Since settlers first headed West in the early 1800s, cattle have been a staple source of food and clothing. Homesteaders relied on animals to feed their families and generate income that allowed them to purchase essential supplies. In turn, ranching became a lifestyle for many a family in the West.
In 1886, when Tom Powers and his family arrived in Wyoming after a covered wagon journey from Missouri, they, too, built their life around cattle. After wintering in a dugout at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, the Powers’ homesteaded land in the spring of 1887.
To this day, that homestead has stayed in the hands of Powers’ descendants, and cattle-related pursuits still account for much of their income, but the years in between haven’t been without struggles. Now, sixth-generation rancher Taylor Kerns works cattle in the same region with his wife, Cathryn, and their son Jack.
“More of our current family came in 1902,” Taylor reveals. “Through marriages, they ended up putting the places together. My great grandfather, John Wesley Kerns, had a very large ranch out there. He gave each of his sons a 300-head ranch as a wedding present. My grandfather was the youngest, and they couldn’t find any land in that area by the time he married, so he ended up outside of Blacktail, Montana.
“In the 1960s, my grandfather’s oldest brother passed away from polio, so that gave my grandfather an opportunity to come back to the homestead,” Taylor continues. “He ended up buying the original homestead and selling the Blacktail place. That’s where my father was predominantly raised, right there on the homestead.”
Born from Adversity
Although every generation of Taylor’s ancestors faced trials inherent with the family ranching lifestyle, the 1970s brought arguably the most trying times, not only for the Kerns family, but also for ranchers across the West.
“The high interest rates of the late 1970s and early 1980s were brutal on family ranching,” Taylor explains. “Forty percent of family ranches have gone out of business since then. We were almost one of them.”
“Between passing down ranches through multiple generations, through multiple siblings, things got broken up,” Cathryn adds. “Between generations, the ranch became smaller and smaller. Our family ended up selling piece by piece until we were down to about a thousand acres with the homestead At some point, even more was sold, and all that was left of the original homestead was 160 acres—just the homestead proper with the house and the barn.”
The heartbreaking reality of an economy that doesn’t support family-based ranching operations like the Kerns’ ranch made maintaining the lifestyle that had sustained them for generations almost impossible. Financial hardship nearly drove Taylor’s grandparents out of the cattle business, but ingenuity passed down through generations kept the family from going under.
“My grandfather lost pretty much everything. He sold the homestead there to my uncle, so my dad started with nothing,” Taylor reveals. “My mom and dad were able to buy a little 200-acre piece through sheer determination and power of will.”
It certainly wasn’t luck that kept the ranch alive. Taylor’s father and brothers realized saving their family’s homestead would require out-of-the-box thinking, something that comes naturally to those raised on a cattle ranch. That’s how the idea for Double Rafter Cattle Drives was born more than 30 years ago—as a means to maintain the ranch and simultaneously introduce more people to the cattle-raising lifestyle.
“We invite guests out to our ranch and put ‘em through hell, which is really just the real day to day work that we do,” Cathryn explains. “We trail cattle about 30 to 50 miles to the base of the Big Horn Mountains from our ranch. We travel up the same trails that we’ve been going down since the 1800s. Our cattle drive guests help us move cattle, and we teach them a little bit about working cows. By the end of the week, it goes from chaos to being able to accomplish a job with everybody working together.”
Those cattle drives have changed the lives of countless guests, including many who return year after year for more adventures.
“The heart of the trips is just what happens naturally,” Cathryn shares. “The trips that end up being the hardest are the ones we get the most return customers. We’ve had some guests that have been coming for 10, 11, and 12 years.”
Truly Ingenious Family Ranching
By the time Cathryn joined the family—after meeting her now-husband when she was a guest on a cattle drive—even the Double Rafter guests weren’t generating enough income to sustain the family ranching operation. More ingenuity led to the birth of yet another business, Truly Beef, which allows the Kerns family to sell their beef directly to consumers.
“We had to come up with something else,” Cathryn says. “Truly Beef is where we sell our beef direct to consumer, mostly through our website. We also have some restaurants that we supply. Cattle drives are an amazing way for us to educate the public on agriculture. Truly Beef is more specific to educating people about food.”
For Cathryn, preparing to launch Truly Beef started with equipping herself to fully understand the process of taking an animal from pasture to plate.
“Beef is so much more than what we get in the store,” she reveals. “I’ve learned so much about crafting beef—good beef with good flavor. It’s just like wine. The breed of cattle that you raise is like the type of grape that you plant. They all have different qualities and produce different things. Where you graze those animals, the type of soil, the quality of the grasses, even the types of grasses that they’re grazing, that all contributes to the beef.”
By selling their own ranch-bred beef directly to consumers looking for a quality meat product, the Kerns family eliminates the retailer middleman. Not only does this lead to a higher profit margin for the rancher, but it also allows for a more wholesome product to reach the consumer at an affordable price.
“When you buy meat at the grocery store, you are buying a commodity product and you’re probably paying more for it,” Cathryn explains. “The rancher who raised that animal is getting two percent or less of the purchase price. That means they’re making approximately $16 per animal. So, the consumer is not getting a quality product, and the rancher is getting next to nothing for all their hard work.”
Taking the Next Step
While selling their own meat helped increase profitability for the ranch, it also opened the Kerns’ eyes to another gap in the industry—meat processing.
Currently, ranchers who want to market their own beef farm-to-table are severely limited by the availability of packing plants that will harvest and process meat at a fair price, making profit nearly impossible. Cathryn found passion in initiating change.
“I would like to see my fellow family rancher actually be able to make a living,” Cathryn says, passion evident in her voice. “The 2017 Wyoming census showed that Wyoming ranchers operate on a two percent margin. The market at that point would’ve been about $800 a calf, so that means on average, ranchers were making $16 per head. We can’t survive on two percent. Things are going to have to change.”
In 2020, the Kerns family took another major step toward change as they launched Western Heritage Meat Company, a USDA-certified processing plant located in their hometown of Sheridan.
“Our focus is to help the farm to table people succeed so they can have some viability,” Cathryn explains. “Western Heritage Meat Company is looking to help family ranchers like us and farmers that are looking to process their meat so they can sell it nationwide like we do.”
While that goal might sound like the Kerns are creating more competition in an already limited market, Cathryn and Taylor have a different mindset.
“There is enough room at the table for all of the producers who are raising and quality product that is genuinely unique to us,” Cathryn continues. “Each ranch has a different story. People want to know where their food is coming from. That’s why farm to table is the only way for the rancher to have any sort of sustainability. Our goal with the processing plant is to help ranchers sell their beef that is as unique as fine wine.”
Another catalyst for change that came with the addition of a processing plant involved shifting focus back onto proper treatment of the animals. On the ranch, cattle are treated with the utmost respect and care. The Kerns brought that mindset into the processing arm, too.
“All of us on the management side come from ranching backgrounds,” Cathryn shares. “We taught what we learned from ranching to all of the crew members that are handling animals. When you drop your animal off, you know they’re going to be well cared for.”
Everything from pen structure to strict operating procedure is designed to keep stress low from the moment cattle step off the trailer.
We’ve been certified by a third-party company called A Greener World for humane animal handling techniques.
In addition to an emphasis on humane treatment, Western Heritage Meat Company also maintains approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which ensures high standards are met so the meat that leaves their plant is safe for consumption.
“The USDA approval is important because that gives you flexibility to sell,” Cathryn explains. “Our USDA inspector is there 40 hours a week—every hour that we are open. He inspects the health of the animal before and after it is harvested. When you get beef with a USDA stamp on it, you know it had to be a healthy animal.”
USDA requirements extend beyond the health of the animal to include strict facility guidelines, too.
“The facility has to be very clean before we can begin the workday, and then spot clean as needed throughout the day,” Cathryn continues. “When you have a USDA stamp, you know that meat came from a clean facility.”
Beyond maintaining layers of safety and welfare, the Kerns family also honors the cattle that enter their plant by ensuring the entire animal is used after processing.
“I’m always sharing recipes for every steak cut, every roast cut, burger meat—everything that we offer, even down to soup marrow bones,” Cathryn says. “We’ve been turning all of our kidney fat into beef tallow for like lotion and soap.”
Thanks to the success of all three of the Kerns’ business endeavors, the family ranch continues to thrive, six generations later.
“We’re starting to grow our ranch again,” Cathryn remarks. “It’s very challenging to exist in the agriculture industry. It’s hard to get into agriculture. It’s hard to build back up from nothing.
“To make it in agriculture, you must have some sort of outside income,” she continues. “The only way that we have survived is by diversifying our business through the cattle drives, the beef sales, and the meat processing,”
Despite the challenges, Cathryn and Taylor are helping the family build the ranch back to its former glory.
“We started looking for property when we reached a point where we could consider buying a larger piece of land again,” Taylor reveals. “We stumbled on about 4,200 acres by chance, so we look at it as just a tremendous blessing. The owner was the third-generation farmer, and he was just really happy to see it go to another family.”
Family Ranching: More Than a Number
Families take care of families, and for ranchers like the Kerns, that family includes the four-legged members, too.
“The vast majority of ranchers genuinely care about the animals and the quality that they raise,” Cathryn says. “Ranchers might look gruff and tough on the outside. They might be wind-burned and crispy looking. But we’re nurturers by trade.”
Although she wasn’t raised on the ranch, Cathryn knows that the people she calls family care deeply about the animals they raise.
“All of the men in this family can all look at a cow out in the pasture a half a mile away and tell you what tag number she is just based off of her posture and her head shape,” Cathryn reveals. “They know their animals. We might not name them, but they’re more than numbers.”
That caring nature extends to both the animals and the land that feeds them.
“One of the most beautiful aspects of this job is that we get to raise these animals, nurture these living beings, and care for the land,” Cathryn shares. “You care for the land so that it can care for you.”