New generation of ranchers raise heritage breed: Rife family focuses on providing nutrition to local beef consumers and rangelands
Daniel – Jason and Sonja Rife, the masterminds behind Killpecker Creek Cattle Co., made the move from Virginia to Wyoming in 2013. Building their new life in Sublette County, Jason and Sonja hoped to provide their two children fresh air and open spaces, as well as enjoy life outside of the fast lane.
Sonja shares, she and Jason, a former medicinal chemistry professor and researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), met at a boat club and married a few years later.
“We had two kids, a cute house in downtown Richmond, Va., and Jason was tenured, but VCU was trying to shuttle him away from teaching and research into administration,” says Sonja. “In 2012, we started looking at different options, and Jason asked if I wanted to go ranch. I said, ‘OK, as long as I get a horse.’”
Growing up in northern Virginia, Sonja tried to get in as much horseback riding as her parents would allow, and spent many of her days at a farm across the road from her parent’s home, helping her 80-year-old neighbor, Mr. Beach, [A1] in the garden and the barn and during calving season.
“Jason’s grandparents, and generations before him, were raised in West Texas, so he spent summers helping his grandpa ranch and really enjoyed it,” Sonja says.
“We researched ranches for about a year using a set of parameters, and we picked this place,” she continues, noting Killpecker Creek Cattle Co. was named for one of the large creeks running through much of the ranch. “Wyoming felt very comfortable to us right away – the scenery was beautiful and open, and the people were kind,” Sonja says.
The Rifes loved Pinedale, especially the culture and the proximity of a ski mountain, and made the move out West in 2013.
Scottish cattle in Sublette County
Just as Sonja and Jason researched ranches in the area, they researched the perfect breed of cattle to raise. During this research, Jason’s brother jokingly mentioned their grandfather’s last name was Scottish, and Sonja’s maiden name was Scottish, so Sonja and Jason should get Scottish cattle.
“Being the research scientist he is, Jason thought it was silly, but he started researching Galloways,” Sonja shares. “It turns out, they are actually a perfect match for this climate – they have a double hair coat with an incredibly thick hair count.”
Additionally, Sonja says Galloways have never been bred to work in the industrial food system, so their digestive system processes forage very efficiently.
“They are slow-growing, so we have never seen a case of brisket disease in a Galloway. We use some heifer-weight Angus bulls and even in 50/50 crosses, we haven’t had a case of brisket at 7,300.” she says. “The Galloway cattle grow slowly, but they grow well.”
It takes roughly 24 to 27 months to finish the cattle on grass, and Sonja says the meat marbles well, is very flavorful and tender.
“There is no need to finish these cattle out on grain,” she adds. “They live very healthily through the winter at this elevation.”
Galloway cattle have a calm demeanor, and are smaller framed, which Sonja shares fits perfectly with the way they like to work cattle and manage rangelands.
Low-stress cattle handling
“Part of our management and raising of cattle is very gentle cattle handling techniques,” Sonja shares. “On any moves longer than our daily moves, we know something has gone wrong if anyone breaks into a lope. We tend to work cattle at a slow walk.”
She continues, “We quietly move cattle where they need to go and sort very gently if we need to. The goal is to stay as calm as possible.”
Jason and Sonja have noticed it takes about a year of calm handling for purchased heifers to meld into the herd.
“We firmly believe in low-stress handling,” Sonja says. “Even if our 15-year-old son might want to move a bit faster some days.”
Managing for healthy pastures
Pasture and soil health is a very important component of Killpecker Creek Cattle Co. management decisions.
“We wanted to improve the ground we purchased and we attack every grazing season and animal season with the dual-pronged approach of both raising healthy, happy meat and improving pastures at the same time,” Sonja explains. “There is not one move we make with the cattle that doesn’t take into consideration what the pasture needs are.”
Jason and Sonja have studied both Gabe Brown and Jim Garrison’s pasture short duration principles to create a plan for their ranch.
“We discovered rotational grazing from June through the end of September works for us,” Sonja says, noting cattle are moved daily through a long series of electric fence grids, both permanent and temporary.
She continues, “With such a short growing season in Wyoming, there are some really strong pastures that by moving through quickly, we might be able to hit three times. At the same time, we leave about half the ranch fully recovered by the end of September.”
Sonja and Jason don’t hay the ranch, but instead purchase hay from Farson to supplement cattle nutrition and provide nutrients to the soil.
“By not haying and instead buying hay, we are spending money on a forage source, but it all goes back to adding nutrients,” Sonja explains. “When we feed, we focus on feeding where the soil has been depleted of nutrients and work on distributing nutrients across the entire ranch.”
In the future, Jason and Sonja would like to see cross-species grazing on the ranch.
Marketing grass-fed beef
“Jason and I are both proponents of real food and good food,” Sonja says, noting portion size is a practical attribute of raising Galloways.
“When processing a smaller animal, we can get more appropriate portion sizes of cuts because the muscles are not quite as big,” she shares. “We have heard from some restaurants and consumers that in order to get an eight-ounce tenderloin out of larger animals, it has to be cut an inch thick and this just doesn’t feel like tenderloin.”
Many of Killpecker Creek’s repeat customers are people who appreciate carefully raised meat, have health problems that require real food diets or are themselves vegetarians who serve meat to their families, according to Sonja. The Rife family enjoys interacting with all of their customers.
Killpecker Creek Cattle Co. can be found direct marketing beef at the Pinedale High Altitude Farmers’ Market, as well as in gourmet burgers at White Pine Ski Resort and for sale at Slow Food in the Tetons in Jackson.
For more information on Killpecker Creek Cattle Co., visit killpeckercreekcattleco.com.
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.