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Taking the helm: Shipwheel Cattle Company guides Angus breed

Shipwheel Cattle Company near Chinook, Montana, owned by Klint and Lori Swanson, has helped steer the Angus industry forward over the past 12 years. But their history of good genetics goes back more than 100 years.  

Black cows run deep in the Swanson family. Klint’s great-grandfather homesteaded near Valier and Dupuyer, Mont., in 1896. “Then my grandfather was one of the first to bring Black Angus cows to Montana, in 1945. That was back when everything was Hereford in this area,” says Klint. 

His parents started in the registered business in the 1960s as Apex Angus. “That’s where our herd today originated from. My first two heifers came from my parents in 1984 when I was 9 years old, and we’ve built from there,” he says. 

While students at Montana State University-Northern, Klint met Lori, who also grew up on a ranch in northern Montana, near Chinook. They were married shortly after college, and returned to Klint’s place in Valier. In 2000 they had the opportunity to lease Lori’s parents’ ranch, and they – and their cows – moved to Chinook.  Children Austin, now a high school senior, and Bree, a sophomore, were born in 2003 and 2004. For several years they continued to market their bulls at Klint’s family’s sale, but in 2008 they formed Shipwheel Cattle Company – named after the brand given to Klint by his grandmother – and made the transition to their own sale.  

“That first year we sold 23 bulls by silent auction in a little scale house at the feedlot,” says Klint. “Since then we’ve grown to offering 100 registered bulls in our annual sale and 50 private treaty commercial bulls a year. Many of our original customers are still with us, and we sure appreciate them.” Every Shipwheel bull is bred, born and raised on the ranch – they don’t outsource to any sector. Their bulls are all range-raised with no creep feed and an emphasis put on structure. They don’t trim bulls’ feet, and are one of very few breeders that maintain a score for feet soundness.  

The Swansons run 1,100 mama cows, with 500 of those being registered Angus. Their ranch base includes the home place, Clear Creek Ranch, 15 miles south of Chinook, and Snake Creek Ranch, which they bought in 2010, another 20 miles south. “We had the opportunity buy this ranch and triple our acres and our cow herd – it’s a beautiful ranch and a dream we never imagined could come true,” says Klint. “We rely on our cows for a living and we rely on them to pay for that ranch.” 

With the goal of continuing to increase their registered herd, they AI all their registered cows, retain all registered females, and also flush some of their females and use their commercial cows as recip cows. From their commercial herd they will sell a semi load or two of replacement heifer calves, then develop the rest and sell 50-100 bred heifers in their sale.  

The Swansons run their registered and commercial cows as one. “Our registered herd doesn’t get any pampering or anything more special than the commercial,” says Lori. The registered cows are only separated during breeding season for AI.  

“Ninety percent of our customer base is the commercial cow man,” says Klint. “Our cows have to do the job the commercial cow man wants. If a registered cow is supposed to be a role model for a commercial one, she needs to be treated like one.” 

Unlike many registered outfits, Shipwheel doesn’t calve early, but instead enjoys the more moderate temperatures of April, May and June, then sell their bulls as coming 2-year-olds. “We try to raise cows that excel in many traits in northern Montana,” says Klint. “We like hearty cows that are moderately framed and last a long time. Those are the kind that keep our customers in business.” 

The climate they live in, just 60 miles from the Canadian border, is extreme. Temperatures range from -60 to 110 degrees. “Our cows have to work for a living here,” says Klint. “We range calve, and like most everyone in our business, we don’t have enough help or enough feed. A cow can do a lot of it on her own if you need her to.”  

In open winters they strive to not feed any hay and just graze all season long. “By calving later, we’re able to not feed and are also able to identify cows that perform on their own,” says Klint. 

One cow of notable performance was simply called “9004” – a granddaughter of one of Klint’s two original heifers from his parents. She raised 16 calves and lived to be just under 20 years old. They used her extensively as a donor cow, and a good percentage of their herd genetics are based off her progeny. 

A particular bull that helped launch their program forward was Mytty In Focus, a 2001 calf purchased from Midland Bull Test as a yearling. The Swansons leased him to ABS and he was the top registered bull in the Angus breed for three years straight in 2008, 2009 and 2010. “We bought him originally as a clean-up bull,” says Lori. “He was kind of a pet, we didn’t have any idea he’d do the things he did.”  

The lower birthweight, and calves with good growth rate and performance of In Focus caught a lot of people’s attention. “He had a lot of good traits that were very friendly to producers,” says Klint. 

In Focus lived at the ABS stud in Wisconsin for over 10 years, but when his production run was over, the stud asked if they would like him back. He lived out his last few years on pasture at the home ranch. “It was a pretty humbling experience to have him home after all he did for us,” says Lori. In Focus has genetic influence on a large portion of the Shipwheel herd – and also the industry. “A lot of times when I’m looking at other bulls I see something I like, and I’ll look at the pedigree and there he is,” says Klint. 

Other influential sires from their operation include Chisum 255, leased to Select Sires; Shipwheel Chinook, leased to ABS; and Shipwheel Montana, purchased by Genex.  

In 2018 Shipwheel was selected among just 40 operations nationwide – and the only one in Montana – to have the Certified Angus Beef® logo painted on their barn as part of CAB’s 40th anniversary celebration. “The contacts we have made through CAB because of that opportunity, and also through the Angus Association in general, have been incredible,” says Lori. 

Right now the Shipwheel work force consists of just the four of them, and they do all their cattle work horseback on young horses they start themselves, with the help of some good cattle dogs. They also grow the majority of their own feed, including dryland hay, corn silage and hay barley and oats. They do their own AI, but hire an ET specialist for flushing and embryo transfer. They have hosted the Montana Angus Association tour three times since they moved to Chinook. The kids have been involved in 4-H and are now active in FFA as well as sports at Chinook High School. Lori says the benefit of the kids working side by side with their parents their whole lives means they know and interact with people in the industry just like the adults.  

Kyle Shobe is an auctioneer, musician, rodeo announcer and sale barn owner from Lewistown, Mont. The Swanson family was one of his first purebred sale clients, and he considers them not only customers but close friends and supreme cattle breeders. 

“The Swanson family are tremendous people to work with from all aspects,” says Shobe. “They are one of the hardest working families I know, they have a vision for not only their herd and their ranch, but for the Angus breed in general. They know how to build a great mama cow as well as listen to their customers and stay the course.” 

Shobe says he values all his purebred sale patrons, but the relationship with the Swansons is even deeper. “They took a chance on me when I was just a young guy starting out as an auctioneer, and I sold their first sale when they were basically just getting going, so we’ve had the opportunity to grow in this business together.” 

He noted that the involvement of their kids is especially neat to see in the industry.  

“It’s inspiring to see the next generation take an interest like their kids do – they truly love being a part of it. Austin and Bree can speak to those mama cows and pedigrees and bulls as good as their parents can. That’s something our industry really needs, is that next generation to take that interest and carry on the legacy.” 

The Swansons say their goals are to continue to grow their registered herd and to provide opportunities for Austin and Bree to return to the operation after college, if they choose to do so. “Our family has been at this a long time on both sides, and hope there is a future for them in this business,” says Klint. “There are a lot of things against us, but we have hope in the future, people still have to eat, people love beef. We hope there is a future for them and generations to come.” 

Campbell Red Angus: Cattle that perform for cattlemen

The 2020 Campbell Red Angus bull sale was held on the same day the nation received a stay-at-home order. Though their operation – along with all other businesses – faced some unique challenges this year, the Campbell family looks to the future with big changes in 2021 and hope in the next generation. 

Robert Campbell says, “It was the unknown, the uncertainty of everything. Everyone was stopping and taking a breath. Kind of like everyone has been for nine months now… It affected the sale. People just got very cautious all of a sudden, because they didn’t know what it meant. All the way through, not just our sale, but all the sales through April and May were affected.” 

However, the Campbell Red Angus Bull Sale, which has been held at Mobridge Livestock for four decades, will move to the ranch near McIntosh in the year 2021. “We’re looking for something bigger and better – the opportunity for people to come see some of the mama cows and the herd bulls. I think once the people see they’ll understand more about the cattle, and the development program behind the cattle. I think they’ll like it,” Campbell says. 

Moving the bull sale home might also give potential buyers a sense of the family heritage, like the five generations of Campbells that have influenced the herd operating today. “My great-grandpa came from Cork County, Ireland and he homesteaded south of McIntosh,” Campbell says. Apart from four-year hiatuses to earn college degrees, each generation has returned to the ranch to carry on the operation.  

Campbells began raising Red Angus fifty years ago, when it was a relatively unknown breed in the United States. “No one really knew what Red Angus cattle were. My dad and mom were real instrumental in the South Dakota Red Angus Association and promoting Red Angus as a breed in the 1970’s and into the ’80s, just getting the breed recognized,” he says.  

Robert’s father, Harold, and uncle, Harvey, laid the foundation of the original herd. “My dad and uncle got their red cattle in 1970, and their first purebred cattle in 1973,” he says. Twenty years ago, Harold became the sole operator when Harvey stepped away.  

In order to further the overall quality of their product, Harold began refining the heifers. “In 1990, Dad started a heifer development program, and we bred Red Angus heifers that we bought back from our customers as well as our own heifers every year since 1990. The most we did one year was right at 1,000, but we’re usually between 300 and 500,” he says.  

Robert says, “My dad coined the term, ‘Cattle that perform for the cattleman.’” Campbell Red Angus strives to uphold that maxim with every breeding decision. “I’ve always said we’re one of the best-kept secrets out there.”  

Robert continues the Red Angus breed for various reasons. “It’s a maternal breed with a lot of maternal traits. It’s a really high-value carcass breed. It’s a great base breed to go a lot of different directions for cross-breeding,” he says.  

Seven years ago, Harold passed the operation onto Robert, but remains a source of guidance. “Dad still comes out every day. We’re carrying on trying to produce honest, good cattle,” he says.  

Campbell believes the management of their commercial and purebred herd provides a unique asset: hardiness. “We’re putting cattle into a lot of different environments in a year, and we try to help the animals that we’re selling adapt to different conditions. We’ve got cattle standing in Canada, we’ve got cattle standing in the US, we’ve got cattle standing in Mexico that have all come from this operation. We feel our cattle will adapt to a lot of environments. The cattle are exposed to all four seasons and we try to let Mother Nature do part of our selection. They’ve got to be hardy cattle,” Campbell says.  

Along with adaptability, Campbells strive to produce fertility. “Our purebred herds run under range conditions. There’s not a lot of pampering. They get one chance: if they don’t bring a calf in, they don’t get to stay here. If they don’t breed back, they don’t stay,” he says.  

“Some operations get a cow line and pamper it and it becomes unrealistic, the way they’re performing, because they’ve got every opportunity. They’re fed hard, in other words. They don’t have any adverse conditions which happen under ranch conditions,” he says. Exposing his cow herd to all of South Dakota’s four seasons (sometimes all in one week) instills the ability to adapt to any conditions throughout North America. 

The fifth generation Campbell and the third generation of Campbell Red Angus, Robby, came home after graduating college a year ago. “My son and I and my dad are here full time. My wife (Kara) is a teacher in town and she works at home when she’s not working in town, helping to do books and the full realm of things. I’ve got three other children – my daughters – they’ve graduated and moved on, but they come back and help, also.”  

Campbell’s youngest, Jennifer, graduates from the pre-veterinary program at SDSU this fall, and will be applying to veterinary schools, gaining her interest in animal health from the family’s ranch.  

Looking to the future, Campbell says they will continue to maintain the integrity of the Red Angus, breeding cattle with good feet, good udders, and good production, with the ultimate goal of producing “cattle that perform for the cattleman.”  

Rafter T Angus: Moving forward

By Kaycee Monnens 

Kale and Kim Kretschman of Rafter T Angus, near Gillette, Wyoming, turned their pairs out on summer grass in May. A week later, six inches of hail ruined the pasture. “They just had to tough it out. It was a rough summer. We didn’t creep feed. We didn’t do anything different,” Kim says.  

Despite drought and nutrition challenges, the cattle thrived: weaning weights were within 25 pounds of 2019 (an exceptional year), and pregnancy checks yielded between just 2 and 3 percent open. The numbers prove once again to the owners why they are loyal to the breed, believing in passing on traits of longevity, fertility, calving ease, and rapid gain.  

“They’re tough to beat for the birthweight versus weaning weight. There’s not really anything out there, in my opinion, that will compete with that,” Kale says. His family has always been in the cattle business, most recently Black Angus. His grandfather raised Herefords, but his father made the switch to black cattle.  

For a short time, Kale’s father used Gelbvieh bulls on Black Angus cows. “I just got tired of too much birth weight and we didn’t gain much weaning weight. We switched to Angus bulls and our weaning weights went up, and all our calving difficulties went away,” he says.  

Over time, Kretschman was able to refine the vision he had for his own herd, through experience and opportunity. In 2008, Kale and Kim purchased a dispersal herd from Big Timber, Montana and fully committed to raising registered Black Angus. “It was too good of an opportunity not to try it,” Kim says.  

They were strictly a commercial producer until that purchase, over a decade ago, but it was an easy transition. Kretschmans kept precise records of their commercial cattle, used artificial insemination, used registered Angus bulls, and occasionally sold bulls private treaty. Switching to a registered herd was a natural next step.  

Now, Kretschmans are focused on building a herd with the traits they value. Sons Galen (21) and Zane (7) are heavily involved in the family business. “We’ll probably do this our lifetime, and our kids should reap the benefits of it. That’s how long it takes. It’s a slow process,” says Kim. Using embryo transfer has helped them achieve their vision more quickly. “We’re trying to select those older cows that have been here 10 years and know their jobs. Those are the ones we are starting to flush. You can see it improving faster,” she says.  

Kale puts high value on cattle that last. “The cows that we are flushing – it’s for longevity. In our industry, that’s what is lacking: having a cow that doesn’t disappear by the time she’s four or five. You should be getting that if you have proven bulls and cows that stay here and do it in our environment.” All but one of Galen’s bulls featured in this year’s sale are embryo calves, with proven genetics from their top-producing, long-time females, Kim says.  

“We run our cows like we have always run our commercial cows. They don’t get any special treatment because they’re registered,” Kim says.  

Galen hopes to maintain this value as he makes production decisions. “The purebred guy is going to show up and buy one bull maybe every five years. But the commercial guy is going to show up every year and buy five. If you run them like a commercial cow and treat them like a commercial cow, their offspring and their genetics should always benefit the commercial guy. If we’re trying to make ours stronger in that aspect, it does nothing but make theirs stronger, too,” he says.  

Fertility is a main emphasis for Rafter T Angus, as well. Kim says, “Doctors Jay and Brandi Hudson out of Gillette are tough. Their bar is high for fertility. If the bulls aren’t right, they will not pass a fertility test. Sometimes, it’s painful. They’re so hard on them, but the end result is always worth it,” she says.  

They hold the same standard for the cows. “We breed them for 45 days, and that’s counting A.I. they get one shot at the A.I. and one cycle to the bull. And if they don’t make it, they’re gone. I can tell in the last year, that’s coming around. The fertility is coming back into the cows. It used to be that we had 10 percent open every year, and now we’re down to that 2-3 percent,” says Kale.  

Though many believe cows are either bull-producers or female-producers, Kretschmans believe a good cow should be both. “She ought to raise a good bull and you ought to be able to retain heifers out of her. That’s our goal – to raise cows that can do both,” says Kale.  

With strategic culling, careful breeding decisions, and lots of patience, Kreschmans continue to see the fruits of their labor. After selling with Powder River Angus for two years, they were able to host their own bull sale starting in 2017. January 9, 2021 will be the fourth annual Rafter T Angus Bull Sale at Buffalo Livestock Auction in Buffalo, Wyoming. A potential goal is to also sell females, but for now the focus lies in marketing bulls that pass on proven genetics, “Good-footed, low-input cows that produce a lot,” according to Kale.  

With Galen already raising his own cattle and home-schooled Zane partaking in the day-to-day operations, Kretschmans strive to set their sons up for the future. Kim says, “I hope we’re able to pass on a successful business to [our children], someday. The industry advances every single day. I hope they have the ability to keep moving forward.”

CK Bar Simmental: Marketing black hides across the Dakotas

Near the Kadoka, South Dakota, Kelly and Amy Erickson run a seedstock operation that prides themselves on “Raising the Cowboy Kind,” on the edge of the Badlands. 

Kelly Erickson has been in the cattle industry for nearly forty years, remembering his first heifer, obtained at age 8. It was Kelly’s dad who got him started in black-hided cattle, a switch that many cattlemen made as the years went on. 

“He was really one of the first guys who had the foresight to do so,” said Kelly, “back when most of the guys around us were keeping traditional colored cattle.” 

The 1980s and 1990s era was an easy time to market black cattle in North Dakota as Kelly recalls. The mission of CK Bar Ranch then: produce cows that look good. The philosophy has changed a little since then, as the goal now is to produce cattle that have good maternal traits and carcass traits. 

“About 10 years ago the lightbulb just went off,” said Erickson, “we weren’t doing the industry any good to just sell pounds.”  

Erickson started looking at calf vigor of his cattle, calving ease, and how they would marble in the end. He set out to create cattle that were great mothers, calved well, maybe a little more moderate in size, but could go out and survive a Dakota winter on their own and then perform well on the terminal side. 

Many things have changed over the years, but Erickson has decided to keep the black hide. While there certainly is a market for Red Simmentals, CK Bar Ranch wasn’t producing enough of them to draw a crowd, so they phased that out of their operation and offer homozygous black cattle to their customers.  

The Erickson family focuses on a few herd bulls, but also do some embryo transfer work and artificial insemination as well. Kelly places extra emphasis on the disposition of his bulls, calling them “quiet and easy to handle.”  

Producers can find CK Bar Ranch genetic opportunities every year in April during the Annual CK Bar Ranch bull sale. CK Bar Ranch will celebrate the 20th Annual Sale in April of 2021, it will also mark the 6th sale held in conjunction with Kammerer Livestock at St. Onge Livestock.  

It’s no secret 2020 was a rough year on cattlemen across the nation, and it showed in the Kammerer and CK Bar Ranch bull sale this year. Kelly recalls there was a non-existent crowd. 

“Without buyers on the internet and a few phone sales, there would have been nothing,” said Erickson.  

While the internet played a major part in moving cattle for CK Bar Ranch this year, Kelly says the internet has been a great place for him to market cattle. In years past, he guesses that about 50-percent of his cattle are selling over the internet via online bidding. In fact, the first sale CK Bar Ranch held in 2001 was marketed online even then. 

“We could see where that was an asset,” said Erickson, “We gained many customers in eastern Montana because of it (being accessible online).” 

Erickson says internet marketing has played a major role in all of their past sales. He believes buyers are bidding confidently from the comfort of their homes because they have all of the data right in front of them. Buyers can view cattle, watch videos of them, and have all genetic data at their fingertips. CK Bar Ranch continues to have a good presence on social media, showing day-to-day ranch work as well as promoting their sale cattle.  

“If nothing else, it (social media) is generating a buzz,” said Erickson, noting that it drives messages and phone calls about offerings.  

While online bidding seems to be a way of the future, Erickson says selling in the annual sale with Kammerers has brought him new customers the traditional way — in person. When Erickson moved to South Dakota six years ago, Matt and April Kammerer invited Kelly to join their annual sale. Erickson says this opportunity introduced him to local people who could use the Simmental genetics in West River country.  

As Kelly looks ahead to 2021 he stays optimistic, commenting on how he would like to increase his herd size, although this might not be the year to do it. The market is keeping cattlemen on their toes and thinking fast, Erickson is holding onto calves late in the year hoping to see a swing in prices. He also showed some reservations in the new leadership of our nation and how it may play a pivotal role in cattle production. 

Beyond the economic state of affairs in 2021, Erickson says finding affordable grass is limiting the increase of his herd as well. While finding grass in the Dakotas has always been somewhat of a struggle, Erickson says it is more now than in the past. Nonetheless, Erickson is charging forward and looking at forging alliances with other cattlemen to market feeder cattle.  

“I would like to build on that, I think it could take off,” said Erickson, “Controlling the quality (of feeder calves) rather than having to push out the big numbers.” 

Changing and adapting to new marketing techniques is nothing new for CK Bar Ranch. From show cattle to seed stock bulls, to the next new ideas, Kelly is always looking for the best way to improve the breed and continue “Raising the Cowboy Kind.” 

“If you want to retain your own replacements and add a little milk; this is a great option,” said Erickson of the Simmental breed. “You are going to get that hybrid figure and consistency without sacrificing calving ease.”  

To keep up with what CK Bar Ranch will be offering in their 2021 sale, keep an eye on Facebook and stay tuned for the catalog for their 2021 sale. 

Arntzen Angus: Raising Quality purebred Angus cattle for modern times

The land north of Lewistown, Montana features rolling hills and abundant grass—a perfect place to establish a ranch, which is what the Arntzen family did in the mid-1940s. Alm Arntzen and his son, Ken, moved to the area in the 1940s, purchasing 700 acres, building and adding to it over the next several decades. 

“My grandpa bought the first Angus cows in 1955; before that, they raised Herefords,” said 35-year-old Kevin Arntzen who grew up on the ranch. “He started our purebred herd by purchasing Angus cows from well-known breeders such as Stevenson Angus, the Lost Lake Ranch in Fort Benton and the Green Valley Ranch in Hobson.” 

Through the 1960s, the family kept building the cow herd, selling a few bulls private treaty and finally holding their first bull sale in 1977. Sadly, Ken passed away before their first bull sale. Ken’s wife, Sherry, played a large role in developing the Arntzen breeding stock with her sons, Keith and Doug. The ranch woman was heavily involved in registering cattle and keeping close track of pedigrees.  

After graduating from Montana State University, Keith’s son Kevin returned home to take his place in the legacy of the purebred Angus ranch. 

Kevin mused about the changes from a simple pedigree his grandpa used to develop and sell bulls until today. “In the mid-1960s, the registered breeders started to conduct performance testing. Then EPDs came along including birthweight, yearling weight and weaning weight. Today, we have 30-40 EPDs including carcass backfat, rib eye, carcass weight. The big change recently was having to do foot scores, udder scores and condition scores, as well as reporting all of the heifer breeding. In the last 10 years, the technology has been developed that bulls can be scored based on their DNA–a piece of tail hair, an ear notch or blood. DNA enhances EPD predictability. There is a lot of data to digest.” 

Spring is an exceptionally busy time for the Arntzens. The cows begin calving the first of February with 70 percent calved out by March 1. As calving slows down, the family prepares for the annual bull sale the first Thursday of April. Starting May 1, they spend three weeks synchronizing cows as the intensive AI/embryo transfer program commences. They have emphasized their AI in the past 12 years to get more cows bred and tighten the calving window, which helps in the consistency of the bulls on sale day. In addition, AI allows them to offer larger sire groups.  

“For years Dad and my uncle, Doug, have emphasized the maternal side, looking at a cow with calving ease that is low maintenance, to help the cow/calf producer get ahead,” said Kevin. 

To continually improve their herd, members of the Arntzen family travel all over the country, looking at outcross bulls from other ranches to find one that will improve their genetics. The trips prove extremely educational, as the Arntzen can see the bulls firsthand and look at the calves from certain bulls; if they like the calves and the sire’s corresponding data, they purchase semen. 

“The real fun is trying to get your own bull proven to sell semen around the country,” Kevin said. “It’s challenging yet exciting to try find a breeding that will result in a bull that will change the breed. We did raise AAR TEN X 7008, who was a leading bull across the country in 2015 and 2016. New Trend was the first bull who got popularity around the country in the 1980s and Really Wind was a leading bull in the mid to late 1990s.” 

The Arntzen Angus Bull Sale, which will be in its 45th year in 2021, continues to grow, seeing about 350 people moving through pens to examine bulls, enjoying a delicious lunch and, most importantly, raising their bidding cards when the auction begins.  

“Generally, at our bull sale we sell 220 bulls and we sell another 50 private treaty. This year due to COVID and bad weather, our attendee numbers were really down. We had about 40 people in the stands, and 85 pre-registered online buyers,” Kevin said. “You can’t beat a live auction, though. Bull sales are a community event and there is the exciting atmosphere of the buyers when a bull walks into the ring. I think it’s important to have a live sale, not solely a video sale.”  

Environmentally, with the rolling hills and open country, the area can be snowy; Arntzens start feeding hay the first of January or a little earlier if the weather doesn’t cooperate. However, they don’t creep feed or baby the cows and calves; the livestock need to prove themselves hardy enough to handle winter weather.  

One of the greatest challenges in the area is competition for land. They have the contentious American Prairie Reserve gobbling up ag land in the area (APR has bought a building in Lewistown and is working to set up in that area as well their ranch headquarters in Malta, Montana). Out-of-state people with more money than local ranchers have to spend are buying large tracts, limiting the ability of ranchers to be able to expand.  In addition, the continued assault from anti-livestock organizations makes it essential to communicate directly to the consumer. 

Arntzen Angus has a Facebook page and a website (www.arntzenangus.com) with the family reaching out to a non-agricultural audience to explain what ranching is really like and how it’s critical to the food supply. 

It’s rewarding to work with family: Kevin and Keith work together and Doug has his sons Brad, Derick and Eric. Although their ranches are run separately, the families collaborate on the bull sale and genetics. In addition, three employees, including Todd Foran, who has worked with the Arntzens for 42 years keep the ranch running smoothly. 

Kevin credits his grandmother, Sherry, for doing an excellent job to get the ranch transitioned to the next generation. “Dad and I learned a lot from her regarding transitioning to the next generation. Dad is still the ultimate boss, but he’s really good at letting me make decisions. I’m thankful that we all get along very well. I’ve been working with my uncles and cousins since junior high.” 

Arntzen Angus continues to stay current and family operated as the families of both Keith and Doug remain dedicated to raising quality purebred cattle for modern times. 

Upstream Hereford Ranch: They come from a long line of Herefords

In the Nebraska Sandhills seventeen miles north of the rural community of Taylor along highway 183, Brent and Robin Meeks raise high-quality Hereford cattle. Upstream Ranch is owned and operated by Brent and Robin Meeks and their daughter Carlee.  

Herefords have been in the family for over a hundred years. Brent’s grandfather Alfred was born on December 30, 1914 on his father J.D. Meeks’ small commercial and registered Hereford ranch near Logan, New Mexico. Following his high school graduation in 1933, Alfred went to work in agriculture and married a local ranch girl, Mildred Brown, the following year. Things were hard during the Depression but the couple started out with 14 head of commercial Herefords and working for a local ranch for $30 a month. Their oldest son, Ferrell, was born in July 1935. That fall, a local banker loaned them enough money to buy 160 good heifer calves at $20 apiece. In 1937 Alfred purchased some registered heifers from his father and Alfred Meeks and Sons came into being. In 1940 they leased a small ranch near Dalhart, Texas and, a second son, Warren arrived. In 1945, Alfred was able to purchase this ranch, during these years he was a member of the PRCA and roped calves in his spare time.  

The Meeks family worked hard to improve their land and cattle but years of drought in Texas took their toll. The cattle country of Nebraska had always interested Alfred, so at the invitation of a good friend, Homer Buell of Rose, Nebraska, he came north to look for a ranch. He fell for the more predicable rainfall and the Sandhills grass. So Alfred and Mildred, along with son Ferrell and his wife Gloria, sold their Texas ranch and purchased the Thompson ranch north of Taylor, Nebraska in 1955. Included in the deal were all the horses, haying equipment and the commercial Hereford herd. Upstream Herefords held their first bull sale at the ranch in 1978, having sold bulls private treaty for some years before that. The sale is held annually on the first Saturday in February at the ranch, auctioning off around 300 Hereford bulls and 45 bred heifers with another 40 to 50 bulls sold private treaty.  

Ferrell and Gloria’s son Brent met Robin Sellman while in college, her family was also in the Hereford business. They married in 1983, and have worked hard to grow the operation, and raised two children, Marshall and Carlee on the ranch. Marshall is married to Katie, a kindergarten teacher and he is a third-year resident at St Louis University studying radiology. Carlee graduated from Kansas State in 2017 with a degree in ag communication, and along with helping on the ranch, she works part-time for Purple Visions Productions, taking videos and photos. 

From the humble beginnings of fourteen cows, the Upstream Ranch now calves out a thousand, split between spring and fall calving herds. They implant about 175 to 200 IVF embryos a year and have an extensive AI program. The Meeks time-breed all of their heifers and about 70 percent of the cow herd with a seven-day CIDR synchronization program. 

“We raise both polled and horned Herefords and our bulls are born, raised and developed here. They never leave the operation until they are sold,” Brent Meeks said. “Most of our bulls go on black cows in a crossbreeding program. We sell a lot local and in the state but we cover a pretty big area, like 15 different states.” 

Upstream Ranch has had great success in the show ring with their cattle and in 2016 the ranch ranked third in top breeders of Dams of Distinction, an honor bestowed on outstanding Hereford females by the American Hereford Association. Meeks feels that Herefords are a good breeding tool for ranchers. Offering cattlemen bulls with good dispositions, heterosis, hybrid vigor, increased performance and hardiness. “Herefords can adapt to a lot of different environments, temperatures, regions and feed. I believe in Hereford cattle, they have been good to my family.”  

The main focus of Upstream Ranch is the production of bulls for the commercial cattleman.  
Around two-thirds of their bull crop will reach the sale; the family rigidly culls for performance, soundness, fertility and disposition. The cow herd is also culled very aggressively for problem-free production. Good feet, eyes and especially sound udders are essential. Genetically, Upstream Ranch is trying to produce cattle with balanced trait selection. Their breeding goals are constantly striving for the proper balance of calving ease, growth, maternal, fertility and carcass traits. “We are strong advocates of using EPDs and ultrasound, but we must remember, they are just another selection tool. We still like our cattle to look good phenotypically, be sound on their feet and legs, and docile in their temperament. We raise good productive cattle and stand behind our product,” Meeks said. 

Rambur Charolais: Unique opportunities keep Sidney ranch thriving

Howard Rambur started his herd as a youngster with two crossbred Charolais heifers and a purebred Charolais bull. “I got a small loan from the local bank and was on my way to having my purebred business.  Of course, I’ve been borrowing money ever since,” said Rambur, who raises purebred Charolais cattle near Sidney, Montana. 

Even though his father was primarily a sugar beet farmer, young Rambur’s interest in livestock was piqued when he began working with cattle as 4-H projects. He wanted to own something different than Angus, and the powerful, white Charolais cattle caught his eye. In the late 1960s, the breed, which originated in eastern France, arrived on the scene in Montana. Rambur decided to make the Charolais breed his life’s work as he admired their outstanding performance and especially found that crossbreeding created a superior bovine. 

The rancher raised four daughters, with some involved in 4-H, successfully showing cattle at the Richland County Fair as well as helping on the ranch. His grandkids are now being successful showing steers at the same fair, which continues to thrive. While his daughters were growing up, Rambur continued breed improvement. 

Rambur cows and bulls are raised on the western side of Sidney in some rough country. “You need a good horse and dogs to move cattle out there,” said Rambur. “I find that Charolais have better bone and feet, which causes them to have longevity. I have a lot of customers who are using our bulls up to six years of age, which is double the longevity of other breeds.” 

Although he credits the Angus breed for their “tremendous job marketing their meat,” Rambur pointed out that crossbred cattle provide hybrid vigor and have been bringing an extra 10 percent in sale weight. Because of that, not only does he have Charolais bulls, but also an Angus herd. 

Their bull sale the second Saturday of April is generally well-attended with 80-100 head of Charolais and Angus bulls seeing their way across the auction block. Rambur said in 2020, a smaller crowd than usual because of the pandemic hit them hard, causing a loss of about $100,000 in sales.  

He is curious where the beef prices are going to go. “I don’t know where this is all going to transition. It will be interesting.  Everyone is the cattle business needs to start making money.  It shocks me that we are still selling fat cattle the way we are, when we need to be moving our meat and product better. With COVID, many of the restaurants are half empty and those were the restaurants that were buying high-end steaks. Even before COVID, but really even more so now, people want to know where their meat comes from. More people are looking closer to home so we are seeing a real shortage of small packing houses to handle the increasing number of ranchers wanting to have cattle locally processed. There are only a few large packers now and you have to play their game as many are foreign-owned.” 

Rambur livestock has expanded their sale opportunities, selling cattle and meat to foreign countries; breeding stock has been shipped to Turkey while fat cattle have been shipped to JBS in Greeley, Colorado, to be processed for the Chinese market.  

Rambur talks about how the international connections happened. The Turkish connection started when an exporter driving through Virginia spotted some “buckskin” (Charolais/Red Angus cross) in a field and asked what they were and their origin. Howard Rambur was contacted, and the Turkish exporters visited three times to develop a plan. 

“The Turkish visitors told me that Montana looked like Turkey. We talked about agricultural production and it turns out they are very modern,” said Rambur. “They farm with center pivots and John Deere tractors. At the time we were working out the details, war with Syria was going on and Turkey had an influx of refugees. They realized the need for producing food for an expanding population.” 

Rambur coordinated the shipment of 700 buckskin calves and 900 silvers (Charolais x Angus) with the balance of the load Red Angus and Angus for a total of 2,400. Numerous tests, blood work, papers and various quarantine sites later, the cattle shipped in early February 2017. The boat ride took 30-plus days. The cattle were dispersed into different areas of Turkey and are being used for breeding stock to help boost the country’s meat industry in future years.  

As for beef to China, Rambur had been dealing with JBS and they asked him to sign up to send some of his cattle/beef to China. He sent four pot loads of cattle to be processed.  

Although exporting provides another option for cattle marketing, Rambur explained, “I get exporters calling me all the time, but the money exchange rate is horrid. Keep in mind when you deal with foreign counties, it’s good to deal with the same exporter.” 

In addition to raising purebred bulls and sending their livestock across the ocean, a unique service provided by the ranch is feeding bulls in the feedlot. Many custom yards won’t accept bulls because they’re, well, bulls. 

 “You need to understand the bull mentality,” Rambur said. “Our RC Feedlot has always fed purebred bulls, performance breeds as well as cull bulls. Rambur Charolais offers a bull buy back. When a customer is ready to change bulls out, we will purchase the culls at a premium, feed them at the RC Feedlot, then send them on to the processors.” 

Rambur explained that feeding bulls as a business happened because of the contacts he had at American Foods where he had previously been a buyer. The RC Feedlot already had experience feeding purebred bulls for production sales, so when he was talking to the people at American Foods, the idea developed for Rambur to feed cull bulls. The ranch is able to put quick weight on bulls, and there is a constant market for them. 

 “Bulls are better than feeder cattle because there is a quick turnaround. You feed them for 30 days and they’re gone. I know bulls and I can put quick weight on them. Plus, it’s a constant market even in the winter and it works well because I have my own trucks. When the processor needs a full load of bulls to kill, I can fill those spots quickly instead of their buyers going to many sale barns.” 

The hard-working rancher hopes his grandkids will continue to appreciate ranch life; they help with various aspects of the ranch and all have horses to ride when help is needed. “We try to get them involved as much as we can. One of my grandsons is 14 and this year he hasn’t been in school much due to COVID closings, so he has assisted with calving and wants to learn more from me.  He received a beginning rancher loan from Community Bank in Dickinson, North Dakota to purchase five purebred bred heifers. I applaud that bank for doing that,” said Rambur. 

Despite the challenges of juggling the purebred business, running a feedlot and keeping up with the markets, Rambur said he wouldn’t trade ranching for anything.  

“Whether I’m working with the cattle, watching my dogs working or having my grandkids join me on the ranch, you can’t beat it. We have a fantastic lifestyle.” 

Kenner Simmentals: Focused on Developing Better Beef

Situated with the rugged-plains landscape of Leeds, North Dakota, as a backdrop to their productive ranch and farmland, the Kenner Simmental Ranch produces profitable Simmental and SimAngus genetics for their commercial customers. 

Through their commitment to collecting data, implementing a progressive breeding program, and providing top-notch customer service, Roger Kenner and his daughter, Erika, develop a wide range of bulls proven to work for their customers and produce the carcass their customer’s buyers want. 

“We have a lot of customers that have different bull needs. As seedstock producers, we’re not trying to tell our customers what they need,” Roger says, explaining that their customers are looking for a range of bulls from performance sires to heifer bulls. “We develop purebreds and composite Simmental and SimAngus in red and black. We try to put a range of well-built animals in our sale each year. Some of each category so as to make sure the customer has what their cow herd needs to be profitable.” 

Built on Data and Performance  

“While our area doesn’t require as much pasture per animal unit, structure and soundness are huge for us and many of our clients,” Erika says, describing how bull efficiency and longevity are a factor in providing a quality animal to their customers.  

The shift in the Simmental and SimAngus breed in the early 2000s provided more marketing avenues to commercial producers selecting for extra hybrid vigor. “Simmental went through a bad time,” she says, delving into the bad reputation Simmental had in the commercial industry in the late 1990s for hard calving and extreme frames. At a time when Simmentals weren’t popular, SimAngus proved to the commercial industry how they work in a crossbreeding system. “They were also able to test the waters and we were able to prove we had improved the breed. Now many are seeing the benefits of the SimAngus female and like to make their own half-bloods.”  

The Kenners utilize both Simmental and Angus to develop bulls with calving ease and a manageable frame score. She says, “In our environments, we have found our bulls to be the most efficient at a six-frame score. They’ll put good pounds on their calves, cows will breed back, and they’re coming in with good condition.” 

All cows are bred with one round of AI before being cleaned up with a high-quality bull. Kenner Simmental Ranch breeds 350 cows each year, and implants an additional 100 embryos in their own herd and about 120 more in a cooperator herd each year.  

“We utilize ET and AI to take our herd where we want to be going more efficiently,” Erika explains. A large portion of making breeding decisions is based on the data they are collecting on their cow herd and the carcass grading results from those genetics once they’re on the rail. 

“I have so many spreadsheets that it’s actually kind of a joke around the ranch,” she laughs. Everything from birth weights, weaning weights, yearling data, and carcass ultrasound to mature dam data is collected and used in their selection decisions. “When we’re selling a bull, we will use phenotype and numbers to make selections. They need to measure up weight-wise because pounds still sell. They have to be sound, they’ve got to have easy fleshing ability. We also look at their EPD profile, feet, and disposition.” 

To ensure accurate EPDs, the Kenners report all phenotypes on the whole herd to their association. In recent years, they have participated in a research project to DNA-test their entire cow herd and calf crop. She says, “The DNA gives us a whole other level of accuracy that we haven’t had before. Some of these traits’ accuracy are enhanced to an equivalent of 20 calves reported to a cow. That’s huge when you’re using EPDs to make selections.” 

Another benefit to the DNA testing is that all cows and calves are parent-verified. “By DNA-testing our cow herd, we’ve guaranteed that what we’re selling is exactly what we say it is,” she says.   

Developing genetics for their buyers that will grade Choice while deliberately retaining balance in other traits is top priority. “At the end of the day, we believe in providing our customer a balanced animal,” Erika says. “While we use EPDs and indexes, we’re not just looking at one number or one index. We consider the big picture. We probably move the bulls along in the carcass value a little slower than others, but we refuse to give up everything else to get there.” 

Each year, 60 to 70 steers are fed at Chappell Feedlot in Nebraska. After harvest, the carcass data is used to find areas of improvement. “We feel it’s important as seedstock producers to know how cattle are grading because our clients are commercial cattlemen. They are all going to be selling steers to feedlots and we want to make sure that our genetics are really going to work.” 

Kenner shares that when they first started getting carcass data back, their cattle were grading 70 percent Choice, but after making adjustments to their breeding program, the cattle are now grading 90 percent Choice or higher. The data has been helpful in improving their bottom-end cattle, Kenner says. “The cattle we’re sending to the feedlot are our culls that didn’t make the bull sale. Our calves aren’t the perfect source to get carcass data back on because they don’t represent what our customers would sell to a feedlot, but after years of doing this, we’ve made improvements in our whole breeding program.” 

Each spring, heifers are sorted before breeding for replacements and sale heifers. Their top- and bottom-end cows have gotten closer and more uniform in appearance, making replacement and sale selections more difficult. Remaining critical on their female side provides their customer with a female they can capitalize on, Kenner said. “Sometimes we joke that we sell some that we should have kept for ourselves, but because we’re critical on data, calving in a 60-day window, we’re okay that our customers take some better heifers as well.” 

Providing Impactful, Reliable Genetics  

This upcoming February marks Kenner Simmental Ranch’s 25th anniversary bull sale. For many years, the family sold private treaty off the farm. When they transitioned to hosting a sale each year, they discovered that hauling multiple semi-loads of bulls to Mandan and Bismarck was too cumbersome.  

In 2010, they built their own sale barn on the ranch, where they annually sell 120 to 130 bulls and 70 bred heifers in person and online. By incorporating the online sale option, their buyers have more flexibility during the unreliable weather in the beginning part of the year. Roger says, “We’ve also found that the risk of injury is much lower and it is a lot less stressful for the cattle on the day of the sale.” 

A large kickback to buying bulls from the Kenners is the sale guarantee. If the customer has any problems or concerns, the bull they purchase can be exchanged. To ensure that they can provide their customers with quality genetics in case of an accident, a few sale-quality bulls are held back to be available for buyers.  

“We want 100 percent customer satisfaction,” Erika says. “We keep the extra bulls around so that we can make sure that we can replace a bull if it gets injured. Accidents happen and we hope our buyers know that we will make sure they have a valuable, high quality bull to breed with.” 

Diversified with a Great Crew 

In addition to cattle ranching, the Kenners raise between five and ten different crops each year and are part-owners of a frozen food company.  Much of the farming is small grains like spring wheat and barley, but they also grow corn and beans like black turtle, pinto, and soybeans.  

“Believe it or not, our major business is our grain farming,” Erika says, explaining that because of their climate and soil type they can produce a variety of crops throughout the year.  

For the last 28 years, Roger has also been involved in the pasta industry. He was one of the founding board members for Dakota Grower’s Pasta, a farmer owned co-op where local farmers contributed their durum to the plant. More recently, he is a part owner of a frozen-food company in Leeds. 

For both the cattle and farm operation, the Kenners feel lucky to have employees that make their operation successful. Erika says, “Labor is a major challenge for farmers and ranchers. Finding people who want to work on a cattle ranch, especially in northern North Dakota, is not always easy. We’re fortunate to have a great crew that works with us, and they’ve been working with us for many years.” 

Along with the sale anniversary, 2021 marks the twenty-fifth year working with their herdsman Bryan Leapaldt. Leapalt lives on the ranch and manages all the daily operations and other employees. He also plays a large role in the breeding plans each year. Roger says, “Bryan is an essential part of our operation for daily operation and providing customer service. He works with the customers just as much as Erika and I do.”  

At the end of the day, the Kenners feel successful when they know they’ve improved their customer’s bottom line. Erika concludes, “We understand that herd bulls have a large impact on our customers’ breeding program for years to come. We do the homework for them. We help them minimize risks by providing a balanced, reliable Simmental and SimAngus bull to advance their herd.” 

Spickler Ranch South: Crops and cattle work together

Spickler Ranch South is nestled in the James River Valley in east-central North Dakota. The ranch, operated by Nathan and Emily Spickler, along with their four young children, Haylie, Trace, Kadence and Quaid, with the help of long-time employee Austin Johnson, strives to optimize the resources they have while maximizing the production and efficiency of the Angus cattle and the land they run on.   

Spicklers run a cow/calf seedstock operation in which they offer Angus bulls and females to commercial and registered breeders. The registered Angus operation markets their cattle in early May. Nathan admits it’s stressful to watch bull sales all spring and wonder if anyone is still going to need a bull when their sale rolls around. “We try to really engage with our customers and make sure they’re happy with the results they’re getting with our genetics. There are so many avenues to buy bulls ahead of ours that it’s really necessary to know our customers’ needs,” he said.  

That customer-centric approach has resulted in a high customer rate-of-return.  

Their May sale wasn’t planned as a need to be different. It was the result of trying to figure out how best to market their March- and April-born bulls. “With the nature of our sale, being in May, right near turnout time, we must manage our bulls appropriately,” Nathan says. “Our bull development is very much a marathon process. With a seven-month development period, our bulls are brought along slowly. After yearling data is gathered in February, they are continually backed down on energy to the point that they’re on a very forage-based diet when we market them, which allows their transition to grass to be very smooth.” That’s good, because many of their bulls go from the sale pen to the pasture with the cows. 

They don’t use creep feed, which allows them to see a true picture of how their cows are performing, without supplements. Since their primary focus is on having females that do their jobs well, that’s just one more way they can help inform those maternal performance decisions. 

They wean their calves young, around the first of October. That allows the cows to dry up and add body condition while they’re grazing the lower protein native grass and cover crops. “We’re able to get our cows to a point in their fall range, where they’re back in the shape we want them, so in the winter we’re just maintaining them on a dry hay diet,” Nathan said.  

Spicklers use an extensive embryo transfer program, implanting about 100 embryos a year. They AI every female that isn’t serving as a recip, following up with another round of AI. “We try not to use a lot of bulls, but really zero in on a few sires that we think are going to propel our program forward,” Nathan said. “That will allow us to offer large sire-groups of bulls that are full, three-quarter and half brothers.  

Their highest priority is to have females that earn their keep. 

“Our cows absolutely have to be able to take care of themselves,” Nathan said. In the climatically variable environment Spicklers operate in, their cows have to be strong in the convenience traits that have made the Angus female so popular. “Good udders, great mothering ability, and the ability to calve on time annually are a must for the females that stay in our herd,” says Nathan.  

With rigid culling and a no-tolerance policy for maternal shortcomings, the strength of the cowherd can confidently back the genetics they offer for sale.   

Nathan’s heritage in offering Angus seedstock traces back to Hereford roots, as his parents, Harold and JoAnn Spickler, offered Hereford bulls at auction in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Hereford cattle were dispersed in 1983, the same year Nathan was born. “My parents must’ve somehow known that, even at an early age, my passion would be Angus cattle,” Nathan jokes. After the Hereford cattle were dispersed, the ranch was stocked with commercial Angus, until the mid-1990s when Harold had the opportunity to purchase an entire set of registered Angus females. Those purebred bulls were marketed privately until their family’s first sale in 2000. That was the beginning of the May sales.  

In 2003, Harold died of cancer, leaving the ranch responsibilities to Nathan, who was in college at the time, and his older brother Justin, who was home at the ranch. “Justin and I assumed all the responsibility of the ranch. We marketed cattle together until the spring of 2017,” Nathan said.  

In 2014, an opportunity arose for Nathan and Emily to settle seven miles south of the home ranch, moving onto their current location, where they have been holding their sales since the spring of 2017.  

The ranch Nathan and Emily bought includes enough tillable land for them to be able to produce nearly all the feed they need, requiring only straw and corn stover to be purchased. While the land they’re on is productive, it took some creative thinking to figure out how best to maximize the yield for their purposes.  

They grow alfalfa, grain hay, rye and corn for silage, millet and sudangrass, and most of their ground is double-cropped.  “We’ll seed winter rye in the fall and silage that in June. We then follow that crop with a warm season grass, under seeded with turnips and radishes,” Nathan said. “This year we just grazed our second crop, some years we can hay it and then graze its regrowth. We’re absolutely trying to maximize production out of every acre.”  

They used to monocrop, seeding oats and cutting it for hay. But now, no matter what the crop, they always follow-up with a grazeable second crop. Some years it works better than others, but it’s always worth doing in trying to optimize the land’s productive abilities. 

They’ve also added a lot of cross-fencing, cutting the place into approximately 80-acre parcels, so they rotational graze everything, moving generally every 10 to 14 days. Their goal is to always have regrowth to move the cows into, but they rest some pastures all summer, saving that for fall grazing. They’ve done some water development, adding pipelines that tap into a rural water development. “That investment has paid for itself. It’s been wonderful. The fresh water is well worth it,” Nathan says. 

Most of the time they graze until mid-December, unless the snow is too deep. Between native pasture, crop residue and cover crops, they want their cows to be self-sufficient as long as possible.  

Given the wide-ranging jobs that go along with an intensive farming and ranching operation, Spicklers are thankful it’s something their family can enjoy together. 

“My wife works alongside me everyday. Emily is involved in every aspect of our ranch,” Nathan says.  Emily’s roots are also in purebred cattle, growing up on a registered Red Angus ranch. Their kids are learning the business as well, helping first-hand with all that goes into a seed stock operation. “At the end of the day we know we are truly blessed. We get to work together as a family, always being mindful to glorify God in all we do,” says Nathan. 

One Hundred One Years in Wyoming Coal Country: Cat Creek Ranch and the Ligocki Family’s History

Robert and Joan Ligocki and their family were recognized as a Wyoming Centennial Farm & Ranch in 2018. Robert represents the third generation on the Cat Creek Ranch near Sheridan, and he traces his family roots to Poland, where his grandparents Joseph and Anna Ligocki married in 1909.  

Life was tough for the young couple. Jobs were scarce and poverty was rampant. By 1911, they had two children, Francis and Joseph Jr. Somehow word crossed two continents and an ocean, and Joseph Sr. learned through word of mouth that there was work to be had in the coal mines of Wyoming. It was an emotional parting when he sailed for America on the steamship Main, leaving his wife and babies behind. After five or six days at sea, he arrived at Ellis Island and made his way to coal country in Wyoming.  

Mining was very dangerous work in those days, with frequent cave-ins and explosions that would leave miners trapped or dead. There were no safety regulations as there are today, and many of these early miners were buried in the Carneyville Cemetery near Acme, Wyoming. When the mines were at full production there were fifty head of horses and mules at work every day pulling the coal cars in and out of the mines.  

“There was child labor used to keep the mines going also,” Robert shared. “Fourteen and fifteen year old boys were in charge of taking care of the horses and leading them in and out of the mines.” 

 It was into this treacherous environment that Joseph Ligocki, Sr., ventured to make a living and support his family that was still on another continent. Joseph was paid two dollars and fifty cents for two weeks’ dangerous, back breaking work in the mines, and he faithfully sent money back to Anna in Poland.  

In 1914, Anna had saved enough money to come to America—enough, that is, for her own passage. There was not enough to cover the expense of the trip across the Atlantic for little Francis and Joseph, Jr. Anna left her two young children with her parents and left Poland to come to Joseph, Sr. in America. It was another emotional and heart-wrenching parting.  

Once in Wyoming, Anna got a job in Acme working and cooking for the miners. By 1915, Joseph and Anna were doing well enough to lease a ranch on Cat Creek.  Anna had a garden, chickens, and a cow. She sold eggs for fifteen to twenty-four cents a dozen, and sold cream for $2.50 per five gallon can.  

Joseph continued to work in the mine, a distance of twenty-four miles from the ranch. He worked all week and went home to the ranch on the weekends. He had no transportation, so he would leave home Sunday afternoon and walk the twenty-four miles back to the mine to be there for work Monday morning.  

Money was still scarce in spite of Joseph’s steady job and Anna’s income from milk and eggs. For a while, they tried to make a little extra money by making moonshine. 

“I have their still,” Robert said. “They used barley, plums, rye: whatever they could get hold of that would ferment. They made it at night, hence the name, ‘Moonshine.’ A gallon of their 200 proof concoction was worth two to four dollars.”  

Compared to $2.50 for two weeks work in the mines, this must have seemed like pretty good money!  

In 1917, Joseph had an opportunity to buy a hundred sixty acres on Cat Creek. The price was $8.25/acre, and he borrowed all the money. This was the start of the Cat Creek Ranch for the Ligocki family. 

Joseph became an American citizen in 1922. He still wanted to bring his two children to the United States but finding the finances to do so was difficult. In 1924 they had finally saved enough money and sent for Francis and Joseph, Jr.  

“It must have been terrible for the children,” Robert empathized. “They were leaving their home with their grandparents—-the only home they knew. They didn’t remember their parents at all. They were put on a ship full of strangers with an ID tag on their wrists.” 

In 1925, Joseph, Sr., and Anna got a telegram saying that their children had arrived in New York City. When Francis and Joseph, Jr., got to the ranch in Wyoming, they were strangers to their own parents. They were fifteen and fourteen, respectively, and had not seen their father in nearly fifteen years. 

“Dad didn’t want to stay,” Robert remembers of Joseph, Jr., “But there was no money for him to go back to Poland.” 

In spite of the trauma of leaving the only home and family he remembered, Joseph, Jr., quickly adapted to life in Wyoming’s coal country. He liked animals, especially horses, and that made the transition a little easier for the homesick teenager.  

During these years there were many single men who were highly skilled in various trades who traveled around the country looking for work in exchange for room and board. They would stay in one place for a year or two working simply for sustenance and shelter. 

“My grandfolks would take them in and put them to work,” Robert said. “One of these men was a carpenter. His name was ‘Grzybec’ which is Polish for ‘mushroom.’ At this time there were five people living in my grandparents one room house. He helped them build on two rooms.” This is the same house that Robert and Joan call home today. Joseph Sr., and Anna’s younger children—three more daughters—were all born in this home.  

One travelling tradesman who came to stay with the Ligocki family was a teamster, and another was a blacksmith. In 1930 Joseph, Sr. opened a mine on the ranch with the help of his son and these travelling laborers.  

“They dug a hundred fifty feet into the hillside. How they knew to keep going, that they would find coal, I don’t know,” Robert said. “But somehow they seemed to know. All that work paid off, and they hit a twenty foot vein of coal. They did all that digging with a slip; a big shovel pulled by a team with handles so that a man could flip it and empty the dirt it held. From this mine, they had coal for themselves and sold coal to their neighbors for a dollar per wagon load.” 

In the 1930’s the depression hit, along with drought and a severe infestation of grasshoppers and crickets.  

“The cattle were starving,” Robert said. “All there was for them to eat was a little slough grass. The grasshoppers ate everything else. The government paid people $4-5 per head for their cattle but they still had to be put down. They tried to salvage what meat they could but they had no refrigeration. The government also supplied arsenic dust to kill the pestiferous grasshoppers and crickets, which my dad and granddad spread with a hand spreader. It probably caused a lot of people to die of cancer.”  

Through all these hardships, somehow the Ligocki’s managed to stay on the ranch and keep food on the table for their family. 

“I’ve often wondered why my grandparents survived when so many didn’t,” Robert mused. “I attribute it to their strong faith in the Lord and the fact that they were already seasoned to going without. I’m thankful they were able to survive the ‘30’s and stay on the ranch.’ 

In 1935, Joseph, Jr., married Mary Legerski, a woman he met in the coal camps. They leased the neighboring Takach place from Mr. and Mrs. Louis Takach. There was no electricity and no plumbing in the house, and they did not have electricity there until 1949. After a time of leasing the place was up for sale. Mrs. Takach was now a widow and had moved to Great Falls, Montana. Not knowing exactly where to find her and only speaking Polish, Joseph, Jr., and his mother drove to Great Falls. They managed to make a deal on the place in spite of these obstacles, putting some earnest money down with an agreement to pay the rest later.   

There were no schools near this home, so young Robert and his sister were sent to stay with their grandmother, Anna Legerski in the coal camps at Monarch, so they could attend the Kooi School. 

“I had a hard time in school,” Robert admitted. “My Grandmother only spoke Polish, so there was no one at home to help me with English. My sister was my security.”  

Grandmother Legerski’s house was on the Tongue river, across from the mine tipple where the railroad ran to carry away the coal.  

“I would listen, at night, to the sounds of the whistle, the steam engines, and the coal train leaving,” Robert reminisced, “And I wished I was old enough to go on the train.” 

Grandmother’s house had electricity, but no telephone and no indoor plumbing. They hauled water from the Tongue River for washing and drinking, and heated bath and wash water in the reservoir on the wood cook stove. 

“Christmas Eve my Grandmother had a tradition to invite someone in need,” Robert remembered. “Hobos and gypsies knew she would feed them without any questions. On Sunday we always went to the Monarch Church.” 

During the winter of ’49 a couple took shelter in the church during a blizzard. They found coal and wood and lit the stove. “They burned all the coal in the shed,” Robert said, “But they survived.” 

Today St. Thomas Catholic Church is the only building still standing in the ghost town of Monarch. Two previous churches in the area had burned down, so the members used stone for this structure. It bears silent testament to the life and faith of the mining community in years gone by. 

By third grade, Robert went to a different school eight miles west of his parents’ place. The children rode in a jeep to school, and the ruts on the road were so deep the driver could let go of the wheel and the vehicle would stay on the road! It was very cold in the school; their teacher would put a pot of soup to cook on the coal heating stove in the room.  

Other adventures happened at home. Robert’s brother was helping his dad hay on the Takach place, and he saw a man down on the creek. The place was very remote, so it was unusual to see anyone there. When the two went to investigate, they could see that he held a revolver wrapped in a handkerchief. The man was later apprehended by the law, and the Ligockis learned that he had escaped from the Rawlins Prison! 

One neighbor Robert remembers was John Matzek. He came to Wyoming in 1909 from the Polish/German border and homesteaded in the hills.  

“The remains of his dugout are still there,” Robert said. “Back then he lived in a shack on the hill. Everybody wondered why he would live on a hill. They didn’t know that eighty years later everybody would want to live on a hill! There were record low temperatures in the thirties, and I always wondered how he survived in that little shack.” 

Matzek left a legacy in the neighborhood. During the 1918-19 Influenza epidemic he walked thirteen miles to town and took medicine to sick people on Dutch Creek. His efforts saved many lives.  

At one point, Matzek was delinquent on his taxes by $75.76. At the tax sale, a neighbor bought John’s place and told him to go home, and whenever he could pay him back that was fine.  

At one point, the Dutch Creek Church near Cat Creek Ranch needed painting but no one had money to get it done. One day a painter showed up and began the work, but he would not say who had hired him. It was a mystery for many years, but at John’s funeral it was learned that he was the mysterious source of the three hundred dollars needed to get the church painted. His will gave a fourth of his estate to the Orphan’s home in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a fourth to the Wyoming Children’s Home, a fourth to Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, and the remaining fourth to his sister who still lived in Germany.  

Twenty-five years after Robert’s grandfather had opened the mine on Cat Creek, Joseph, Jr. was still working it. Robert described the process. 

“The tunnel was timbered to hold up the roof, but the coal vein was hard enough to support itself. They dug an air shaft up through the hill from the coal. It was very dusty in the mine. We used carbide lamps for light. You’d put a little water in the top so it would drip into the carbide, forming carbide gas. When the gas was formed then you would light the lamp. My dad’s job was to undercut the coal with a big chain saw that had a seven or eight-foot blade. They would drill into the coal for blasting with a hand auger. They used black powder to blast the coal away.  

“They had two methods of blasting. One with a fuse, and one without. When they used a fuse, they ran it through the center of the powder charges, and then light it. It would take three or four minutes for the fuse to burn to the powder. They would go halfway out of the mine and lean against the timbers, waiting to feel the tremor of the blast. The mine would be full of white smoke when the black powder went off. 

“When they didn’t use a fuse they would place the powder charges, lay a rod called a ‘needle’ at the bottom of the hole they drilled, and then plug the hole behind the powder with rolls of paper filled with damp soil. These would be tamped tightly in place with a stick. The ‘needle’ would leave a groove. When it was pulled out, they would light a ‘squib’ which propelled the flame along itself to the powder through the hole. 

“Sometimes the powder didn’t go off for some reason, and my dad would always wait till the next day to go in and try again.” 

The mine site is still visible today at the Cat Creek Ranch, and Robert has preserved some of the tools used by his father and grandfather in the mine. “You can still see the coal slag on the ground near the entrance,” Robert said. 

Life was not all work for the Ligocki family, though.  

“Music was a great thing in our family,” Robert shared. “In 1959 my brother-in-law and a friend and I started a country western and polka band. We performed all over the area in community halls and bars. Folks had no TV then, and little access to radio so live music and dances were a regular form of entertainment.  

“We were playing out at the Kearny Hall and this attractive lady walked in…” 

The rest was history, as they say. Robert and Joan married in 1966. They raised three sons on the ranch where Robert’s grandparents carved out a living a century ago. Robert and Joan also served as foster parents for over twenty years, sharing their hearts and home with over thirty children ranging from infants to teenagers.  

“The ranch environment is the best therapy for troubled children,” Robert believes. “The jobs they learned to do gave them self-worth.” 

Today, Robert and Joan still live in the same house that Joseph, Sr. and Anna Ligocki lived in. It has been added onto a few times, but the original structure is still home to the Ligocki family.  

Despite all the changes that have come and gone over a century, Robert preserves the tradition of feeding with a team of draft horses.  

“We’re one of the last ranches in the area to use a team for feeding,” Robert said. “A lot of ranches aren’t set up for teams because there’s a long distance between the feed and where the cattle are. When we get snow and mud, a team works well for us. They don’t tear up the ground and they can get places you couldn’t go otherwise. My grandfolks used teams. I find it relaxing to feed with a team; that’s my enjoyment.” 

Robert shares his passion with his community, taking his Belgians to parades and funerals, and helping to educate local school children by giving them wagon rides, explaining how beef is produced on the ranch, showing them an old chuck wagon, and explaining brands and how to read them. 

“I have so many good memories of the place,” Robert said. “A farm or ranch is not a commodity, it is a treasure. My son comes out every day to feed, and he’s always asking questions about how to do things on the ranch. I try to pass on what I know to make it easier for him, just as my dad slowly let me take over. He was always there to help. I’m pretty proud of the fact that our ranch is being passed down to the fourth generation. Statistics show that only about three percent of family business stay in the family and survive to the fourth generation. The credit goes to my grandfolks and my parents for their hard work and the hardships they endured to stay here. They kept the family strong and had a good work ethic.”  

As Robert makes the transition from actively ranching to turning the reins over to son Merle, he is working to get his family’s history documented for the next generation. Robert travelled to Poland in 2006 to see where his grandparents and his father came from. He also visited Auschwitz. As he travelled, Robert was struck by the names on the tombstones in the small church cemeteries.  

It was easy to see that if his grandparents had not braved the risk of emigrating to Wyoming, and then working so hard to bring his father over from Poland, that his family’s story would have likely been far, far different, living through two World Wars, the Nazi Holocaust, and the period when Communists controlled Poland.  

“They were the same names as people here in Wyoming,” Robert said. “It’s unbelievable what happened there. We are so lucky to be in the United States. Our freedom is something we should treasure.”