ACHIEVING YOUR DREAMS: Wyoming rancher beats odds to build sprawling operation
April 3, 2015
Travis Krein recalls that as a youth cattle and horses were about his only interests. He didn't participate in sports or many other activities in high school. He just wanted to be a rancher.
Conventional wisdom is that unless an individual can inherit a ranch or marry into the family that has one it's nearly impossible to become a rancher in this day and age. Krein's father frequently told him that, Travis remembers.
But at age 36, Krein is proof that a guy can sometimes beat the odds. With the help of a friendly banker and hard work, he and his wife, Katie, own more than 4,000 head of cattle that run on mostly leased land about evenly divided between Sioux County, Neb., and Niobrara County, Wyo.
Theirs is a road seldom travelled, but it has worked for them.
“You need to surround yourself with people who are smarter that you are.”
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"Since we didn't have much to lose in the first place, we took some risks that some others probably wouldn't have taken," says Krein. "I've probably done more things wrong than right, but I have learned from my mistakes. Some days I still have more questions than answers. It's kind of strange how things work out sometimes. We've been blessed."
Krein was 14 when he bought his first cow—a 13-year-old registered Angus that he paid $1,300 for at a sale in South Dakota. The tab took all the savings he'd accumulated from his 4-H market steer project that included a $300 interest-free loan from the Niobrara County Fair Board for having the top 4-H beef record book.
When he was 16, Krein, who grew up north of Lusk, went to artificial insemination school and picked up several AI jobs from neighbors. He used that income to purchase a heifer from the well-known Windy Acres Angus Ranch at Harrison. Ironically, the Kreins now own the Windy Acres headquarters, comprised mostly of a large feedlot just south of Harrison, and their cattle run on much of the land that the firm possessed.
With the help of his parents who agreed to run the cows he was buying when he had the money, Krein was able to add another cow now and then, but had to pay the pasture bills. By the time he was a sophomore at Niobrara County High at Lusk in 1995, he had four bulls that he had raised and made telephone calls to sell them.
"I started with the A's in the phone book and called everyone that I knew was a rancher and told them about my bulls," he relates. "I started by asking $1,700 apiece for them and kept lowering the prices as I went through the alphabet. By the time I got to the R's I had all four bulls sold for at least $1,300."
After graduating in 1997, Krein spent two years in college—one year at Sheridan College and another at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. He also continued working for the neighboring Cross A Ranch, just as he had during the summers when he was in high school.
In 2000, Krein rented a small place near his parents' ranch and married Katie, a neighbor girl that he began dating when they were high school sophomores.
"Come to think of it, maybe I did have more interests than just cattle and horses in high school," Krein says with a grin. "Katie and I were pretty sweet on one another then and still are. She's good with a horse and has helped me with a lot of the decision-making. She shares the passion I have for ranching and raising good cattle."
The Kreins have five young cowgirls – Bethany, 11; Rachel, 9; Hannah, 8; Sarah, 5; and Leah, 2.
Early in their marriage, Travis continued doing AI work, broke and sold horses and was running out of room for his growing cowherd. The next year they saw a newspaper advertisement for 7,500 acres of pastureland for rent in Sioux County. It was placed there by Nature Conservancy, which had purchased the land, located about 10 miles south of Harrison, when Windy Acres left the community.
"We talked to our banker about it," Krein recalls. "All we had for collateral was 25 cows and they weren't all paid for. But he agreed to back us. Our bid was accepted. Now we didn't have nearly enough cows, but we took cattle in to pasture and formed partnerships on other cows so we could stock the place."
Krein also did embryo transplants, placing eggs from his registered cows in commercial cows so he could grow the registered cowherd and have more bulls to sell.
Since then, the Kreins have continually expanded their operation, working out various lease agreements. All their cattle run in pastures within 60 miles of Harrison. They own about 2,000 commercial cows, 2,000 feeder calves and about 450 registered cows.
`About 10 percent of the latter are Herefords to help fulfill the needs of their bull customers who want to crossbreed. The rest are black Angus.
He notes that the Herefords aren't just an afterthought. Most of them have a Line One heritage and were purchased from a producer in Kansas.
"We have some pretty creative arrangements," Krein says about the various lease arrangements he has put together.
"Some are long-term and others are for a year at a time. We leased both the land and the cows from one rancher and then paid him to put out the salt and the check the water," Krein notes. "It was the first regular paycheck he'd received in his life.
"Another time, a family friend bought a place, spent lots of money putting in a couple of new wells, replaced some pipelines and fences, then he leased it to us. A year ago in March, we bought that land, about 4,000 acres, from him," Krein says. "That and the Windy Acres headquarters at Harrison where we run the bulls that we sell are the extent of the land we own. Everything else is leased."
Krein adds that in his view the landowner is always right when he leases land. "We do whatever he wants us to do. If he likes rotation grazing, that's what we do. If he hasn't done that, then we don't do it. We try to keep the stress to a minimum and make it easy for the landowners."
Although he notes that he doesn't have too many rules and will change his ways if he finds something that works better, Krein admits to having some guidelines that he follows.
They include always making sure he sees the mother when he buys a herd bull.
"I want to know how the cow has held up and what she's raised," he says. "I want cows that weigh between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds and have volume and capacity so we can get as much performance (weaning weight and yearling weight) as possible.
"We're fortunate to live in an area that has some of the best grass in the world. But we make our cows take care of themselves and run on what we have to offer. During some of the recent drought years such as 2012, we made them work really hard. We fed a lot of straw that year. It was tough."
Krein notes that when they were starting to build their operation they didn't have much hay to feed even in good years. But as they've expanded they have acquired several center pivots and now have considerable alfalfa hay to feed. Part of their program includes running some 1,500 of their cows on corn stalks in North Platte Valley fields around Mitchell and Scottsbluff.
"We usually feed whatever is cheapest," he says. "A few times we've bought something because it was cheap, even when we really didn't need it. If the quality of our feed isn't too good, we'll add a mineral program. This year we've got enough alfalfa that we don't need that. We work closely with a nutritionist who helps us develop least-cost rations from what we have available."
The Kreins, who call their operation Broken Arrow Angus and have the Broken Arrow brand registered in both Nebraska and Wyoming, have five hired men. Each is in charge of a segment of the operation. He allows them to run cattle of their own. One of the men who has been with them six years has 90 cows.
"They're cowboys and good ones, he says. "We do everything on horseback, and that includes the brandings. We don't make our men put up hay. We have hired Monty Hamaker, whose place is south of Harrison, to do our haying on a contract basis. He does an excellent job.
"I don't believe in putting a cowboy on a windrower or a farmer on a horse," Krein continues. "We are blessed with excellent help. I heard once that to be successful you need to surround yourself with people who are smarter that you are. We've tried to do that."
The hired men, he notes, aren't real fond of the registered cattle because they require ear-tagging and weighing the calves at birth, as well as considerable other record-keeping.
"That's mostly my job," he says. "Of course, that allows me to keep close tabs on them. We sell between 150 and 200 bulls a year. Most of them go into central Wyoming, South Dakota and the Nebraska Sandhills, but we've also sold them as far away as Nevada and Texas. Most of our buyers have environments similar to ours.
"We'll start selling the bulls about March 10, all of them privately. I spend a lot of time on the phone with bull customers. In recent years, quite a few have told me to pick out 10 or so head for them. They don't have the time to spare to come and look at the bulls. We also make the deliveries."
The Kreins sell all of their commercial calves at weaning and then buy heifers from their bull customers to breed and sell as bred heifers or to retain for their cowherd.
"Most of our decisions are based on cash flow. Everything we have is for sale if we can make a profit," he says.
In reflecting upon the past 15 years since he and Katie began ranching on a shoestring, as they say, Travis admits that he's surprised how things have worked out.
"I really think there are a lot opportunities in agriculture today," he says. "One of the reasons is because of the ages of many of today's producers. They are wanting to wind down their operations and don't have anyone in the family to take over. But they don't want to sell the land, so they are willing to make arrangements with someone else.
"We've also had favorable interest rates in recent years. That has helped us a lot. We've had a good time putting things together and feel fortunate that it's worked out pretty well so far."