it.”
Which got Marissa and James thinking this could be more than a one-off event. “It didn’t take long to realize this was a business that could be scaled to help multiple operations, both big and small,” James recalled. “I had a circle of friends who were interested in trying it out,” added Marissa.
And why stop at one service? “I thought, what else could we do?” James recalled. “I was fascinated by the idea of outsourcing administrative support to other ranches and then layering on more ranch support services. And that led us into mapping and creating databases of information for ranches.”
Ranch Asset Management – Northway Ranch Services
What had started as a way to solve one aspect of operations had evolved into a full ranch asset management program — Northway Ranch Services was born. “And since then we have been building the plane while flying it,” James said with a laugh.
Over the years at Mirr Ranch Group, we have seen many first-time ranch owners hire the existing ranch manager to carry on as they always have. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s important to remember that just because a ranch has been run one way doesn’t mean that’s how it always should be managed. There are many operations that new and existing landowners should reconsider given technologies and procedures developed for improved management in recent years.
That’s where Northway Ranch Services can help. Their deep experience enables them to create a full ranch asset management plan for new and existing ranch owners. Northway helps an owner determine a focused and efficient management approach for their property, then designs a soup-to-nuts program for them to follow for things like soils, livestock, water and grasses, as well as accounting and finances. Once the plan is developed, they can manage its deployment and monitor its effectiveness.
The Data and More
Northway enables ranchers to access sophisticated data about aspects of their land to manage it more effectively, but Marissa noted the process begins at a more basic level. “Every day has started with us trying to answer a question for ourselves.”
She illustrated with the example of a mapping database created for irrigation and water rights on her ranch. “My husband has all the information for our ranch in his head. He knows where all the headgates are, when they are to be opened, et cetera. But if something happened to him it would probably take 10 years for us to replace that knowledge. So we created a database with all that information mapped out. And you can use that same database for things like fencing, wildlife … and create a knowledge base.”
“When I got to Winecup Ranch there was really nothing,” James recalled about the path he took to developing its asset management plan. “So we started creating a digital map for everything on the ranch.” Internally, the digital map was valuable, and James later experienced additional upside.
“A state Fish & Wildlife person came over to discuss some (improvements) we wanted to do. I pulled up the map, along with some pictures, and showed them the work I wanted to do, and he said, ‘Hey, looks like you have everything here, go ahead and do what you’re proposing.’ I felt empowered by that information. It also was critical to have that information when it was time to sell the ranch, both for due diligence and to pass on that knowledge to the new ranch managers.”
Empowering You to Leverage Your Most Valuable Resource: Time
Northway’s mixture of asset management planning and continuing services has proven a powerful combination: The clients of Marissa and James manage nearly 10 million acres in the West. Pretty impressive for a team that has never numbered more than a dozen.
The company is also assisting the Grazewell Initiative, which seeks to provide ranchers with monitoring and education to speed their adoption of regenerative ranching practices. It’s a huge undertaking. Civil Eats reports that the “cooperative Country Natural Beef plans to enroll all of its member ranches, which span 6.5 million acres across the Western U.S., in the program.”
James and Marissa told me that helping ranchers better manage their operations has an impact beyond just efficiency – it also enables ranch owners to focus on the work they enjoy. As it says on their website: “Empowering you to leverage your most valuable resource: time.”
“If you’re a rancher, you have to handle the business administration of the ranch, even if it’s not your favorite thing,” James said. “That’s where our name comes from: We want you to tell us your ‘true north,’ what you love to do. Then let us step in and help with the other work.
Ken Mirr is the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group. Have a question about the West or investing in a ranch? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.