Sims Sheep Co.: Family works toward growth, diversificationWritten by Jennifer Womack
Innovation, ingenuity and hard work have allowed Shaun, his brother Steve, their father Michael, and their grandmother Gilda to return the family ranch to a size where they can make a living. The four are partners in Sims Sheep Co., LLC. In addition to running sheep and cattle, they’ve grasped opportunities like wind development. Shaun and his wife Lacee, as well as Steve and his wife Crystal, live in Evanston, as does their dad. Their grandmother has a home at the ranch’s headquarters.
“My dad, when he was a young man,” says Shaun, “set out to enlarge our ranch.” Running both sheep and cattle, Shaun says at that time the ranch ran about 3,000 head of ewes and 100 head of cattle. Shaun and his brother Steve, the fifth generation of their family to ranch in Uinta County, have more than tripled that number by adding property to the ranch, picking up new leases and acquiring grazing permits when others exit the sheep business. Loyalty to the sheep business has provided a niche through which they’ve been able to grow. “Sheep, over the years, have been more profitable for us than the cattle,” says Shaun.
“We run sheep from the high Uintas south of here,” says Shaun of the mountain range that lines in southern Uinta County, “to north of Kemmerer.” The family runs on both federal and private land throughout their range.
“We’re a total range operation,” says Shaun. “Our sheep never really go onto meadows.” The family’s sheep lamb in the desert country south of Kemmerer. Shearers from as far away as New Zealand and Australia come to shear on area shearing crews. Crews come from Texas and California and others from as close as Utah and Idaho travel the area late April for shearing season.
“There are over 40,000 sheep in the Evanston and Kemmerer area that all need sheared in about a week and a half,” says Shaun. “We like to shear as we’re coming off the desert at the end of April before we start to lamb in May. All our neighbors do about the same thing.”
“We trail to this ranch and our other ranches when the lambs are big enough,” he says from their Byrnes Ranch east of Evanston. “We lamb the first of May and by June 15 the lambs are big enough to have their ears marked, be branded and have their tails docked. By the tenth of July we’re going on the forest in southern Uinta County. It’s probably a 60 mile trail.” Shaun says they move around five miles a day. Sims and their neighbors have worked hard to maintain use of the historic trailways, but Shaun says subdivision pressure makes the effort more challenging.
The Sims’ sheep aren’t loaded on a truck until the day they’re sold or shipped to feedlots or greener pastures. Peruvian herders, working at the ranch under H2A Visas, accompany the sheep in traditional sheep camps. “We get our food in bulk,” says Shaun of supplies for the nearly dozen herders who work on the ranch. “We buy 50-pound sacks of flour and we have a bagging machine to package it smaller. Our rice arrives in 100-pound bags. Peruvians like rice.”
The ranch’s sheep camps look much like they always have despite the addition of a few of the newer camper-like sheep wagons. On the older wagons, Shaun says the canvas has been replaced with tin and they’re better insulated. “We’ve made improvements,” he says, “like they’ve got better running gears under them. They have solar panels to run the lights and radios, but they’re still an old sheep camp, still small.” In the summer months two of the herders leave their wagons behind and pack a camp to accompany the sheep into the mountains.
“A lot of our ground isn’t suitable for cattle,” replies Shaun when asked what has kept his family in the sheep business. “We have desert country where there’s no water.” Sheep, unlike cattle, he says, can do well eating snow in extreme temperatures. “When other people’s sheep operations go out of business, it’s left a vacuum on those permits and we’ve been able to acquire some of them.”
Predators are an ongoing challenge. “We do a lot of our own predator control,” says Steve, who serves on the local Predatory Animal Board. Thanks to funding available through the Animal Damage Management Board he says they’ve been able to employ another trapper and purchase equipment to make their work more efficient.
“By working with the neighbors we keep coyotes at a lower level,” says Shaun. “If any one of the sheep producers falter or go out of business, it will make it harder. We’re about to the minimum of where we can be and keep everybody working together and safe from too much loss to predators.” The family has used guard dogs, but says they often leave with neighboring herds. Llamas were also attempted, but often fell victim to guard dogs.
“To date,” says Shaun, “we haven’t had to deal with wolves. They’ve been within 10 miles of us at Kemmerer.” Through his involvement as Chairman of the Uinta County Conservation District and as Vice President of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Board of Directors, he has followed the issue closely. More recently, in March of this year, he was appointed to the Wyoming Board of Agriculture. “We are involved with the wolf litigation,” says Shaun of the conservation districts. “Some people in the county say it’s not our problem, but it is our problem. If we don’t all work together to protect our livestock we’re all going to be in the same boat.”
“They kill to play,” says Sims. “A coyote by itself will kill 20 lambs in the fall when they’re a decent size. Wolves are just exponentially bigger and grander on the scale of what they can do.”
According to National Ag Statistics’ Wyoming office, Uinta County was home to 46,000 sheep in 2009 down from 49,000 the previous year. Comparatively, the agency says there were 35,000 head of cattle in the county in 2009 and 40,000 head in 2008. In the past, Sims says he’s seen data indicating that Uinta County is among the leading sheep producing counties in the nation. In Wyoming, it parallels nearby Lincoln County and is second to only Converse County where 87,000 head were reported in 2009.
In October Sims’ lambs are sent to pasture near Yuma, Ariz. and sold to either Superior lamb or an Iowa-based feeder. “We run a Finn and Targhee cross ewe,” says Shaun. “We run the Targhees for their size and their wool. The Finns are a smaller, more prolific sheep. They’ll usually twin and triplet. We run about a quarter Finn and three-quarters Targhee cross bred ewes for breeding stock, which allows us to have a bigger lamb crop while keeping our wool, while not quite as fine as that from a Rambouillet, higher in quality.” He says they also run some Suffolk and Hampshire rams to breed their composite ewes, the lambs from which are sold for meat.
The ranch’s Black Angus feeder calves, short two loads of the lighter end held over to yearlings, ship in the fall. “This is our 19th year selling with Superior Livestock Auction,” says Shaun of the marketing opportunity they’ve appreciated. “We know the money is safe and that’s getting more and more important all of the time.”
“The cows winter out until February,” says Shaun, “and then we start feeding for calving. We start calving about the tenth of March. If we don’t get snowed in, we don’t feed much hay.” Despite that, he says they spend plenty of time haying to ensure there are ample supplies when a tough winter arrives. “We’ve got two center pivots and some ground by Lyman,” he says of the area where the cows are wintered. “We also have hay meadows near Evanston.”
Six years ago the ranch became home to a wind development project organized by Orion Energy. Florida Power and Light purchased the “shovel ready” project that includes 80 turbines on land owned by the Sims, a neighbor, and the State of Wyoming. Beyond the additional income the project has generated, Shaun says, “We can now drive around the ranch and pull horse trailers, which has saved us time. The roads are a lot better. The development doesn’t affect the livestock.” Despite recent discussions, he also doesn’t believe the projects impact sage grouse.
“The sage chickens like to be underneath them,” he says noting that he believes the turbines may be a source of protection from avian predators. “In five years with them operating here, we’ve had sage chickens in here and they’re doing as well, if not better.”
Shaun says he also doesn’t often hear the 1.8-megawatt turbines, the closest of which are a quarter of a mile from his cow camp cabin. “The only time I’ve heard them is when it’s calm in the bottom and windy on the ridge. I kind of like to look at them, but if you don’t I guess that’s a whole different issue.”
Construction, although short-lived, may have been the most challenging aspect of the project. “They started in August,” says Sims, “and ended in November.” Because roads to access the project crossed Bureau of Land Management property, there were stipulations surrounding grouse and deer. “It’s amazing how quickly they were built. When construction was in full swing there were 200 to 300 people here. That was shocking to me. I was not prepared for that.” Since that time, Shaun says there are occasional trucks and less often a crane for major repairs.
“We’re hopefully going to keep ranching,” says Shaun. “We ranch from Kemmerer to the Uintas and if a place adjacent to what we already have becomes available, we’d like to expand.” Given the expansion of town, he says growth is becoming more difficult. “We’ve lost some leases that went into 35-acre ranchettes and that’s been tough to take.”