Ranches across the West, once valued for what they could earn their owners through the cattle trade, are rapidly being bought up by wealthy Americans looking for somewhere to park their cash.
Real estate brokers who have been dealing in legacy ranches for decades say unprecedented demand and increasingly limited supply is sending the cost of land to new highs.
These colossal ranches are not only a safe investment, but also offer their modern owners private playgrounds for fishing, hunting and skiing.
‘In the last few years the ranch market has just gone crazy,’ said Hunter Harrigan, whose father Dave Harrigan founded Harrigan Land Company around 30 years ago.
‘People aren’t necessarily buying these ranches anymore for what they can produce in income, but the long-term appreciation,’ he told DailyMail.com.
TEXAS: Ranch land in the West is being bought up by the Wealthiest Americans, some of whom have accrued plots of land larger than the country’s largest cities. Pictured is the Four Sixes Ranch in West Texas
TEXAS: Pictured are the Rolling Planes of the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas – a 150,000-acre ranch bought by Taylor Sheridan for $350million last year
The craze around ranches has coincided with the explosion in popularity of the Western television show Yellowstone, written by Taylor Sheridan (pictured)
The recreational value of such ranches was of little interest to the cattlemen making a living on the land through the 19th and 20th centuries.
‘For a lot of these old ranchers a trout stream was just a place to pull the irrigation water from to irrigate their hay meadows,’ said Harrigan.
‘[Now] owning a trout stream is like owning a piece of beachfront property, we only have a limited number of river corridors in the Mountain West that have the right water temperatures and habitat and everything else to support trout,’ he said.
Those looking to build a portfolio of Western ranches may also invest in land that lends itself well to particular outdoor lifestyles.
‘They might have a fly fishing property in Montana, a hunting ranch in New Mexico and a ranch with a nice home close to a ski resort in Colorado,’ said Harrigan.
Greg Fay, who runs the brokerage Fay Ranches and has been in the trade for more than three decades, said that for many, investment in ranches is like putting money in art – each ranch is a unique asset in finite supply.
While the profits generated by rearing cattle are no longer the main draw for most investors, many maintain some type of farming operation out of respect for the heritage and conservation of the culture.
Revenues of between one and four percent a year on the initial investment, though not life-changing, can then be put back into land. And according to Fay, allowing cattle to graze increases biodiversity by replenishing the grass.
He also argued there has also been a cultural shift in attitudes towards ranch land.
On one hand, Covid forced people away from urban hubs and opened their eyes to the value of a pared-down and simplistic outdoor life.
‘Covid really played a very big role in exposing land as an investment to a much larger audience,’ said Fay. ‘The idea of buying land to insulate your family just spread like wildfire and all of a sudden our market exploded.’
WYOMING: Harrigan Land Company has the Harrower Ranch in Kemmerer listed for sale at $12million
TEXAS: Four Sixes Ranch in Texas is one of the largest and most prestigious ranches in the country
TEXAS: Four Sixes measures around 20 miles from north to south and 12 miles from east to west
TEXAS: The interior of a building on the Four Sixes Ranch, acquired by Sheridan and other investors last year
TEXAS: The Four Sixes Ranch main house is a Texas-style stone building with 13 bedrooms and bathrooms and two kitchens
TEXAS: There are around 20 full-time cowboys working on Four Sixes, which traditionally dealt in cattle and now also in horses
The craze around ranches has also coincided with the explosion in popularity of Taylor Sheridan’s blockbuster TV series Yellowstone, which last year became the most popular show on US cable television.
Sheridan filmed much of its spinoff series 1883 on the Four Sixes Ranch, which he bought himself in January 2022 for around $350million, along with a group of other investors.
The historic ranch has served as the setting for a number of his shows but is also one of the largest and most prestigious ranches in the country.
Located in the Rolling Plains of west Texas, Four Sixes is almost the size of Los Angeles at around 270,000 acres. Within it are several rivers, spanning miles, as well as its own water filtration plant.
‘They’re three different ranches that were all sold to the same buyer – to Taylor Sheridan and his group,’ said Sam Middleton, the third-generation owner of Chas. S. Middleton and Son, a broker for the seller of the ranches.
‘It’s hard to say what any one ranch sold for because it was a cash lump sum on all three ranches,’ he told DailyMail.com.
Middleton said he was obliged to keep the exact price confidential bit confirmed that the total sum was ‘in the region’ of $350million.
‘Four Sixes was roughly 143,000 acres, then you hade the Dixon Creek, 116,000 acres and then the Frisco Creek ranch was a little less than 10,000, so altogether it was 267,000,’ he said.
According to Harrigan, water and mineral rights are of crucial importance to somebody on the market for a ranch and can massively enhance its value.
‘In most of the western states, minerals and water is a separate estate,’ he said. ‘If you can find a ranch where the mineral rights are intact it gives you more control of your land and the more valuable it is.’
Harrigan currently has the Broadacres Ranch in Creede, Colorado – an old mining town on the Rio Grande. It’s listed for sale at $14million and is a relatively conservative property by some standards at 600 acres.
Harrower Ranch in southwest Wyoming was described by Harrigan as the ‘prototypical cowboy operation’ with 200,000 total acres, just 5,000 of which are ‘deeded’.
Ranches are usually sold in terms of deeded and grazing acres. Deeded acres are owned outright whereas grazing acres are accessed via grazing permits and leased from, most often, the Burau of Land Management or the Forest Service.
‘The value you allocate to grazing leases is going to be minimal, because one year the federal government cut your carrying capacity down, they can take it away from you,’ said Harrigan.
Nonetheless, for people running serious cattle operations grazing leases allow fairly cheap access to larger portions of land.
COLORADO: Harrigan Land Company has the Broadacres Ranch in Creede listed for sale at $14million
WYOMING: Harrower Ranch is on the west side of Fontenelle Reservoir in southwest Wyoming and includes around 5,100 deeded acres of land but 200,000 in total
WYOMING: Harrower Ranch on Fontenelle Creek offers eight miles of trout water and productive hay meadows that support a cattle operation of 600 cows
WYOMING: Harrower Ranch was described by Harrigan as the ‘prototypical cowboy operation’ with 200,000 total acres, just 5,000 of which are deeded
TEXAS: The enormous Four Sixes Ranch hires are 100 full time staff to man the property, which spans multiple counties
TEXAS: Four Sixes sits east of Lubbock on over 142,000 acres in the state’s Rolling Planes
In 2021 Greg Fay represented Arthur Blank, Home Depot co-founder and owner of the Atlanta Rams, in the acquisition of $45million Dome Mountain Ranch in Emigrant, Montana.
When Blank bought another 9,300-acre ranch in Montana in 2019 he told the Atlanta Business Chronicle he was motivated by ‘conservation, not development.’
That’s common among Fay’s clients, he says, who often look to buy adjoining ranches in pursuit of accruing the largest single plot possible.
‘Our clients are actually aggregators, so we sell them a ranch and then we get busy buying the ranches next door,’ he said.
In 2018 Fay also oversaw the sale of the $18million West Boulder Ranch in McCloed, Montana, to the television news anchor Tom Brokaw.
West Boulder Ranch runs from the banks of the West Boulder River, spans more than 4,000 acres, and contains trophy elk, mule and whitetail deer, upland birds, antelope and various trout, according to the property’s listing.
‘There is some romance involved, for sure,’ said Fay. ‘You have a relationship with the land and it’s incredibly fulfilling to walk on it, to get to know it, to understand it, to build a relationship with it, to enhance it, and it kind of becomes part of you.’
‘It’s it’s amazing how emotional it is when it comes time to sell for a family because all across the landscape are memories.’
Another ranch, Mesa Vista, once belonging to the late hedge fund manager T. Boone Pickens, who made much of his money in oil and gas, made headlines when it sold for an estimated total of $170million late last year.
It spans more than 64,000 acres and is along 25 miles of the Canadian River in West Texas.
Back in 2016, before his death in 2019, Pickens told Architectural Digest that the land would be ‘too much’ for his kids, and joked that ‘bid packets’ would be handed out at his funeral.
‘I figure there’s probably two dozen qualified buyers,’ he told the publication and even suggested billionaire TV producer Ted Turner would be a likely candidate.
Turner, who founded television channels CNN and TBS, is the fourth largest landowner in the US and owns more than two dozen ranches across Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana.
Arthur Blank (pictured) is the Home Depot co-founder and owner of the Atlanta Rams. He was represented by Fay in the acquisition of Dome Mountain Ranch in Emigrant, Montana, for $45million in 2021
MONTANA: The Dome Mountain Ranch is one of the most famous ranches in Montana
MONTANA: Blanks’ Dome Mountain comprises approximately 5,329 deeded acres and borders the Yellowstone River
Tom Brokaw, former anchor of NBC Nightly News, bought West Boulder Ranch in McCloed, Montana, for $18million
MONTANA: West Boulder Ranch is nestled at the base of the Absaroka Mountains in south-central Montana
MONTANA: West Boulder Ranch is comprised of around 4,100 deeded acres and features around one mile of West Boulder River
MONTANA: Brokaw’s West Boulder Ranch was listed for sale by Fay Ranches for $18million back in 2018
A number of ranches that come to market today have been owned for generations by a single family, for whom the upkeep and liability were too cumbersome.
‘Sometimes it’s a family that’s owned the ranch for four or five generations and now maybe their kids don’t have an interest in continuing to run the ranch,’ said Harrigan.
At that point it’s then typically snapped up by somebody with plenty of money. Fay claimed that is one reason the ranch market has such stability and makes for such a safe place to put money.
‘I haven’t done a transaction contingent on financing in 25 years,’ he said. ‘It’s a very underleveraged market. So when it slows down, you don’t see a lot of blood in the water, when the market slows down, our sellers don’t sell.’
For now, according to Harrigan too, the market is showing no signs of cooling off.
‘In order for this market to slow down, there’s going to have to be a lot more inventory,’ he said. ‘And until that demand is satisfied, it’s going to continue to be a very, very hot market.’