Sheep in the grasslands: Reed family runs Rambouillet
Bill – Tom Reed grew up on his family’s land, raised his son Monte and daughters Elizabeth and Coralee there and is now watching his grandchildren grow up on the same piece of property. Through the passage of time, Reed has maintained a large sheep herd that serves as the livelihood of the three families.
“Dad came to the place in 1947, married the neighbor girl Jewell and ranched from then on. Monte and I just purchased it from them last year,” says Tom.
Tom lives with his wife Beverly near the home ranch. His son Monte, wife Tanya and kids Hannah, Benjamin and James live next to Tom’s parents Earl and Jewell on the main ranch. His daughters and three other grandchildren live away from the ranch, as well as his two brothers, one sister and their families.
“We raise Rambouillet because they are dual-purpose sheep,” says Tom. “They have fine wool, which is the top market right now, and they raise good lambs.”
Tom notes that his lambs are fed out in a feedlot constructed on the place three years ago.
“We had them custom fed for several years, and it seemed like our death loss was really high,” explains Tom.
When the lambs are custom fed, they come from a myriad of different farms, and each brings a slightly different strain of pneumonia, says Tom. The resulting death loss is significant.
“Besides, there is also money in feeding lambs. Our feedlot makes money,” adds Tom. “Times were hard for a while.”
“We have to have the money to support three families, and the prices haven’t been there to support it until just this last couple of years,” says Tom.
In the feedlot, Tom can support over 1,300 lambs, fed on a hay-corn mixed ration twice a day. They are continuing to develop and improve their feedlot.
The family also sells wool, shearing at the beginning of March, noting that a crew visits the ranch to help with the process.
“It gives our sheep a little longer to gain back some of the weight,” says Tom. “They gain easier when they aren’t packing around 10 pounds of wool.”
He notes that last year the ranch sold wool higher than ever before, with the possible exception of a price bump in the 1950s. After being shorn, the ewes lamb beginning April 15.
“We bring our sheep into sheds and lamb them,” Tom explains. “We have five lambing bunches that fall one right behind the other. That way, we don’t have all the sheep in at once and it is more manageable.”
The Reeds’ lambing system is very efficient and allows them to keep close track of the lambs.
“We bring the sheep in in bunches, divide them up and put them in pens until they lamb,” explains Tom. “They stay there for 12 or 36 hours, depending on when they lamb.”
“If the ewes have a single, they are grouped in fives. If they have twins, we put them in fours,” says Tom, explaining that those numbers keep doubling until they reach 16 or 20.
“We get everything filled up with sheep about 10 days after we start lambing,” comments Tom. “By then, we have about 400 head of sheep in here, some with lambs, some without.”
At that point, Tom takes them to pastures and creates his bunches. The pastures have sheds to protect the lambs, and he notes that the singles are much more hearty than twins.
The Reed family uses a computer system along with a manual ribbon system in the barn to keep track of lambing information to facilitate communication between everyone involved, also tracking any lambs that may need additional attention.
The Reeds also run a herd of commercial Black Angus, with some Hereford influence.
“We calve our heifers in March and cows in May and June,” says Tom. “I don’t feed my cows in the winter because it works not to. I have good winter pasture. If they are a little thin in the spring when they calve, they get on the new grass and are fine.”
By moving their cow calving dates to May, Tom adds it cuts out a lot of expense.
“We feed the heifers, and the cows only get fed lick tubs,” says Tom. “We still lose some calves to weather in May, but not as many as March.”
Tom runs their cattle and sheep on private land intermingled with the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, saying it works very well.
Drought is the most notable challenge that the Reeds face on their land, along with predation by coyotes.
“If someone says coyote, everything else comes to a standstill and we go hunting,” says Tom. “My brother has an airplane and is licensed to aerial gun them.”
He adds that taking care of predator problems also involves tracking the coyotes.
Another challenge comes in the amount of useable dollars brought in by the ranch.
“We aren’t up to where we were in the ‘80s as far as buying power goes,” explains Tom. “It takes more lambs to buy a pickup than it did in ‘80, and everything else has gone up so much.”
Regardless, he notes that he saw lamb prices increase a year earlier than many because he sells fat lambs, as well as feeder lambs.
“The feeder lamb market follows fat lambs,” explains Tom. “People who were selling fat lambs like we do got to see the market go up really high, but those selling feeder lambs didn’t really see the increase until last fall.”
Aside from the ranching operation, Tom is involved in both the Thunder Basin Grazing Association (TBGA) Board and the county fire crews.
“I’m on the TBGA board and have been for almost seven years,” says Tom. “Dad was on it for 39 years.”
Tom explains that the grazing association has an agreement with the federal government and issues grazing permits to members of the association. Term permits are largely permanent and require the holder to submit paperwork to the board, while other temporary permits are administered by the board from year to year.
“We also do conservation practices,” says Tom of the TBGA board. “We did a pipeline project, and there were some wells built. We have a paid range manager that does most of the work there.”
The TBGA has over 60 members in Converse County, fewer than 20 in Campbell County and fewer than 10 in Weston County, with the board consisting of seven representatives from the three counties.
Tom also serves as the Converse County fire warden and has held the position for 11 years. In this position, he manages over 100 rural fire fighters, as well as more than 60 pieces of equipment.
“Fires really vary from year to year. Last year we didn’t have many, but they were big,” says Tom, noting that the group also works to fight fire in neighboring counties. “I was only on 10 fires this year, and three of those were in Niobrara County. Some of the ranchers live in Converse County, but their land extends into Niobrara. We go across the county line and don’t expect to get paid. We have to come together to fight fire.”
Tom and Beverly enjoys ranch life, as do Monte and his family, and his parents, saying it allows them to be involved with the family. The family aspect of the operation is paramount.
“The proudest moment for my dad is probably that we have four generations on the family ranch right now,” says Tom, smiling. “It’s good that every one can make some money in the sheep industry and we can keep it going.”
Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.