Maintaining a lifestyle: Moore family ranches in northern Converse CountyWritten by Christy Martinez
“The Ogallala was started by an English cattle company in the late 1800s. They trailed cattle up from Ogallala, Neb. and turned them loose north of the Platte River at Fort Fetterman, and the next spring they sent a crew out, telling them to go as far north as they could and get a headquarters built before winter set in,” says Frank. “Everything north of the Platte River was Indian country, but they got to the Ogallala and built a headquarters.”
“My great grandfather went to work for them, but most of the big cattle companies from England went broke in the late 1800s with a real bad winter,” says Frank. “They were all told what a wonderful climate Wyoming had, and that they could turn cattle out and the winters were easy and there was grass everywhere. They found out that wasn’t always the case, and most of them went broke or gave up. They lost thousands of cattle.”
However, their failure led to the startup of many independent ranches by those who had worked for the large cattle outfits.
“My great granddad started on the ranch, and my granddad was born on the ranch,” says Frank. “My granddad, ‘Daddy Ock,’ had the philosophy that if a piece of ground came up for sale, he would try to buy it, and that’s how he put our main homestead together. He had 10 kids – nine boys and a girl. One son died as a young man, but Daddy Ock helped all the others get started in the ranching business.”
Frank’s dad was the middle son, and due to the timing of events he was the one who ended up with the home place.
“Our dad expanded the ranch. He bought the Spearhead where we are now in 1972. It was a huge neighboring ranch that four or five ranchers split up, and Elaine and I moved out here in 1976,” says Frank of the place, which had belonged to Herman Werner, Elaine’s great uncle.
Having been married at 19 and 20 years of age, Elaine and Frank began running the ranch as their own in 1978.
“I have two brothers – we’re triplets – and we had split the ranch into three and each took a piece,” notes Frank. “After the tough winter of 1978 and 1979 we started looking for a place that would be more kind to livestock, and we found a ranch in Artesia, N.M. Parker moved down there, while Vern and I expanded our operations here to take in what he had been running.”
Frank says he and Elaine have run cows and sheep since they started, and in 1992 the ranch diversified when Frank got into politics and the kids were going to school in Douglas and spending most of their winters there.
“I didn’t have as much time to be here, so we cut back our cowherd and started running summer cattle,” says Frank. “Since 1992 we’ve been running yearlings for the same outfit out of Minatare, Neb.”
In 1998 a neighboring ranch came up for sale, and the Moores expanded again, which meant they needed to run more yearlings.
“We thought we’d run 3,000 to 3,500 head of yearlings, but that increased up to 6,500 head at the most. We usually ran between 4,000 and 6,000 head every summer, and usually in one bunch,” explains Frank.
To accommodate those numbers, the Moores put in a 35-mile pipeline system to make it more efficient.
“It’s pretty interesting to see 5,000 yearlings in one bunch moving from one pasture to the next,” says Frank. “We’ve had as many as 28 trucks sitting here at one time to load yearlings.”
When loading the yearlings, Frank says it usually takes between 70 and 100 trucks spaced over a four-day period.
“That is the one time we pray for dry weather,” says Elaine. “We usually have a harder time in the spring, trying to get the trucks in, as many times we don’t know until that afternoon if we’ll be able to do it with the weather.”
“The yearlings have worked great for years. It’s a profitable business for the ranch, in the numbers we have, but it’s stressful. We have to be constantly aware of the water and fences. If we have a problem, it’s a big problem,” says Frank. “When they get out it’s not two or three, it’s 500 or 600, and when the water goes down it has to be fixed right now. We can’t move them someplace else or expect the other windmill to keep up.”
“The nice thing about running the yearlings and rotational grazing is that, on a year like this, we can really take advantage of intensive grazing,” continues Frank. “The last 10 years have been droughty and haven’t been that much fun for running yearlings or anything else. This year we took them out of pastures with more grass left than what we went into some years.”
Of the sheep the ranch has always run, Frank says, “Our granddad was one of the first to bring in woven wire and started fencing pastures rather than using herders and open range.“
The Moores use pasture lambing and no herders.
“That cuts down our input costs and our lamb percentages proportionately. There are some trade-offs, but we get along great with it, and sheep have always been a part of this ranch and they complement the cattle,” says Frank. “They’ll go places where there’s not enough water for cows, and they’ll go in after the cows and still find good feed.”
“The biggest problem with anything in ag is the markets, so we started the Mountain States Lamb Co-op to get a handle on it,” says Frank, who was in on the founding of the co-op and remains actively involved as president of the board.
“For several years it took a tremendous amount of my time,” he says of the co-op. “It would take as much time as I gave it, but now we have a great CEO in New York who runs the meat company, and great help running the office in Douglas, so I’ve stepped back some.“
About three years ago, management of the Spearhead Ranch was turned over to two of Frank and Elaine’s three sons – Keith and David – and they now have five grandkids living on the ranch.
“I’ve always been very attached to the ranch, and I always knew this is what I wanted to do,” says David. “We feel very blessed to have the opportunity to do this. It’s not easy, but it’s a great way to make a living.”
Frank says his sons are moving the cowherd to lower-maintenance management by calving in late May and June.
“We don’t grow any hay, so we have to buy all the supplemental feed we give the cows, and it didn’t seem like it made sense,” says Frank of calving in February and March.
“Right now we’re both in the process of building our herds,” says David. “We don’t pamper our cows, and we’ve gradually eased into feeding them less and less. We’re trying to make the ranch as efficient as we can, and that’s the only way you can run a ranch nowadays – we’ve got to treat it like a business.”
Currently David and Keith are keeping all their heifers, and Frank comments that they’re striving to produce a low-input cowherd, and they also keep their steer calves on grass with minimum supplement over the winter.
“This is good grass country, and they put weight on once the grass starts growing,” notes Frank.
The Moores also operate a hunting business, which they say is a major part of the ranch.
“We’re nationally recognized as one of the top archery antelope outfitters in the country, and we did it as a way to generate extra revenue to make the ranch work,” says Frank. “We have to deal with hunters during hunting season, and it makes more sense to deal with them on your schedule and when they’re paying you to be there.”
When speaking of Converse County’s recent upswing in energy development, and the accompanying activity it brings, Frank says, “One of the advantages of living this far out is you didn’t have to put up with much of that. If we have the disadvantages of living out here, and not the advantages of living out here, it will lose its appeal to our kids and grandkids, and that’s our concern for the future of ranching in Converse County.
“My goal is to give the boys the opportunity to come back if they want,” says David of the Moore family ranch’s future. “It needs to be a place and a business they want to come back to. If they turn this country inside out with energy development and we’re not living this lifestyle, then this is really just a really inconvenient place to live.”