All in the family: Hardy Ranch continues with sheep, cattleWritten by Christy Martinez
“When my dad first came to this country in about 1915 he wasn’t old enough to take a homestead,” says Gene of his family’s start in the area. “He came out of southeast Kansas at the period of time when the town of Glenrock was experiencing its first oil boom, and he took a job as a carpenter.”
When World War I began, Gene’s dad headed back to Kansas, where he enlisted in the National Guard and went to France, where he was when the Armistice was signed in 1918.
“By the time he was discharged it was the winter of 1919, and he had a brother who had already taken a homestead in the Wheatland area,” says Gene. “He spent the winter with him, then his brother relinquished his homestead and they both came up to this area and homesteaded again in the spring of 1920.”
In 1927 Hardy’s parents were married, and they established some cattle and acreage, which included Hardy’s current ranch headquarters.
“That got him established and going, and that’s the way my family wound up in this area,” says Hardy. “I’ve been here all my life.”
Of Michelle and Shaun’s management of the ranch, Hardy says that leaves him free to take care of other issues and travel. He says that, in any operation, there’s always room for improvement.
“We’ve always been a combination cattle and sheep operation, since about 1934,” he notes. “When my dad first came here he was strictly cattle, and in 1934 he bought a band of sheep, and the owner came with them as their herder for a while.”
Gene’s father ran the sheep until World War II, when he found himself shorthanded and sold the sheep.
“My wife Joy and I later went back into sheep in 1965, and we’ve run both ever since,” he says.
The Hardys’ cattle operation is run in a partnership in southern Iowa.
“Labor is one factor in having the cattle in Iowa, and our range availability for both cattle and sheep is not quite sufficient,” he states. “It’s more labor-intensive for us to manage both sheep and cattle here, so it’s better to have the cattle managed in Iowa.”
“The type of range grasses we have are, in a lot of ways, more conducive to a sheep operation than a cow operation,” he explains. “Properly done, you can manage both on the same ranch, but it might take more intensive management, and usually you can run cattle ahead of the sheep. Cattle eat the bigger, taller grass, and sheep do very well on what the cows don’t like, but you have to have management, because you can overgraze, which is extremely detrimental to rangeland.”
“Many people will disagree, but I certainly believe this country is best suited to a good, sturdy white-faced breed of sheep, and in our case we have gone strictly to Rambouillet,” says Hardy. “There are many people who think Columbias are good, and now the Targhee is coming on as a very desirable breed to have here in the western states. They’re fine-wooled, white-faced and open-faced, meaning they won’t get wool blind during the winter with wool over their eyes covered with snow. If you’re careful in your selection with bucks, even in a Rambouillet you can avoid the wool blind situation.”
The two breeds Hardy recommends most for his country are the Rambouillet, and after that he says the Targhee is an excellent choice.
Of management on the ranch north of Glenrock, Hardy says they’ve done a lot of fencing improvements and have worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop water systems.
“Every pasture now has at least two water systems, and we’ve divided up some of the land into smaller pastures so we can do a more realistic rotational program,” he says of some of the improvements that have come about over the years. “We’ve worked intensively to better manage the land and do away with any overgrazing.”
Of their area of Converse County, Hardy says he’s seen very little sale of ranch property.
“The people who have been here have always been here, and the ranches are pretty much still in the same families,” he says. “The differences that have come about are the influx of industry, including oil and gas, coal and uranium. All of those have necessitated revamping some management practices for a lot of people. It can be an asset to have side income from energy developments, but it can also be a pretty intensive change in the way we manage a ranch operation. We have to deal with activity going on that is absolutely counterproductive to running livestock.”
Hardy says the biggest consideration with energy development on their ranch is lambing season.
“It’s very disruptive to sheep when they’re range lambing and have activity going on in the same area,” he notes. “That’s extremely disruptive, and consequently we have the need to rethink what pastures we’ll lamb in. There aren’t too many things you can change – when lambing time comes, it happens, but we cannot stand to have a lot of activity going on during that time of the year. Even if we had cattle here, energy development would have some degree of disruption even to that operation.”
Of the ever-present predator challenges to a sheep operation, Hardy says, “Over the years the predator problem has never gone away. It’s always been here, and always will be. Over many, many years we’ve managed to survive even though we do have predators.”
He adds that it has become more difficult in later years, because of the loss of the primary predator control tools that were quite effective and, properly managed, he says they were safe.
“Situations have created public opinion that’s not conducive to predator management, and we have to cope with that the best we can,” he says.
Hardy has flown aircraft for 50-some years, and today they use the ranch’s airplane for ranch surveillance, as a tool to help manage the operation.
“You can do things with a plane in an hour that would take all day on the ground,” he says. “We have used the aircraft for predator management, and my son-in-law does the flying now, and my grandson is gunning.”
Of the high sheep markets, Hardy says, “I have never seen the sheep industry, or even the cattle industry, any stronger than what it has been in the last year. On sheep that pertains not only to the lamb crop, but also to wool, especially if you’ve got good, fine wool, which you do have on Rambouillets. The prices are better than I’ve ever seen them in years past.”
Hardy says he expects the markets to stay strong for sheep.
“Worldwide, there’s a shortage in numbers for sheep and cattle. If the demand is better than supply, then prices will be quite strong. There is no way we can ever get sheep numbers to increase rapidly enough to knock the price down, and I would anticipate prices of sheep and cattle both will stay strong for several years.”
“We’re very proud of our operation here,” says Hardy of his family’s ranch. “We’ve been here since about 1920, and we’re approaching the 100-year mark. The ideal thing about it, in my mind, is that we’ll keep it going in the Hardy family. I have a grandson and a granddaughter, and there’s a possibility that either one or both could become the fifth generation. We’re happy that we should be able to keep the ranch in the family for a long period of time.”