Overcrowded rangelands pushed enterprising stockmen from all over the country toward the arid—and empty—Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile region where all precipitation drains internally. From the Sierra Nevada Range to the Wasatch Mountains, the area was a melting pot of cowboy cultures descended from intrepid cattlemen who were willing to brave equally harsh summers and winters for the chance to carve a place for themselves in new territory.
Predominantly influenced by Californian vaqueros, Great Basin cowpunchers—called buckaroos—also picked up the habits and customs of nomadic Basque stockmen and Texas cowboys, who all made their way to the area, lured by the open space and emerging cattle industry made possible by the railroad and silver miners hungry for beef. The Great Basin buckaroo cuts a distinguished figure with his broad-brimmed hat, silk wild rag, punchy tall boots, and horses spangled with silver. The men (and women) who work and ride the Great Basin are known for being self-sufficient and resilient, qualities passed down from forebears who made their mark on raw and wild land.
Five Dot Land and Cattle Company
The Five Dot Land and Cattle Company near the tiny northeastern California town of Standish has been in the Swickard family since it was founded in 1959, though they’ve been in the ag business for seven generations. Spread out over nine counties, they raise predominantly Angus cattle in a natural beef program. The cowboy crew still uses horses for all aspects of ranch work, from roping calves at branding time and camping out in the summer.
Maggie Creek Ranch
Located eight miles west of Elko, Maggie Creek Ranch has a reputation for outstanding management and low employee turnover. Manager Jon Griggs practices progressive ranching techniques such as artificially inseminating heifers, promoting the ranch on Facebook, and selling cut-and-wrapped beef locally. Encompassing nearly 200,000 acres of privately owned and leased public land, the ranch keeps seven full-time employees on the cowboy crew.
Round Mountain, Nev.
Perhaps the largest ranch in Nevada, the RO was founded in the mid-1900s. It encompasses a total of nearly 6 million acres of deeded and leased public land. The ranch runs a full-time crew of seven cowboys to take care of the 1,400 head of mother cows and roughly 10,000 yearlings.
[Read more: Great Ranches of Texas]
Idaho, Nev., Ore., Wash.
In addition to Oregon’s historic ZX, Simplot owns several smaller ranches in Southern Idaho and Northern Nevada, such as the JS, TM, Diamond A, Jack Ranch, Three Creek, and Dickshooter. Altogether, the company manages more than a dozen ranches with more than 30,000 mother cows in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Its ranch holdings are twice the size of Delaware.
Elko County, Nev.
For nearly 150 years, the renowned Spanish Ranch has been testing the mettle of its cowboys. Like all of its neighbors, the Spanish Ranch is big by necessity. Raising cattle in the arid, high desert climate of the Great Basin requires at least 10 acres per cow. The Spanish Ranch encompasses 76,000 deeded acres in addition to its leased public allotments to run 3,400 mother cows. It’s one of the few ranches where the old ways are still practiced—during the spring works, cowboys ride out for 4–6 weeks, sleep in teepees, and eat from a chuckwagon.
Tree Top Ranches
Located in Oregon, Tree Top Ranches consist of several different individual ranches. Divisions include the Island Ranch near Burns, Ore.; Oregon Canyon Ranch near the Nevada border; and the Brown Ranch. Altogether, Tree Top encompasses 750,000 non-contiguous acres, a mix of both deeded and leased public land. The combined cow herd numbers 7,000, with 20 hired cowboys dispersed between all the ranches.
Battle Mountain, Nev.
In a combination of industries that reflects modern northern Nevada, the T Lazy S Ranch is owned by Newmont Mining Corporation, one of the largest gold mining companies in the world. Cowboss Woody Harney runs the 6,000-head outfit with a crew of three to five cowboys, and he helped give the ranch a reputation for hard work and lots of roping.
[Read more: Great Ranches of the Southwest]
Just north of the Nevada/Oregon border lies the Whitehorse Ranch and its locally famous huge red barn with the white horse on the weather vane. It has been continuously operated as a cattle ranch since 1869. Today, the ranch runs 2,000 mother cows on 500,000 acres with a four-man cowboy crew.
Wine Cup Ranch
& Gamble Ranch
These two ranches are both owned by the Fireman Family Corporation, run as one big ranch with two separate headquarters and crews. The Wine Cup headquarters are located on a long, lonely stretch of state highway just north of Wells, Nev., and the Gamble is farther southeast, near the one-bar town of Montello. Altogether, both ranches encompass one million acres—257,000 are deeded, and the remainder is private leases. Both ranches currently run a combined total of approximately 5,300 mother cows and 2,000 yearlings. Each ranch runs a fluctuating crew of about four or five cowboys, adding day help in the spring and fall.
Idaho and Nev.
This remote ranch spans the high desert country in both Southern Idaho and Northern Nevada. It was established in the late 1800s and is now owned by the Jackson family. The YP brand is believed to be the third-oldest branding iron in continuous use in the United States. The ranch runs both mother cows and yearlings on private and leased public land with a full cowboy crew at headquarters and at least two buckaroos camped out on the desert.
Founded in the 1880s, the marshy territory that comprised the ZX Ranch was cultivated into 230,000 acres (plus 1.5 million acres of leased land) of prime ranching territory by the late 1930s. Today the property is owned by J.R. Simplot and the acreage sits at 1.3 million acres. In addition to a 200-head remuda, the ZX runs a herd of some 20,000 beeves.