Little carries on sheep, cattle legacy
Leiter – Many children raised on ranches have dreams about coming back to the homeplace, but often, life intervenes and that dream doesn’t become a reality.
For Kellen Little, along with his brother Sheridan, having the ability to return to the ranch as a career choice is a blessing, especially when the ranch has been in the family since Kellen’s great-grandfather homesteaded the land near Leiter in 1914.
After homesteading, he took time to serve his country in Europe during World War I before returning to his homestead.
From the ground up
“My great-grandmother was homesteading a section north of my great-grandfather. After the war, they met and married. They had three boys. My grandpa, who still is active on our ranch at age 86, is the youngest of three,” Little says. “When they first started, this was a small ranch with seven acres of irrigated farmland for sugarbeets and the rest dryland. They owned 13 cows.”
He continues, “Their oldest son served in World War II then my grandfather and his other brother served in the Korean.”
“It’s different income. The sheep graze different forage than cows, and they have been excellent for weed control, especially leafy spurge, which wouldn’t be controllable without sheep,” Little comments.
He adds, “Having sheep is more labor intensive than having cattle, but that’s what we grew up with and what we know.”
While growing up, the Little kids – including his sister Riata who now lives in Casper – tagged along with their mother Carrie, who was the only woman wool buyer in the nation at that time. They traveled with her to different ranches to look at wool and learned about the wool market – a knowledge that serves them well today.
The Little wool finds its way to the military for pea coats and dress uniforms.
Around March 20, a shearing crew from Kaycee brings seven or eight shearers on work visas from New Zealand, who finish the job in three days. Usually, there are wool buyers at the ranch while the shearing takes place.
The wool is packed into bags and loaded onto trailers and brought to a warehouse in Buffalo, where it’s weighed and cored. The core tests are sent off to a lab in Denver, Colo. where they are tested for micron and yield, which establishes the quality of the wool.
Once the tests results come back, the wool is sold.
“We want to move the wool right away once the tests are back,” says Little. “It’s not good to hang on to wool. It’s like hay. We need to sell while the demand is high.”
The wool from their Rambouillet sheep is what’s called a fine clip, which means the fibers are narrow and used for high quality fabrics. It’s important to keep the wool clean by making sure burrs, cheatgrass, hay chaff and other contaminants don’t reduce the quality of the clip, says Little.
Forest service allotments
Their wool is clean and high yielding, which Little partially attributes to the months the sheep spend on a Forest Service lease in the Big Horn Mountains, away from blowing dirt and dust on the prairie.
The Littles haul their sheep on semi-trucks to the Big Horns around July 1, where two Peruvian herders manage the sheep. The lambs are sold off the mountain the second week of September, with the ewes coming back to the ranch before Oct. 1.
2018 is the 49th year the family has grazed sheep in the Big Horn Mountains.
“I’ve been going up the mountain every week while the sheep are there since I was a little kid. We rely heavily on a Forest Service lease to run our sheep,” Little notes.
He admits the mountains have changed from when he was young and there were minimal disturbances.
“Now, there are four-wheelers that scatter the sheep and plenty of campers. We have a little creek where there will be 15-20 campers staying. They mash down the grass, so the next year, we have weeds in that area. The Forest Service said they don’t have control over that,” he comments.
With the return of Little and his brother to the ranch, the family business started increasing the hay production.
“At that time, my grandpa and his brothers were in their 70s and couldn’t get all of the farming and irrigation done,” Little says. “With our added help, we put the fields back into big-time production and started irrigating more heavily. We used to have to buy a lot of feed. Now we even sell some hay.”
Since Little planned to come back to the ranch, he earned a degree in ag business at the University of Wyoming.
“I was an active athlete in high school and got a scholarship to be the equipment manager for the football team. It was a lot of work but a great experience,” he says. “I met a lot of people as I traveled with the team and learned to deal with coaches and address different challenges that would arise.”
Ag industry importance
The fourth-generation rancher realizes the importance of being involved in the ag industry.
He represents Sheridan, Campbell and Johnson counties on the Wyoming Livestock Board, which oversees brand inspections, animal health, brand recording and law enforcement. He’s one of seven board members.
“I’ve learned a lot and hopefully I’ve done well representing my counties. It’s a six-year term, and I’m on my last year,” he says.
Today, the Little Ranch has one of the largest sheep herds in Sheridan County.
“We grew up with sheep. They’re a part of us,” Little says. “We’re known as sheep people. Most people don’t even realize we’ve raised cattle longer than we’ve raised sheep.”
He adds, “As long as we can keep our Forest Service permit, we’ll stay in the sheep business, hopefully for a long time to come.”
Rebecca Colnar is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.