Achieving their dream: Williams family builds sheep, cattle ranch
Moorcroft – Dennis Williams is the son of a homesteader-turned-cowboy, and it was always his dream to own a ranch.
“My dad homesteaded, but he was one of the ones who didn’t make it because 320 acres wasn’t enough,” Dennis says. “He wound up working for a lot of ranches.”
“Dad taught me how to really ride and break a wild horse,” he continues. “They called dad Wild Horse Charlie, and he could do anything from a horse. He taught me everything I know about riding.”
In his early years, Dennis worked on ranches in Crook County, crediting Wenande Land and Livestock and the Robinson family for teaching him much of what he uses on the ranch today.
Dennis married his wife Grace in 1975.
“Grace worked as a school teacher, and I worked on ranches when we first started,” Dennis says. “We got this place in 1985. We started with 23 acres, and we’ve really grown since then.”
Grace comments, “I kept saying that this dream was possible.”
When they started, Dennis notes that they acquired a herd of Targhee sheep from Wenande Land and Livestock to get them started
“That family taught me everything I know about running sheep,” Dennis says. “He treated me really great.”
Dennis saved back all the ewes each year to continue to build the herd over time.
At the same time, he had the chance to lease a few parcels of land, and they continued to build the sheep operation. When land was available, they bought it or leased more to continue to grow.
The land around Moorcroft is good sheep country, says Dennis, noting that they deal with the challenges in the area and still maintain high production.
“We strive for 110 percent lamb crop, and usually we can hit that,” he comments. “Sheep markets have also treated us well. We can get a check from the wool and from the lambs, which helps us out.”
Even in years when grass is limited, Dennis says the sheep do well, eating sagebrush and surviving on less than would be required to feed cattle.
“We use Great Pyrenees dogs in our sheep, and they do a good job keeping the coyotes out,” he explains. “We’ve tried everything, but the guard dogs are really amazing. They work well for us.”
“Sheep have paid for two ranches, but when the cattle market was so good, we added a few cows to this place,” Dennis says. “We built the cattle operation in 1990.”
He continues, “Back in those days, the sheep market was a little sluggish, so I thought we should diversify a little bit.”
Today, they run 600 cow/calf pairs, plus yearling cattle.
In addition to further growing the operation, Dennis explains that cattle and sheep work well together, and they can run cattle in areas where coyotes cause severe depredation of the sheep herd.
“A balance of sheep and cattle really works well,” he says.
Continuing to grow, change
The Williams family is always looking for an opportunity to grow and change to improve the operation.
“Last year, one of our neighbor’s hair sheep got in with a few of our ewes,” Dennis says as an example. “We had about 20 lambs born in March that were a Targhee cross, and they grew really well.”
When the sheep went to market at the end of summer, Dennis says they saw a profit, so this year, they’re going to continue using the cross.
“It started as an accident, but we found a niche market that gave us a little more per head,” he explains. “We’re going to try is again this year.”
When Chase returned to the ranch, he took a special interest in the farming aspect of the operation.
“When I got home from college, I wanted to farm,” Chase says. “I thought if we could farm, we’d get 100 percent of the hay, instead of sharecropping with someone else.”
As a result, he’s pushed himself to convert 200 acres each year from pasture land and sagebrush to productive hay fields.
“People told me that it would take three years to make that transition,” he explains, “but I thought I could do it faster. I mow it, disc, then plant a cover crop the first year.”
Chase utilizes oats as his grain crop, and he says by shortening the transition from three years to one year, he can reduce weed infestations on the property.
“We can only run as many cattle as we have hay for, so we’ve got to raise a lot of hay,” he says.
“I have to hand it to my dad. He worked and built the ranch single-handedly,” Chase says. “When I came home, I wanted to contribute, and this is how I can do it.”
He comments, “I feel like we’re at the point now where we’re really going to start growing even more.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.