Working With Mother Nature: LU Ranch raises cattle with a focus on land stewardship
The LU Ranch, originally called LU Sheep Company, is a fourth-generation cattle ranch in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountains in northwest Wyoming.
DJ Healy, the current ranch manager, explains Dave Dickie founded the LU Sheep Company in 1899 when he bought several homesteads in the area. Over time, Dickie expanded the operation, and at one point, he ran 19,600 head of sheep and 800 cattle.
“In 1935, the ranch was sold to my great-grandfather Alexander Healy, and it has been in our family ever since. Alexander’s son Dan Healy, my grandfather, took over the ranch in the 1950s and ran it until 1990 when my dad Mike took over. My dad retired in 2018, and then I took over,” says DJ.
Switching to cattle
For a while the ranch raised both sheep and cattle, before eventually turning to just cattle, but the corporation’s official name is still the LU Sheep Company.
“In the early 1980s we sold all of our sheep. Today, we are a commercial cow/calf operation, but my grandfather started a small herd of purebred Angus to raise our own bulls for the commercial herd as well,” DJ says.
Under his grandfather’s management – from 1952 to 1990 – the ranch built perimeter fences to help manage grazing. When Mike took over in 1990, he started working on a number of projects, including water development, better range management and improving herd genetics.
Over the next 30 years, the LU Ranch developed a reputation for conservation, stewardship and an elite herd of cattle.
“When my dad took over, he changed the cattle genetics. We’d been having health issues with the cattle due to inbreeding with straight Angus, including brisket disease at our high elevation,” DJ explains. “My dad embraced the idea of heterosis and crossbreeding. He worked with several bull providers and eventually settled on Leachman Cattle in the early 2000s because they focus on heterosis and data-driven performance.”
“Since then, we’ve been breeding our Angus-based herd to Leachman Stabilizer bulls, using DNA testing and data-driven decision-making to ensure our herd has superior genetics,” he adds.
Now the herd is a composite of Simmental and several other breeds with Angus.
Current cattle operation
According to DJ, cattle at LU Ranch are born and raised on the open range. More than 1,400 mother cows spend summers grazing the rough Absaroka foothills, moving up to the Shoshone National Forest and then wintering in the desert badlands of the Big Horn Basin.
The mature cows calve in April and May, and heifers historically started calving at the end of February.
“This year we changed to a later date, because the last few winters have been really hard,” DJ notes.
The cows have good grass in summer and calves are weaned in late August and early September.
“We wean early because we retain ownership of the calves, send them to a feedlot in Nebraska and sell them on the rail,” he explains. “We get paid based on carcass results and the market at the time. We try to get them fed out to synchronize when the market is the best, selling finished animals as early in the summer as possible to hit the peak of the market.”
He continues, “We try to keep challenging old assumptions to see if what we are doing is the best way for us. Our cattle are like wild animals – they live in the Greater Yellowstone Area. They have to fend for themselves and deal with grizzlies and wolves. A mean, aggressive cow is a good thing.”
Utilizing available technology
DJ notes his father viewed ranching as a business and focused on making good business decisions. This led to DNA testing in 2010, and within a few years, LU Ranch had DNA tested the entire herd.
“We use some of the best technology available to manage and collect data on our cow herd,” DJ explains. “Every time we process our cows, we are recording tag numbers, health records, doctoring information or pregnancy test information and putting it on the computer.”
The ranch also uses the latest technology in veterinary medicine, keeping up to date on vaccination protocols, available products and preventative measures to keep the herd as healthy as possible.
“We rely on technology, but at the same time, we believe in balanced traits. Although we try a lot of new things, we also rely on traditional methods that we know work,” DJ says. “For instance, we only move our cattle horseback. This mainly has to do with the rugged terrain and delicate ecological locations. We don’t want to drive over the land with vehicles, 4-wheelers or motorcycles.”
“We accomplish all of our livestock-related tasks with the help of good horses, good dogs and good people,” he adds. “We are very conscientious about how we impact our environment.”
Focusing on land stewardship
DJ explains, for years, LU Ranch has implemented grazing practices that borrow from holistic management ideas such as rotational grazing.
“I have never taken any courses in holistic management, but I’ve read Allan Savory’s books and a few others on various practices – everything from regenerative agriculture and other practices related to cattle and farming,” DJ shares. “We have some irrigated land where we raise alfalfa. We work at improving grazing practices and water practices. I attend some lectures and seminars but most of my education in this direction is self-taught.”
“Even though many practices may not fit our high-altitude ranches in Wyoming, some of those ideas can be tweaked to fit. One of the great things about ranches is the diversity – no two are the same,” he adds.
In regards to land stewardship, DJ notes the ranch focuses on maintaining soil and ecological health and has partnered with government and non-government agencies to implement wildlife and livestock projects and monitor resources.
“We want an ecosystem where wildlife flourishes,” DJ says. “One example is we like to have beaver on our ranch, and we work with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to plant beaver wherever we feel they are needed to improve drainage systems. It’s best to work with Mother Nature, instead of against her.”
“As a business, the LU Ranch must be profitable to sustain itself, but profit in and of itself is not the goal we want to pursue. We want to have a positive impact on our community, and we are committed to preserving the environmental well-being of the land we live and work on,” he states.
“Caring for the ranch, the people we live and work with and the land is both our responsibility and our passion. We do this by combining new ideas, techniques and technology with tried-and-true methods to constantly improve our ability to bring high-quality beef to market using sustainable ranching practices,” DJ concludes.
For more information on LU Ranch, visit luranch.com.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.