Sheep ranching history: Nuckolls influence ranching community in Crook County, nationwide
Hulett – Behind Devils Tower, Nuckolls Ranch is home to several thousand head of sheep and cattle, owned by Jw and Thea Nuckolls and their family. The couple has been together since the 1950s, but the Nuckolls family influence extends back to the turn of the century.
“Dad traded 100 head of horses for this place,” says Jw Nuckolls of the location where the ranch sits today. “He’d already homesteaded around Hulett in 1912, but he knew there wasn’t much future of expanding at that spot.”
With a desire to expand, Nuckolls’ father William Swift Nuckolls continued searching for the right place to live, and a week before they were married, Nuckolls’ mother Myra homesteaded on ground near their current headquarters.
Starting a ranch
“Dad was 17 at the time, and he came and started the ranch here,” Nuckolls explains.
The family started running sheep, and their original herd of sheep came from Empire Sheep Company in 1945, which was the largest sheep ranch at the time.
Nuckolls was one of seven siblings. With four older sisters and two brothers, he knew it would be difficult to come back to the ranch. However, when his younger brother passed away as the result of a brain injury at a young age and his other brother got cross-wise with his father, Nuckolls was positioned to take over.
Nuckolls returned home after graduating from the University of Wyoming in 1955, and he met his wife Thea shortly after, when he was searching for Corriedale sheep. He purchased a herd in the 1950s. The couple was married in 1959.
They returned to Hulett, and Nuckolls inherited the family ranch just a few years later.
They’ve continued to add property to the ranch as it comes up for sale. Nuckolls says that some of the properties they’ve purchased hadn’t been grazed for 30 years or better.
“There wasn’t much grass growing in some places because there was such a mat on the ground to grow the grass, but we came in with a large group of cows and calves and grazed it pretty heavy to try to rejuvenate it,” he says, noting that they’ve seen some new growth recently. “This sandy loam soil produces tremendous grass. We run on mostly open country, and it has good grass.”
Sheep and cattle
The Nuckolls are well recognized for the sheep that they raise on their property. Today, the sheep are Rambouillet, but the family has used Corriedales and Merino influence, as well.
“Our sheep have the best of all worlds. They’re the only sheep in our grazing association,” he says. “The worst part is that leaves predators coming in all directions. We use dogs to try and protect the sheep.”
Their Rambouillet sheep lamb in large pastures near the home ranch and have for the last four years. Prior to that, the family shed lambed everything.
“We didn’t have very good luck the first couple years,” says Nuckolls, noting that their first year pasture lambing, they were hit with freezing rain in early June, and the next year, they saw devastating hail. “This year, we did well though.”
They aim to dock a 130 percent lamb crop, and the vast majority of the time, they’re successful.
“When we were shed lambing, we lost 15 to 20 percent of our lambs to predators,” Nuckolls says. “It’s tough, even though we don’t turn out the lambs until May 5.”
The Nuckolls family also raises a herd of Angus cattle, which are rotated through pastures using electric fence and a grazing system.
“My grandson Kyle coordinates the grazing,” Nuckolls says. “He gives the cattle enough room for two or three days, and then they move the electric fences.”
In addition to the sheep and cattle, the Nuckolls have hay meadows and are experimenting with different options for the best feed.
“All our pastures used to be hay, and we’d cut them during the summer to feed in the winter,” Nuckolls says. “This year, my son Will and Kyle have decided that it might be better to graze them in the winter.”
They planted cover crops using a no-till drill, with some success.
“This year was really dry,” Nuckolls explains, “and I think the cover crops would have done better if we got more moisture this year.”
They raised wheat for many years when Nuckolls first came back to the ranch after college, and today, they plant Willow Creek wheat.
“Willow Creek is a hay wheat,” Nuckolls says. “It’s designed for a lot of forage and tonnage.”
The Nuckolls have also used grazing to manage their cheatgrass.
Nuckolls says one pasture used to be solid cheatgrass, but they grazed it right after calving and lambing for about 10 days when the cheatgrass was still palatable.
“They’d mow it off and we’d move out of there,” he says. “They grazed early enough that the cool season grasses would get a jump on the cheatgrass.”
Jw and Thea actively run their ranch today, and their son Will works alongside them, along with their grandson Kyle and daughter-in-law Charlie.
Their other children, Nan, Dawn, Zeta and Sam, are also involved as they can be, visiting frequently.
“We have 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, too,” Nuckolls says. “They keep us pretty busy.”
For the future, Nuckolls says Will and Kyle will likely take over the place.
“There’s probably enough here now to support two families,” he says.
“I enjoy ranching more than anything I’ve ever done,” Nuckolls says. “Every season is a little different, and I never stop learning. It’s a great job and a great life.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comment on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.