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.”
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