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Kramer focuses on holistic ranching and sheep production

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Rob Kramer purchased his ranch near Denbigh, N.D. in 1987 at the age of 22 and built his current operation from scratch. Today, he has a cow/calf operation with about 100 cows and 50 yearlings. He also runs 190 sheep.  

Early on, Kramer became interested in holistic management and started focusing on high-density grazing with cattle and sheep by utilizing electric fencing, bale grazing, windrow grazing, seeding legumes in tame grass pastures and reducing invasive bluegrass to allow native plants to recover and grow from the seed bank. He uses sheep to manage leafy spurge. 

His primary goal is to keep improving his land while operating with minimal inputs.  

Starting at a young age

Kramer knew he wanted to be a rancher from the time he was very young.  

“My folks didn’t have a ranch. As a young man, I tried to find a place, then later this ranch became available. I bought nine quarter sections of sand hills covered with leafy spurge and trees. I only run about 100 cows because that’s all this place will handle. I keep my heifers over as yearlings and sometimes the steers as well,” he says.

His cowherd started with one calf when he was six years old. His dad bought him a heifer that they hauled home on his lap in the back seat of the car. After the heifer grew up, he kept heifers from his first cow and gradually built a small herd.

“I rented pasture here and there. I had 26 cows when I bought this place, and then bought another 60. But, when buying cows, a person never really gets exactly what they want,” Kramer notes.

Getting into the sheep business

Kramer started with sheep later in life. 

“The sheep became a necessity because this place was totally covered with leafy spurge. I tried spraying it. Then I tried flea beetles because they eat the spurge,” he says.

“My cousins have always run sheep. One day they told me they were going to South Dakota to buy ewes and asked if I would like some. I bought 100 Rambouillet ewes about 20 years ago,” Kramer continues. “They are still out here eating spurge. I have a guard dog because we have a lot of coyotes and an occasional wolf or mountain lion.  My dog is a Great Pyrenees named Bubba.”

Kramer’s ewes start lambing the first of June and lamb out on pasture.  

“When I first got my sheep, I was lambing in May. Then I tried February, and it was an absolute disaster because it never got above 15 below zero that year. I had a 40 percent lamb crop, so I went back to lambing in May,” Kramer says.

 He continues, “But, when I finally got smart enough to switch my calving to May, I moved lambing to the end of March. The first year didn’t work very well, then the second year was phenomenal with the best lamb crop I’d ever had. The lambs weaned at 110 pounds. That year the weather was great and it got up to 40 degrees every day.”

 “However, the next year it was below zero every night, and I ended up with a 70 percent lamb crop. I had to do something different,” he says.

Kramer notes his cousin had switched to June lambing. 

“I decided to try it because in May I was too busy and couldn’t spend 12 hours a day in the lambing barn. The first year my ewes lambed in June didn’t work too well, but it’s been getting a little better every year. The biggest problem with June lambing is the ewes are breeding so late in the season they have almost stopped cycling,” he explains.  

Kramer says he turns the rams out on Jan. 6, and by then the days are starting to get longer and some of the ewes are no longer cycling.  

“They start cycling in the fall when days are getting shorter and weather starts freezing in September. October is when they are the most fertile, and their fertility goes downhill from there. But these past few years breed-up has been better,” he says.  

Practicing holistic management

Kramer has been interested in holistic management for a long time.  

“I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with Greg Judy a few years ago, and it was an amazing experience. A lot of the mentors in the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition have also helped me,” Kramer says. “I make lots of mistakes, and people can learn from me about what not to do. Sometimes I have to make the same mistake twice to see if it was actually that bad, like with March lambing.”  

“My sheep pretty much do it on their own now. I used to try to do too much, and now I try to make things easier,” continues Kramer. “One year I was unable to do much at all after an injury, and almost had as good a lambing percentage as I did the year before when I micromanaged. Sometimes we work ourselves too hard when we don’t really need to.”

“I don’t use herbicides anymore and try not to use any pesticides.  I haven’t dewormed my cattle for about seven years,” Kramer explains. “Pasture rotation takes care of most problems and is better than using chemicals.”

“Sheep are harder to keep free of internal parasites because they graze close to the ground, but I haven’t dewormed the whole flock for two years. I am trying to build a resistant flock, because most of the worms are becoming immune to the deworming drugs, and those drugs don’t work anymore anyway,” he says. 

It’s important for producers to have an intimate knowledge of their land, forage and livestock because it will always be different than someone else’s. 

 “It’s just like dealing with leafy spurge,” Kramer says. “For me, it can be utilized as a forage even though it’s a noxious weed. My sheep take care of it. It’s part of their diet, and it’s no longer a problem.”

“The sheep keep leafy spurge under control on pastures, I hay it, and the sheep eat spurge most of the winter as hay. They also graze before the cows do because they can paw through snow and the cows can’t,” he adds. “The sheep were out grazing in March.  I feed them a little grain, and they paw through the snow to get the grass. Sheep are a lot more resilient than people think they are, unless it snows the day after they get sheared.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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