At the turn of the 20th century, ranching was the challenge of a lifetime.

It was an opportunity to tame the West, reside atop the prairie while working hard to feed, clothe and live in a country where dangers were around every turn in the dusty road.

Between cold winters, inadequate water supply and outlaws, the risk was life and death for the early Campbell County homesteaders.

Now, nine years into the 21st century, times have changed and opportunity in ranching is no longer what it once was. The risk has changed from fighting day in and day out for survival to striving to maintain the same lifestyle.

New challenges have made it nearly impossible to establish the same roots that homesteaders did 100 years ago.

Land prices, industrial stagnation, government involvement and general lack of interest by new generations are some major roadblocks that have changed the role of traditional ranching.

But ranc hing as a lifestyle will never go away so long as there is land to graze and people who need to be fed.

A new generation of risk takers are willing to take up the challenges posed by the modern world.

Unfortunately, the adaptations they have to make might take them further away from the lifestyle they cherish and the work they love.

It's like stepping back into a simpler time for 35-year-old Shawn Burtenshaw as he and his four children round up the last bunch of cows for shipping on a late September afternoon.

About a year ago, the Burtenshaws started a ranch on the old Clifford Smith place near Spotted Horse in order to get their foot in the door of the cattle industry.
Burtenshaw has been a cattleman all his life and he has worked extensively at ranches across the West.

Everything he owns is bought and paid for, and he leases about 14,000 acres from 81-year-old Clifford Smith, who retired from ranching in 1992.

It took him five year s of being a cowhand in Gillette before he could strike out on his own with all of the resources that he needed.

Leasing the ranch is the only chance that Burtenshaw has to succeed in his dream and he's working for it.

Agricultural land prices have steadily increased because of the limited amount of land available. The high prices that wealthy hobby ranchers from other states will pay
for other uses of the land in neighboring communities has been another factor that has driven land prices, said Rob Weppner, a loan officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

Statewide agriculture land prices (including the buildings) averaged about $560 an acre in 2008, according to the 2009 Wyoming Agricultural Statistics report published by the USDA.

The average-sized farm or ranch in Wyoming was about 2,736 acres the same year, which made the value of an average ranch about $1.5 million.

The average cost to rent a pasture came to about $4 an acre, which translates into $912 monthly to lease an average-sized ranch.

If Burtenshaw had bought the ranch from Smith, there wouldn't be a chance that he could have paid it off within his lifetime.

"You can make the lease payment and operate the property for less than you can make the ranch payment," Burtenshaw said. "I could never get one paid off to hand to my kids."

A quick poll of Burtenshaw's four children indicates that ranching still has a bright future for the next generation.

But the reality is that ranching is not an industry that young people are getting into.

Most young adults don't have a chance at getting into the business unless they are born into it. Even then, it's still tricky to keep them interested.

Burtenshaw hopes that some day his children will carry on the legacy, but because of the challenges and insecurity he feels today, he is even more unsure about the future.

Especially in a lease situation, there is not the same stability as there would be if the rancher owns the land. There's always a possibility that the actual owner will find a new use besides leasing.

While there always will be ranchers who have inherited their love of the lifestyle from their parents, it will continue to change as land parcels get smaller and the industry changes.

Neal and Amanda Sorenson's ranch near Spotted Horse is the exception that proves the rule.

The Sorenson family has ranched between Spotted Horse and Recluse for more than 100 years.

The family in August celebrated their ranch turning 100. Neil, 37, and Amanda, 36, have operated Powder River Angus for 15 years on their 3,600 acres of property north of the historical ranch. They also lease another 12,000 acres.

But instead of running cows the way that previous generations had, the only way they could make a life in ranching was to find a niche in the market.

The Sorensons produce pure-bred black Angus c ows, which are in high demand because of superior and documented genetics. They make their money from the sale of calves.

Neal inherited his land from his family, and he hopes his children will want to take over when he's ready to retire.

Neal's father, Robert, lives up the road. At 66, he helps Neal when he needs it, but considers himself retired from the cattle business.

He has succinct thoughts on why the younger generation no longer wants to work in the business: "It's hard work, it's dirty and it doesn't pay well."

Perhaps the second biggest challenge for the modern rancher is the fact that the cattle market has remained stagnant for years.

For most in the county, the cost of living has increased substantially during the inflation caused by the energy boom. Many ranchers have had to adapt by increasing the number of cows they run or adding different ways to earn income from their land.

Rent, loan interest rates, capital equipment, hay and building materials all have had highs and lows that have affected every facet of the local economy. The difference for ranchers is the price of beef, which has remained at the same price and hasn't adapted to the new world economy.

Unlike Neal Sorenson, Burtenshaw runs cattle the old-fashioned way.

He considers his niche to be his ability to run the day-to-day operations by himself, or with help from his family.

Burtenshaw is a certified diesel mechanic, a welder and takes care of his animal's health when he needs to be. He could make much more money using those skills exclusively for others, but he chooses to ranch because of the challenge it presents and the lifestyle. He considers the equipment he uses to be antique, and he's never had to pay a mechanic to fix anything on the ranch.

But he still feels the pinch every time a bill for parts, or another expense, comes in higher than he expects.

"Everything is always getting more expensive, bu t cattle prices today aren't that much different than they were 30 years ago." Burtenshaw said.

In Wyoming, the average price for cows in 2008 was $47.50 for each 100 pounds. It's down from $52.50 in 2004, according to the USDA report.

Lower prices on cattle and higher costs of production mean that it takes more cattle in order to make up the difference, Sorenson said.

Neither Burtenshaw nor Sorenson now have alternative ways they earn income. But 51-year-old Chuck Rourke, who has worked his 17,000-acre ranch south of Gillette all of his life, has tried various ways to aid his operation.

During the peak of the coal-bed methane boom, Rourke successfully ran a roustabout shop on his ranch, and he also dabbles with different crops to help subsidize his operation. Mineral wealth has helped his family contend with low prices, and he also hosts a hunting program that seasonally helps his cash flow.

Rourke also has found that he can use the same equipme nt that he uses on his ranch to help reclaim former mine lands, which has helped to provide another source of income.

Rourke has two sons, a daughter and a son-in-law who all participate in agriculture. The various ways they choose to make their living allows them to keep their ranching part of their lifestyle.

"You just expand and try to make things work," Rourke said.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.