There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.
Just how many irons can you have in the fire and still get everything finished? That’s a challenge Mike and Jess Ruby face every day on their cattle operation centered along the east side of 8 Mile Road about halfway between Riverton and Pavillion.
The couple raise primarily Angus cattle but have some white faces, and a few longhorns that they breed with Corrientes bulls for their kids to rodeo with on their home ranch, but rotate cattle at two other locations, and have another dedicated year-round operation near Castle Gardens.
Mike comes by the lifestyle naturally, as the son and grandson of ranchers. Willis “Bill” Ruby was a well-known stockman who arrived from Nebraska in 1967 with the dream of owning his own ranching operation.
Growing up in Stapleton, he worked on the family farm, and after graduation, he married Ramona Hanna, and they had two children Mike and Debbie. He worked as a foreman for Tom and Betty Morrison and it was the Morrisons who started the Ruby legacy in Fremont County by offering Bill another foreman position, this time on a ranch north of Lander.
They dug their roots into Fremont County, raising a few cattle of their own on the Morrison place until they purchased 700 acres on Snavely Lane east of Lander in 1972. The familiar Bill and Lois Ruby sign still stands on the north side of the highway as you drive west towards Lander.
Ramona passed away four years later, and Bill married Lois Neisen in 1980.
Bill’s son Mike Sr., worked with his dad on the ranch until 1983 when Mike bought him out.
Bill passed in 2019, and two years later Mike and his sister Debbie Anesi passed away, leaving a hole in the family ranching legacy. In true cowboy fashion, Mike had a heart attack while working cattle on the family summer allotment near Atlantic City.
Bill’s place on Snavely Lane converted to a family trust in 2019 with Mike and his sisters Chris Eberline and Brenda Sims.
“We’ve been leasing it from the family trust for the last four years,” Mike said.
That’s the tradition Mike and Jess carry on with their five children Aidan, Savannah, Aislynn, Eion, and Eli.
Their place on 8 Mile has a similar lineage, only this time from Mike’s mother Kathy.
“This was a 1031 land exchange,” Mike said. “When it came up for sale, mom traded it for 80 acres north of Lander that my grandpa, Pete Spriggs gave her.”
Mike and Jess added their own parcel near Castle Gardens in 2018, a 160,000-acre year-round section with deeded land, BLM land, and school sections.
“It’s one place with a single boundary fence,” Mike said. “We bought it from Glen Burgett. It was a summertime ranch, May to November, but we converted it to a year-round operation.”
The Castle Garden ranch was supposed to be separate from the 8 Mile, Snavely Lane, and Atlantic City operation but Mother Nature didn’t see it that way this year.
“We have a house, shop, and a set of corrals,” Mike said. “All the cattle winter on the north side and summer on the south, we separate it with a hot shot fence.”
The open range grazing supports 500 head in winter and 800 to 900 in summer during a normal winter, but this winter has been anything but normal.
“We had to haul 400 tons of hay this year,” Mike said.
The gravel road to the Castle Garden ranch was closed by drifts several times this winter.
“We took a semi-truck load of bales to the ranch and thought we might have to leave it there all winter,” Jess said.
It took three road graders a half-a-day to clear the 10 to 12-foot drifts before they could bring feed to the cattle.
An unplanned 400 tons of hay, along with heavy calf losses due to the terrible winter are costs that no one can anticipate.
“We’ve lost about 10 calves out of the first 120 we’ve calved this spring,” Jess said.
In a typical year, and few years are typical in Wyoming ranching the Castle Garden ranch is self-sufficient with ample grazing and solar power, and generator-powered wells.
“We bring in outside cattle during the summer,” Jess said.
The operation centered from their home on 8 Mile is an interesting mix of tradition, improvisation, and modern technology applied to an age old lifestyle.
The Rubys keep their cows on 8 Mile from February to late May and calve there.
Around May 20, they truck approximately 300 cow and calf pairs to their allotment at Atlantic City for the summer.
“We generally keep them from May to around Halloween,” Mike said.
In late October or early November, the round up begins on the mountain with semi-trucks hauling the cattle to the Snavely Lane Ranch for the winter months.
“Our allotment is for 330 head, but we usually run 250 to 300,” Jess said.
They share the allotment with Mike’s sisters.
There’s a lot of distance between South Pass, Castle Gardens, Snavely Lane, and 8 Mile Road, and the Ruby family keep the road hot maintaining the operation.
“We go through a fair amount of diesel,” Mike said.
It’s a tough, challenging lifestyle, but in a family of rodeo cowboys, cowgirls, and wrestlers it’s a way of life.
The three boys all rodeo and wrestle, with Aiden also playing football for the Wind River Cougars. Aislynn runs barrels, poles, and ties goats. She plays basketball for the Lady Cougars.
In a family with a full plate of work already, the challenge of getting four kids to practice and attending matches and games can be daunting.
“It got pretty western for a while right before state wrestling,” Mike said.
That was the time of the blizzard that shut down most of Wyoming and had teams traveling behind snowplows to get to tournaments.
The Rubys traveled behind a few plows to take care of their cattle at Castle Gardens at the same time.
“They’ll let you on a closed road if you’re hauling hay to feed cattle,” Jess said. “We did it a few times.”
While the school year and especially the winter is challenging, the couple has made some improvements for the summer spent on the mountain.
“We stay in the cabin we restored,” Jess said. “The original Carpenter cabin was built in 1890.”
The 19th-century relic was advanced technology of its day.
“They used to hay and stack it in the loft. They had a windmill in the barn and when the snow was deep they’d keep the cattle inside with feed and water,” Mike said.
The rodeo tradition runs deep in the Ruby clan. Bill hitchhiked and road trains to compete back in the 1940s in the precursor to the PRCA the Turtle Association in bull riding, saddle bronc, bareback, roping, and steer wrestling.
Mike Sr. had a rodeo scholarship to Casper College.
Mike, a 2000 Wind River graduate earned a rodeo scholarship to CWC and entered the PRCA at the same time. He was a nationally ranked bull rider, competing in the biggest rodeos in the region including the Greely Stampede and the National Western Stock Show in Denver.
“I rodeoed until 2008,” Mike said. “I broke my ankle, my ribs, and my back competing.”
All three boys ride bulls currently, with Aiden at 17 also team roping. Eion 11, a Wind River fifth grader also rides bareback. Six-year-old Eli rides mini-bulls and fights sheep.
“Between the four kids they’ll be only one year someone isn’t in high school rodeo until Eli graduates,” Jess said.
The family has a routine they follow when the kids aren’t in wrestling or basketball. The Wind River bus arrives and Aiden and Aislynn get on their work gear and sometimes don’t even enter the house before beginning to tackle their chores.
On a recent afternoon, when Aiden wasn’t working for neighbor Mike Fabrizius, he and Aislyn, and Eion got into the back of their mud-covered truck. Eli sat behind Jess in the driver’s seat with ear tags, a record book, vitamins, and anti-biotics and they set out to check for newly born calves.
Mike opened the gates and headed out with them. Some of the cows are a little rangy and don’t like their calves tampered with. The boys will sometimes rope calves out of the bed of the pickup then ear tag them, give them an injection and make sure they’re tagged to match the cow.
This spring has been a challenge. Mike had to cut paths in the pasture with a loader to make a road for the truck. They check for calves throughout the day and into the night. A lot of ranches across the state are experiencing losses of 20 percent on this year’s calves due to the cold temperatures, wet conditions, and deep snow. Diligence has reduced that number for the Ruby ranch but losses are still significant.
When not taking the truck, they’ll ride horses to check the herd.
They keep a few goats for tying and have a healthy pack of seven friendly dogs that help herd cattle, greet strangers, and hang around the place on sunny afternoons.
Jess is a 2000 Riverton High School graduate who attended Shoshoni High School as well. She grew up around cattle with her parents Mark and Robin White of Riverton but didn’t quite have the wide-open, long-range cattle experience before the couple was married.
Challenges continue to put pressure on the ranching community in Fremont County but at least for the Ruby ranch, diligence, determination and patience have paid off.
Sometimes events thousands of miles away, made by people who have never been on the mountain, ridden a horse, or nursed a calf have profound effects on the western ranching lifestyle. The increase in federally protected predators is one example.
“The wolves aren’t horrible, but they’ve been seen, and problems with bears are on the rise,” Mike said.
Predation from protected grizzlies and wolves is on the rise in many areas of the state, and they are moving into the South Pass/Atlantic City area.
Bill, Ramona, Lois, and “Big Mike” would be proud of how Mike and Jess have carried on the family tradition.
The Ruby Ranch, life in Fremont County at its essence.