Justin Wheeler’s Living Legacy
Justin Wheeler is the picture of contentment. Nearing his 80th birthday, he and his children continue to ranch on the place his grandfather homesteaded 20 miles southwest of Philip, South Dakota in 1904. For him, the location couldn’t be any more ideal. “I don’t want to live any farther north and I don’t want to live any farther south, as far as the weather goes. It’s the best place to be. We’re about as far away from the East Coast as we can get, and as far away from the West Coast, and that’s good. Probably some of the worst things we have to deal with is the politicians in Washington,” he says.
The commercial Angus operation runs mostly pairs and some yearlings, with disposition being at the heart of their decision-making. The Bad River runs through a piece of the ranch, along with six other creeks. This makes calving a challenge. “Creeks and cows and calves don’t go together,” Justin says. The creeks are fenced off to provide protection with no risk. The heavies are moved onto the calving ground until they calve, then they are moved again to fresh pasture. It’s more work, he says, but there is no other way to prevent calves from drowning.
Working horseback not only makes things simpler to sort and move pastures, it also makes for a more docile pair or yearling. Wheeler’s father used to raise horses, and nowadays they buy broke horses or young horses for Justin’s son, Jimmy, to start. “It’s really the only way to handle cattle. I think if you handle them quite a bit horseback, they’re just easier to handle and easier to do things with,” Justin says. “We raise these yearlings and when we take them into the sale they don’t bounce off the ring door. […] I don’t want something that’s wild, and nobody else does, either.”
Genetics–or rather the results of good genetics–play a role in Wheeler’s bull-selecting process. He finds himself looking more at the “critter itself” rather than the pedigree, but he does study in-depth EPDs when he is choosing seedstock. Wheelers run a few Hereford bulls to produce a handful of baldy calves, but by and large, he loves the black cows and calves. His son-in-law, Jim Cantrell–who lives on the north side of the ranch, and is married to Justin’s daughter, Joan–does artificial insemination for their operation when needed. Wheeler is also a regular buyer of bulls from Dartt Angus Ranch in Wall and Lehrkamp Livestock in Scenic, being very happy with the calves they produce.
The middle-of-the-road type cow is what works best for Wheeler’s operation. “I have to have something that is what I call an ‘easier keeping cow’– one that’s not going to eat me out of house and home and yet produce a good calf. I try to keep as much grass as I can, but you have to have so many cattle to make a living,” Wheeler says. His wife, Joyce, has been a major part of their operation from the beginning. When she is not writing novels, she helps Justin with anything from “horseback to driving tractor to fixing fence,” he says.
As the third generation, Justin knows that his grandfather and father had seen tough years, too, and he strives to be a good steward to the land. The current two-year drought spanning most of western South Dakota has been challenging, but running fewer cows than capacity has saved old grass in order to maintain the ranch and cows comfortably. Finding hay is easier this year than last, as many areas nearby have been receiving rain. “You can get through one or two dry years, but eventually it’s going to get everybody,” he says. Yet, Wheeler is optimistic. “2012 was dry, and 2013 was one of the best grass and hay years we’ve ever had. I think next year we’re going to have a good year,” he says. The rising cattle markets are enough to raise anyone’s spirits.
Justin’s son, Jimmy, his wife Sonny, and their two sons, Kyle and Cort, live and work on the south side of the ranch. Kyle is currently an apprentice electrician. “He’s been an awful big help on the ranch, too,” Justin says of his grandson Kyle. “There’s nothing he can’t do.”
“The kids, they come up with different ideas than I do, and sometimes their ideas are better than mine. I’m open to all ideas on how to do things. Just because I’ve done it that way forever doesn’t mean that’s the way to do it,” he says. Jim and Joan Cantrell’s three children, Ty, Tara (married to Jace) Schofield, and Morgan (married to Dalton) Kinsley, grew up on the ranch.
Justin and Joyce have two other daughters, Jackie (Gary) Hansen; and Jena (Mike) Amiotte, and their children Kreid (Ashley), Justena, and Adam, who don’t live on the ranch, but who contribute to the operation, especially during branding time, which is a much-anticipated event for everyone.
Justin and Joyce are blessed to have grandchildren growing up in the ranching lifestyle. Knowing the fourth, fifth, and sixth generation agriculturalists in his family are started down the road toward success means a great deal to Wheeler. He loves having his multi-generational family around, and still enjoys his place working on the ranch. “There’s a lot of good hired help around, but by golly they’re hard to find. If you’ve got the family and they’re interested and they can run it just as well or better [than you], it’s a great feeling,” he says.
“Sometimes you make money and sometimes you don’t, but money don’t mean everything. There’s no better life,” Wheeler says.