Stan and Mary Flitner’s Diamond Tail Ranches
Challenges of their Second Century
Stan and Mary Flitner’s Diamond Tail Ranch, near Shell, Wyoming, carries on a family cattle-ranching operation that has been in business for since 1906. Five generations of Flitners have taken care of their land and livestock and handed the reins on to the next generation. Cattle ranching for a profit is not easy. Each day brings new challenges. These two Wyoming natives have persevered despite all of the obstacles of the 21st. century such as unreasonable government regulations, low cattle prices, dry years, cold winters, and high gas prices. Stan and Mary’s daily lives revolve around taking care of their ranch, their livestock, and their family. Their goal is to maintain and preserve for generations to come what was started over 100 years ago.
Arthur Flitner, Stan’s grandfather, came into Shell Valley, located in Big Horn County, on the west side of the Big Horn Mountains in 1906. He bought 160 acres of private land, 160 head of cattle, and the Diamond Tail brand and started his ranching operation. Since then, the ranch has grown to over 4,000 deeded acres, 30,000 acres of BLM, and 6,000 acres of USFS leased grazing lands. It runs several hundred head of cattle and horses.
Stan and Mary Flitner met and married while they were both attending college at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. Mary’s family, the Budd’s, are a well-respected old-time Wyoming livestock family from the Big Piney area. The Flitners operate the day-to-day ranching operation today with their son Tim Flitner, his wife Jamie, and their two children.
Stan says, “We have been dead broke two or three times in the past years but somehow we survived.” When asked how do you survive making a living ranching in a world where 98.5 percent of the people in America live in an urban society with no idea where a T-bone steak comes from before it arrives in their local grocery store, Stan said, “With less than one and a half percent of the total US population producing food and fiber you need to attempt to get the word out to the world what you are trying to accomplish.” Stan and Mary have attempted to do just that. Stan is a past State President of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. This organization has, for over 125 years, promoted livestock production worldwide. During his term as Stock Growers’ president, Stan made numerous trips around the country and to Washington, D.C. to meet with elected officials and others promoting the livestock industry. Mary was appointed by former Wyoming Governor Sullivan and served six years on the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission advising and conferring with State Fish and Game biologists and other interested parties about wildlife/livestock issues.
Mary explains how the cattle business was in the 1970s, “In 1973, we sold our calves in the fall for a record price. We were sure we would never see another bad day on the range. How wrong we were. President Nixon devalued the dollar and froze consumer beef prices. Our whole cattle industry went into free fall. The next year, in the fall, our calves were worth half what they had brought the year before and our production costs were going up. We were in big financial trouble in the space of one year. This is how it goes in the cattle ranching business when you are operating on credit. We found out it can be chicken or feathers in a heart beat if the wrong thing happens to influence the cattle market.” Mary went on to say, “After the cattle market collapsed in the 70s, the l980s were not much better. Cattle ranching was a like pushing a wagon uphill. Life became a day-by-day struggle just to survive. We did not believe there was anything to do but pull our boots on each morning, catch our horses, and go at it one more day. We did not wish to fail so we pressed on.” Their key to survival has been adapting to current situations. As Stan pointed out, “We needed to adapt to changing times and markets and not stay sedentary in our thinking. The key has been being able to think beyond the two assets most ranchers typically sell to raise money--land and cattle.” With the help from their four children and friends and neighbors the Flitners tried everything to stay afloat in the livestock business including running range sheep, guiding big game hunters, selling electric fence, starting colts, raising ranch horses for sale, harvesting timber, buying light-weight calves and feeding them out, and selling custom-cut ranch beef. Stan said, “Each of these activities helped us survive the low cattle-market cycle and saved our ranch.”
Stan and Mary also began to evaluate what had taken place on the ranch in the past and how some practices and thinking may need to be changed. Stan said, “Opening up a dialog with some environmental groups may not be all-bad. Being open to new ideas is important.”
Stan and his family before him had spent countless hours working to restore an oxbow along a creek near the ranch headquarters and even more time creating wetlands in adjacent areas. Stan said, “We had been trying to drain this swamp for three generations. I started worrying when I no longer was seeing frogs. I figured that if a frog can’t swim in this marsh there was something wrong.” Stan subsequently created fifteen acres of healthy wetlands in cooperation with Wyoming’s State Fish and Game, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. A myriad of bird and animal species and frogs are once again using this wetlands area.
Many ranchers in the Shell Valley still help each other with projects such as branding calves, putting up hay, and trailing cattle to the summer grazing pastures high in the Big Horn Mountains. This type of cooperation is almost unheard of in urban societies where no one knows or cares about their neighbors. Stan says, “Ranching is a way of life where most people depend on your kids and grandkids working with you and also your neighbors and friends helping out “
Stan and Mary have come to rely more and more on their son Tim to carry on the Diamond Tail Ranching day-to-day operations. Stan says, “Tim handles the heavy day-to-day ranch responsibilities and we are around here to fill in as needed. Mary and I are still horseback someplace most days and we go to our Big Horns Mountain cow camp in the summer months to check on our cows and horses.”
Stan & Mary have eight grandchildren scattered around the country. Mary said this about her grandkids, “Stan and I have high hopes that some of our grandkids will show an interest in ranching. We will just have to wait and see how these hopes play out down the road.”
When Stan was asked what are the some of the most important issues facing the ranching industry in 2007, he replied, “Our ranching communities in the west are enormously threatened by the diminishing number of viable ranch families. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management agencies have little understanding or commitment toward the importance of the ranching culture and its stewardship of the public and private landscapes. The loss of our public-land grazing allotments certainly threatens our industry and contributes to a West made up of trophy homes and ranchettes. The problems these homes and ranchettes will create for air, water, soils and fire will be greater than anything the federal sector has faced to date. Also, the present federal policy of restricting grazing on many allotments is not working. Look at the west today. It is on fire. Increased grazing to help consume some of the build up of fuels seems to be one of the only viable solutions to the recent fire problems in the west.”
For the Flitners, the real value of ranching goes far beyond the price of calves in the fall. Ranching is a way of life. Open-range cattle production has always been a gamble where ranchers have very little control over worldwide events, markets, and weather. The Flitners have lived with this fact over five generations. As Stan says, “This is part of the price you pay to live this ranching life style. We love it and hope it continues for generations to come.”
For more information concerning the Diamond Tail Ranch, contact:
Stan and Mary Flitner
Diamond Tail Ranch
3288 Road #36
Greybull, Wyoming 82426
Story by Mike Laughlin
Mike Laughlin lives on a ranch in the Ruby Mountains near Lamoille, Nevada. He takes in pasture cattle; day works for ranchers, and writes.
Photos by Lee Raine