Keeping the Sheep Happy: Tradition and Technology Drive Production on the Boller-Mills Ranch
for Tri-State Livestock News
Raising sheep is in Travis Mills’ blood. As the fourth generation on the ranch where both sets of his great-grandparents homesteaded, he credits sheep with keeping the place in the family and the families on the place.
“My great-granddad, Ralph Mills, got his first sheep in 1934,” Travis said. “He claimed he was so broke at the time that he couldn’t afford to leave. A guy sold him some yearling ewes, told him he could take them, lamb them out and then pay for them that fall. They pretty well paid for themselves that first year, and that was how they started to get out of debt. So there have always been sheep here.”
Ralph and Laura Mills raised their family in the wide open country near Wright, Wyoming. Half a mile to the west, Jack and Drusilla Boller were close neighbors, and almost as close as kin to the Mills family. Years later, two Mills boys married two Boller girls, and then it was official.
Travis grew up helping his parents, Tom and Bonnie (Boller) Mills on the ranch every spring during lambing. He quit school in the tenth grade to attend the ‘Mills Ranch University’ and work on the ranch full time. Now Travis and his wife Traci and son Trevor carry on the traditions of the past while simultaneously pushing the sheep to higher levels of production and quality using modern technology and performance based management practices.
“Dad runs the cows with Mom and I manage the sheep,” Travis said, “Every day we get up and get in the same feeding pickup. We spend the first half of every day together, and I feel privileged that I get to work alongside him. Having his experience to draw on is invaluable.”
Travis said he thought he was pretty smart until his dad handed him the sheep.
“The younger generation thinks they’re so smart until it’s up to them,” he said. “The first time we got pregnancy disease in the ewes after I took over, I went to my dad with a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on my face. ‘What do I do?’ I asked him. ‘We’ve got to get something in them,’ he said. He had been to the war already.
“Grandpa didn’t know what they were dealing with when pregnancy disease hit the flock years ago. At that time they were running twelve to fifteen hundred ewes. It always hit the ones with twins. Dad could remember hauling out a hundred sixty dead ewes in one load, all with their lambs in their bellies. The older generation has seen it all and you’re not very smart if you don’t listen to them.”
New ideas, though, also have their place. Ron Cole told Travis about new technology available to test the micron rating of wool and asked if they wanted to test their flock to find the coarse end.
Travis decided to go for it.
“They tested the whole flock five years ago,” said Lisa Surber, a sheep and wool consultant who used her Optical Fiber Diameter Analyzer (OFDA) on Mills’ flock. “They had a coarse edge to their clip and knew they couldn’t fix it solely by using finer wooled bucks.”
The OFDA machine was invented in Australia, and the testing can be done chute side in seconds It gives information about other characteristics of the wool along with the micron measurement, including staple length, variability, curvature (crimp), and comfort factor. These are all important factors if wool is destined for the apparel industry.
After identifying and culling the coarser ewes, Mills’ started testing the ewe lambs each year prior to adding replacements to the flock. Simultaneously with this concerted effort to change their wool clip, Mills’ bought rams with National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) data records. This made a difference not only in the wool but in other characteristics such as growth and twinning.
“This really shows in the sheep they’re raising,” Lisa said. “They changed their flock from twenty-four to twenty-five microns to a solid twenty-two. This finer wool can be made into military clothing, so wool producers see a significant difference in the price paid: sixty cents to a dollar per grease pound.”
“We test the ewe lambs and then test them again as yearlings,” Travis said. “If a lamb is coarse, she goes with the wethers. You can figure she’ll probably be a micron to a micron and a half coarser as a yearling. Pounds still trump everything when it comes to wool, but we like a nice middle of the road clip around twenty-two.”
Mills have the ewes ultrasounded and then separate the ones carrying singles from the ones carrying twins and shed lamb the ones with twins to give them time to mother up properly. They start lambing around the tenth of May when the grass is greening up.
“We turn them out in the pasture during the day,” Travis said. “We have a team and wagon with an outrider; we let them lamb in the pasture and then we take them to the shed. That team and wagon is pretty fun—we like to ride and rope around here anyway—it’s a throwback to when my dad and granddad would load twins and take them to the shed.”
Ewes and lambs are kept penned for five to seven days, first in individual pens, then moved to groups of four and groups of twenty.
“They learn to find mom faster this way,” Travis said. “I have a saying that ‘Sheep don’t count two very good.’ If a ewe has one lamb, it’s her job to keep track of the lamb, but if she has two, then it’s the lambs’ job to find the ewe. Ewes aren’t bad mothers; the good moms will still have one lamb even if they started with twins; the great moms will raise two.”
Mills’ range lambed for nineteen years and their ten year average was a one hundred percent lamb crop at shipping time. With the shed method, they are averaging a one hundred forty percent lamb crop.
With somewhere in the neighborhood of six hundred sets of twins to contend with, lambing is more than a full time job. Although Traci didn’t grow up handling sheep, she left her job as a secretary at the Black Thunder Coal Mine in 2010 when Trevor was born to be a full time mom and full time vital part of the Mills’ sheep operation. Trevor, too is a big help, cleaning jugs and filling water buckets, even driving the pickup on occasion.
“We have a great crew,” Travis said. “We couldn’t do it without them. We have a lot of friends and neighbors who come to help. My wife and mom graft twenty to forty lambs each year onto two year olds that have singles. We keep them in a shed by the house, and every bum from the twin shed gets hustled down there. When they get one lambing they give her the bum with her own lamb. By the time we get done lambing we have half a dozen or fewer bum lambs.”
Travis is now keeping some of his own replacement bucks but expects his ewes to meet a ‘merit based’ criteria list before he will keep her offspring to be a future sire in the flock.
“Every year a ewe has twins she gets a notch in her ear,” he said. “She’s not eligible to raise a buck till she’s a four year old that has raised at least three sets of twins, or a five year old that has raised four sets, and so forth. We might keep eighty buck lambs in the spring, then narrow it down to around thirty-five or so to winter, and then in the spring pick the eight that have the best records to keep around. We end up with the bucks out of the top seven percent of our flock. It’s not just based on looks, it’s based on performance.”
With all the effort they are putting into improving their flock, Mills’ are also seeing a demand and getting a premium price for replacement ewe lambs that they choose to sell.
“Their hard work has developed a marketable enterprise within their flock,” Lisa Surber said. “They are spreading their genetics out to others interested in fine wooled, growthy, twinning commercial ewes.”
Travis is quick to keep it all in perspective.
“People are talking about how I’ve taken things to another level, but it’s not about me. First and foremost, we believe that the Lord is the one who keeps us. If it depended on me we wouldn’t get anywhere. My family has been at this for over a hundred years; I’m just the latest installment. I get up every day and do the best I can for those who came before and those who will come after.”
For Travis and his family, the best part is still seeing the sheep out grazing on the green grass of Wyoming in the spring with their new lambs.
“It’s good,” he said. “They’re happy. And when your sheep are happy, you are happy.”