WIRE Programs

By Marlene Fritz, Communications Specialist
October, 1997


BOISE, Idaho—You may be doing things right, but are you doing the right things? Raised in U.S. businesses, that question is now being asked among Intermountain ranchers.

After third-generation cattle producer Roy Dunford went to Idaho Falls last year to learn more about Wyoming’s touted "Western Integrated Ranch/Farm Education"—or WIRE —program, he came home to Montpelier and started making changes on the ranch he manages.

Not only did he establish rotational grazing plans and begin fertilizing range and croplands, but he divided the cattle operation into three separate enterprises—yearlings, cow-calf and hay—to get "a little more of an idea which was making money and which was losing money."

John Hewlett, farm management specialist for the University of Wyoming, says, "near as I can tell, in an ag vocabulary, profit is a four-letter word." That’s what Hewlett, and members of regional WIRE teams hope to change through the five-day WIRE program, which has reached more than 400 ranchers and farmers in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, South Dakota, Idaho, Nebraska, Saskatchewan, Colorado and California since 1992.

Supported in part by an USDA sustainable agriculture grant, University of Idaho extension faculty will bring the team-taught training to Idaho livestock operators beginning Nov. 4 in Montpelier and Jan. 6 in Challis. They’ll take participants through an intense process of establishing strategic goals, inventorying their resources, exploring possible enterprises, developing enterprise plans, and estimating a flow of resources needed to put those plans into effect. Ranchers will also learn how to monitor and adjust the plans they’ve implemented.

"We look at the whole operation to identify places that are not paying the bills or places where they have excess labor they could be doing something else with," says Jim Hawkins, the university extension educator in Custer County. Ranches might diversify into fee hunting, fee fishing, dude ranches, or "maybe they’ve got a hired man who’s got some free time who could open a shop on the outfit to do some custom welding."

Sometimes hesitant to use the word "holistic," WIRE developers say it integrates the physical, biological, financial and human resources of the agricultural operation. And, they say participants should attend in pairs or teams from each ranch, not as individuals. "you almost change your vocabulary because of this shift," says Hewlett. "If people take it as a team, they’ve got everybody pulling for the same goals and talking the same language."

Near Devil’s Tower, Wyo., fifth-generation rancher Ogden Driskill says the WIRE training changed what had been a "very traditional, cattle-type operation" to one where sheep now control the noxious range weed leafy spurge and where "we’re constantly looking at different things to do."

"The opportunities to diversify are unlimited for virtually any ranch," says Driskill. "The hardest part is to sort out the ones that are going to be profitable for the future."

Gene Gade, University of Wyoming extension educator in Crook County, says too many ranchers "talk about the lifestyle and get hung up on particular enterprises and don’t think as much about the economics as probably they should. They say. "I’m a cowboy, and the only thing I can do on this ranch is raise calves."

But if the goal is to stay on the ranch and to pass it on to their children, the only way they’ll get there is by making a profit. Gade says after WIRE training, ranchers are "just more methodical about the whole business of analysis, decision-making and planning. It gets them away from knee-jerks and Band-Aids."

"Some of our ranchers have viewed wildlife in the past as a nuisance, something to be got rid of, something that ate your hay," Gade says. "more and more of them are using wildlife as a resource—even for profit—and that’s quite a shift in thinking."

Because the WIRE training helps ranchers isolate limiting factors and determine the precise resource flows demanded by changes in their operations, it eases risk management, says University of Idaho extension educator Joel Packham in Bear Lake County. And, with cattle prices rebounding, now is a good time to explore risks and to make the changes that will help ranches weather the next downturn.

"People who are in control of their business know they can’t predict with certainty what’s going to happen, but they have a general plan of where they’re going to go," says Wilson Gray, University of Idaho extension agricultural economist in Twin Falls. "If things change, they adapt and go on toward their goal. They’re among the few who are still making $50 a head at the bottom of the price cycle."

WIRE programs offered across Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Idaho help managers manage for today and tomorrow. Contact your local county extension office about attending a course near you. Or take a look at the WIRE WWW pages at



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