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A Ranching Dynasty | August 2022

by Cheryl Kepes

Photos courtesy Haythorn Land and Cattle

Haythorn Land and Cattle Company - cowboys through and through.

Haythorn Land and Cattle Company’s been called an American ranching dynasty, featured in a television mini-series, and showcased in numerous publications. Yet, Craig Haythorn, owner and fourth-generation rancher, prefers to focus on the family’s work ethic and devotion to ranching. “I want to work every day. That’s all I have ever wanted to do is ranch – that’s my love,” Craig Haythorn said.

Rich in Tradition

The list of ranch accolades is almost as long as the ranch’s history. Established in 1884, by Craig’s great-grandfather, Harry Haythornwaite (Harry shortened his last name later in life), the vast pastureland has served this ranch family well. Haythorn Land and Cattle Company owns and leases 50,000 acres, manages thousands of commercial black Angus cattle, produces world renown Quarter horses, and operates a ranch gift shop and an event center.

Craig, his wife Jody, and their sons, Sage and Cord, work together to manage the historic ranch located in Arthur, Neb. Sage and his wife Kelley, along with Cord and his wife Katie, play integral roles in all the daily operations of the ranch. The Haythorn family also deeply appreciates Craig’s sister, Sally, who is always there to lend a hand no matter who needs help or what needs to be done.

The Haythorn family runs their operation in the Nebraska Sandhills. The Nebraska Sandhills is considered one of the largest grass stabilized dune regions in the world. Haythorn’s ranch sits amidst the rolling dunes and near the Ogallala Aquifer, a gigantic underground water source.

Stowaway to Successful Rancher

The origins of the ranch are tied to the story of a heartbroken teenager. At age 16, Harry Haythornwaite, was told he was too young to marry. Hoping to leave his broken heart behind, the lovesick boy stowed away on a ship sailing for America from Lancaster, England.

The crew discovered the young stowaway after the ship was already well on its way to America. In order to pay his passage, Harry was tasked with taking care of some white-faced bulls destined for Texas. When the ship docked in Galveston, the rancher who imported the bulls hired Harry to work for him.

In the years to come, Harry would learn how to be a cowboy. He got married, worked to scrape enough money to buy his own land, and started a ranch. Now 138 years later, the Haythorn ranching traditions and cowboy way of life thrives down to the sixth generation.

History in the Horse Business

Though the Haythorn family has managed a cattle operation since the inception of the ranch, the Haythorns are most well-known for their achievements and contributions in the horse industry. Craig’s grandfather is credited with owning the first registered Quarter horse stud in Nebraska.

Craig soared to the top of the industry during his high school and college years, earning state and national titles in calf roping and cutting. After college, he competed on the PRCA circuit in team roping, bulldogging, and steer roping solidifying his place as one of the nation’s top horsemen.

The family has spent decades utilizing, training, and selling some of the best working Quarter horses in the business. The Haythorns have built a reputation as premier Quarter horse breeders through their winnings at national shows and rodeos. The operation received the inaugural American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Remuda award in 1994. “The horse deal has been good to my family for over 100 years,” Craig shared.

On the Job Training

Buyers from across the country and the world purchase horses trained at Haythorn ranch. The Haythorns and anyone else who works on the ranch complete their daily tasks on horseback. Every day horses develop on the job training such as roping calves, cutting cows, and moving herds.

At one point in time, the Haythorns ran close to 250 mares. In 1979, the Haythorns started hosting horse sales at the ranch every five years, selling 80 to 100 finished geldings, ranging from six to nine years old. “A lot of people would say, ‘When do you start on the next sale?’ And I would say, ‘The morning after this one is over,’” Craig recalled.

These days in lieu of a sale at the ranch, the Haythorns market their horses through private treaty. Though they raise fewer horses, the animals remain an integral part of the daily operations at the ranch. “We have been noted to be pretty much a horse outfit for as long as we have been here. Horses have played a big part in my family for years,” Craig explained.

In recent years, the Haythorns scaled back their horse operation. They currently manage close to 35 broodmares. Most of the broodmares are pasture bred to Haythorn’s ranch stallions.

“Broken Trail”

Haythorn’s past and present adventures conjure much media attention. The lives of many generations of Haythorns have been chronicled in articles, photos, books, and even a television mini-series. The novel and TV mini-series, “Broken Trail,” was written based the adventure of Craig’s great-grandfather, Harry. The mini-series starring Robert Duvall, takes inspiration from Harry’s expedition trailing 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming at the turn of the century. “My dad and Robert Duvall were good friends, and my dad told him that story two or three times and they made a movie based on it,” Craig explained.

Cattle Operation

Though the fame of Haythorn Land and Cattle Company centers around the ranch’s horse operation, just as the ranch name implies cattle are also a foundation of the business. Craig recalls the ranch has had cattle equally as long as it has had horses. The cattle herd runs the 17 miles of rolling pasture between Haythorn’s north and south ranches. The herd is comprised primarily of black Angus based cows. The calves are either black or black baldies.

The Haythorns have spent the last few years building up their cow herd numbers. The ranch has also focused on improving the genetics of its cattle herd, culling for temperament, milk, and body condition. The Haythorns utilize registered Angus bulls on their cow herd.

Calving at Haythorn

Four years ago, the Haythorns shortened and shifted their breeding season so most of their cattle would calve in April, instead of March. “We get out of most of the weather, it takes less feed, and our calves weigh almost as much as what they did when we calved in March,” Craig said. A tighter calving window also gives the Haythorns more time to work on other ranch projects during the spring and summer.

Though their calving season may be shorter, at times it remains stressful. The Haythorns calve out as many as 650 first-calf heifers. It takes four cowboys, alternating tasks and shifts, to care for the first-calf heifers during calving season.

Love of Ranching

At 75 years young, Craig cherishes his cowboy way of life. He attributes the ranch’s success to the family’s extraordinary work ethic, longevity, family values, and commitment to doing their best in all things, every day. “They say it (ranching) is not the best thing money wise in the world, but they say it is one of the best ways of life. How many people get up and go to work and get to do what they want to do? We get to enjoy what we are doing,” Craig shared.

Future of Haythorn

The Haythorns look forward to another century of ranching in the Nebraska Sandhills. The sixth generation of Haythorns are now growing up on the ranch learning the love of land, horses, and cattle just like the generations before them. “We are damn lucky every day with my family - what we get to do, what we own, and the people who work for us. I have been blessed all my life,” Craig concluded.

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