Nuckolls: Success through vision, hard work
August 30, 2013
The Nuckolls family came to Wyoming in the early 1900s from a plantation in Virginia, and for three generations have been successfully operating, expanding and improving their sheep and cattle ranch located in the scenic Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming.
"My dad, William Swift Nuckolls, traded 100 head of horses for the original ranch in 1917, and that was the start of it. He had homesteaded earlier on Whitetail Creek, which is between our place and Hulett, and was working on a horse ranch owned by Jack Hale. Jack was also from Virginia, and he was my granddad and grandmother's best man in their wedding," explained Jw Nuckolls of the connection that brought his father into Northeastern Wyoming.
After William and Jw's mother Myra married and began their family of seven children, they returned to Virginia and took over the plantation for Jw's grandparents. The Wyoming ranch, which was 1,080 acres at the time, was put into a five-year lease, and William and Myra dove into getting the plantation back up to snuff.
"Had we stayed in Virginia, I would have been the seventh generation on that plantation, and my kids the eighth. But, I remember one night at the kitchen table dad asked mom if they should come back to Wyoming, and mom asked him if we were leaving that night or in the morning," recalled Jw with a chuckle of how the family came back across the country only a few months after leaving their ranch.
Upon returning west, William bought a house in town, and eventually got back on his ranch the fourth year of the five-year lease as a result of it being run down so badly by the tenants that they were legally removed.
"We moved back in 1943 and in the fall of 1945 we bought 500 ewes, gate cut, from the Empire Sheep Company in Moorcroft, WY, who at that time was the largest sheep operation in this whole part of the country. They ran around 18,000 ewes at one point," noted Jw of how the operation was stocked.
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At 12 years old, Jw and his new dog were given the task of trailing the ewes the 26 miles from Moorcroft to home.
"That new little dog was supposed to be a sheep dog, and he didn't know anything, but had a real interest in sheep. Of course, these sheep had been in open country with no fences, and didn't know anything about timber, or much about gates either. The first gate I came to that dog started going around those sheep real quick, three times, and had them all balled up. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to get anywhere, but about the third time he cut into them just right and a few shot through the gate. I hollered at him and he turned around and went to the other side, and from then on he had it figured out," recalled Jw of the experience.
For the first couple years, a local fellow ran a shearing crew, and the wool went to Belle Fourche. The lambs and cull ewes were trailed to the railroad in Moorcroft and sent to Omaha. Cars had to be spoken for in advance, and a lot of additional arrangements had to take place prior to heading into, what was at the time, the largest inland shipping point for livestock in the country, which hauled cattle trailed in from as far away as Canada.
"We happened to be there one year when the Parks Ranch, which was a big operation by Rocky Point, was trailing their three-year-old steers in. The yard man told us we had better get corralled before they showed up or we wouldn't get in, so we got there early. They had this quarter mile wing into those corrals, and you could see this dust cloud coming a long ways off. Then in they came with 3,000 head of those big steers. They had about 20 riders, and needed every one of them too. That was a pretty western affair to me at the age I was at the time," said Jw of one of the more memorable trips to ship lambs.
After Jw graduated from the University of Wyoming with honors in 1955, and a degree in agronomy, he returned to the ranch and joined his father in a partnership.
"We didn't meet at college," explained Jw of how he met Thea. "I was looking for a registered flock of Corriedale sheep to raise bucks out of for our Warhill range ewes. Thea's folks had one of the larger Corriedale registered flocks in the country down in the Douglas area, and it was dry then and they were going to sell a couple hundred ewes. I went down and bought part of that flock, and that was how we originally got acquainted. We later met again during the Wyoming State Fair in 1958, and married in 1959."
Jw's father passed away in April of 1962 and the couple inherited 90 acres of the original ranch. The couple got an FHA loan to pay off his siblings for their shares, and soon took over the entire operation.
"We were originally considering running straight sheep because we're so heavily covered in pine trees, and battle pine needle abortions so bad in cattle. If my dad got a 60 percent calf crop, that was good," said Jw of the scope the cattle problem that lead to the couple's original idea for the place.
However, they soon realized that the variety of cool season grasses in their location didn't make it conducive to running straight sheep.
"Sheep just don't prefer some of those grasses, and we were watching our grass getting taller and our lamb weights getting lighter, and realized we would have to run a mix with some cattle to work on that coarser grass," said Jw.
Thea brought a few head of registered Angus cows with her when she married Jw, and the couple built on those, and began altering their cattle management to better fit their location.
"In about 1963 or '64, we started fall calving. It took care of the pine needle situation, and besides spread the workload out. We shed lambed at the time, and had a flock of registered Corriedale ewes that we lambed ahead of our other sheep, so we were completely tied up with lambing from basically March through May," explained Jw.
He and Thea also handled the majority of the shearing at the time, and Jw said that after chores each day, he would shear between 60 and 80 head, and Thea would tie and tromp the fleeces.
The couple raised three girls and two boys and expanded the operation over time to fit their growing family.
"Dad had everything paid for, and he wasn't very conducive to going into debt again, but I finally got him to sign on the dotted line so I could use the home place for collateral, and with a loan through the federal land bank I had the opportunity to buy a place up around the little Missouri Butte," said Jw of the first time the operation grew.
Additional purchases over time added more valuable hay ground, and later pasture in areas not covered in pine trees. Joining the Rocky Point Grazing Association in 1965 also provided critically needed room to grow.
As the operation expanded, Jw and Thea also paid close attention to improving the marketability of all products produced on their land. From feeding their fall calves to fats and hitting an off-season market, to implementing the first tree-thinning program in the county, to a hunting program for wildlife management and diversified income, the couple has always been innovative and forward thinking in their management.
They are also among those who began the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, and the Nation Center Wool Pool, which has grown into Center of the Nation Wool today. Both of these entities have dramatically improved the marketability of lamb and wool, respectively, for sheep producers across the country.
Today, Jw and Thea's son Will runs the ranch. While many things continue to run the same, Will has changed the calving period back to June 1, and moved lambing outdoors and up to June 1. He is implementing components of Allan Savory's livestock management program on the ranch, and continuing to battle the non-stop predators that have always been an issue to Wyoming's sheep industry.
"I know Thea really enjoys the grandkids and great-grandkids now. My brothers and sisters always reveled in the times they could come back to the ranch, and always felt a real connection to it. I think we see that in our family too – they get a real sense of what family and home are all about. I think it's much easier to do that in farming and ranching because you have the opportunity to spend more time with one another. That's been our highlight," concluded Jw of what he enjoys most about his lifestyle.
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