Sheep Ranching: Child family remains in sheep operation
Cokeville – With lots of experience sheep ranching and a love for the animals they raise, Jon and Vickie Child hold strong as one of two remaining sheep operations in Cokeville.
“At first, we looked at getting into the cattle business, but it took so much more to get started,” Jon comments. “We thought, all we need to get started in sheep is to rent us a range, get a sheep camp, a couple horses and a pick up, and we’re set, so that’s what we did.”
Before they were married, Jon notes that he and his wife Vickie learned from a Basque sheep rancher in Utah.
Vickie mentions that the two spent over 10 years herding sheep.
“Back then, we didn’t know about getting contract labor,” she says. “I would herd one herd, Jon would herd another, and one year, we had the kids herd a third group.”
“We started in Nevada,” says Jon of their sheep ranching operation, which he ran in conjunction with his brother. “Thirty-three years ago, we ran sheep together, and it was tough.”
He adds that as young ranchers in the industry, many of the lessons they learned weren’t easy. When Deseret Land and Livestock in northern Utah and Wyoming sold the sheep aspect of the operation, they rapidly expanded and were on their way to extending the operation.
“We were running about 3,000 apiece then,” Jon mentions, noting that they split the operation for a period, coming together to buy another parcel of land when Thompson Land and Livestock in Cokeville sold.
Eventually, the brothers split the operation again, and while his brother returned to Utah, Jon stayed in Cokeville, running sheep on the range and raising his family.
“We run a Rambouillet type sheep, and we buy some Targhee bucks as well,” explains Jon. “They are hardier for this Wyoming climate – especially the desert.”
He also mentions that the finer clip of wool makes them more desirable and offers another sector of profit.
Lambs and the range
The Child family runs their operation as a range sheep business, lambing in the middle of May on their spring range.
“We come in on our spring range by May 1, and we get them sheared,” he notes. “Most of the time, the weather is pretty decent by then.”
“It’s an all-range operation,” Jon adds, also noting that they work their lambs and have sheds to accommodate ewes that won’t accept their lambs or to pair lambs with ewes. “We try to get a lamb on every ewe.”
While running their sheep, they keep herders with each band, as well as guard dogs, to keep predators at bay. Especially at the end of the grazing season, Jon notes it can be difficult to keep predators away.
“Now, the sheep are really restless,” he explains. “The feed is dry and they are ready to come down, so they scatter. As they scatter, we have coyotes, bears and wolves that hit and scatter them more.”
However, with the help of the state predator boards and government trappers, Jon says they see some relief. They also fly their ranges in the winter to alleviate predator strains.
Jon adds that Mother Nature and labor issues are also of constant concern.
“Mother Nature is our biggest challenge right now,” Jon says. “Two springs ago, we had one of the toughest springs and winters in a long time.”
He also notes that this year has been incredibly dry, adding another element of difficulty.
“There isn’t really anything we can do about that, though,” he says. “We just have to get through it.”
However, the Department of Labor and dealing with the H-2A program is also challenging, especially with recent changes that have been made to the program, making it more difficult to bring in contract labor.
“We rely on the labor so much,” says Jon of the H-2A program workers. “If we don’t have these men, we’re done.”
Though they attempted to hire sheepherders off the street when they started, both Jon and Vickie noted that it created more problems.
Other challenges, such as bighorn sheep and public lands problems, have made it hard for sheep ranchers to subsist in Wyoming, or even the U.S. in general, comments Vickie.
“I hate seeing these challenges take the agriculture out of Wyoming,” she says. “The sheep business is a dying industry. There are very few outfits left around here.”
Joys of operating
While it isn’t an easy business to be in, Jon notes that they enjoy running sheep and operating in the Cokeville area is a pleasure.
“We have everything we need here,” he explains. “We have our best summer ranges that have a natural flow into our spring and fall ranges. We have winter desert, and everything is together.”
He adds that the ranching lifestyle is a good way to raise a family, and all six of their children were brought up helping on the ranch.
Jon and Vickie’s children Dustin, Shanna, Clint, Shawnee, Shaylyn and Jon Kelly still help on the operation, and he has two sons interested in continuing the family business.
“We like the sheep,” he continues, “and sooner or later, it’ll rain. We’ll get through the tough times.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.