From pasture to plate, Anderson's run unique sheep ranch
Ten Sleep – Aaron Anderson is a third generation sheep producer from Ten Sleep. Anderson Ranch Company is unique in the sense that Aaron and his family are involved with the whole process of sheep production.
They lamb approximately 2,400 Rambouillet ewes, finish the majority of their lambs in their own feedlot and ultimately sell most of those lambs on the rail in New York City.
The Andersons utilize Rambouillet ewes because they are easy to herd and produce high quality 21-micron wool. They use Hampshire bucks as terminal sires for the carcass benefits.
“I think sheep production in itself is kind of unique. There are fewer of us all of the time. When I was a kid it was nothing to have eight or 10 different outfits show up to get strays when we worked sheep,” says Aaron. “Anymore I hardly ever get a stray, and if I do it usually only comes from one other operation. I think we are becoming an endangered species.”
Building a ranch
Aaron’s grandfather, Rouse Anderson, first came into the Ten Sleep area as a bookkeeper for the construction crew that was building the first highway down Ten Sleep canyon.
He liked the area so well that he and his wife Zula, a Ten Sleep native, bought the ranch in 1933 and began their sheep production business operating as Anderson Company.
Aaron gives the bulk of the credit for building this operation and keeping it together over the years to his dad, Jim, and his uncle, Gene.
“They worked hard and sacrificed a great deal to keep this operation together. I am proud of the legacy they have left me in charge of,” Aaron says.
In the early 90s after finishing college Aaron and his cousin Kevin returned to Ten Sleep to work on the ranch.
“We worked on building up our sheep numbers and increasing the size of our feedlot and farming operations, so that the four of us could make a reasonable living producing sheep,” Aaron comments.
“I lost my dad two years ago and my cousin this last summer. Besides missing them, it has left plenty of work to go around for me and my Uncle Gene, who is 86,” says Aaron.
A year in the life
The Andersons run their sheep from the badlands west of Worland clear to the top of the Big Horn Mountains.
“It’s about 80 miles as the crow flies,” says Aaron.
The Andersons shed lamb in Ten Sleep during March and April.
The ewes and their lambs spend May either on irrigated pasture or in the desert west of Ten Sleep. They head to the Big Horn Mountains in early June.
The lambs are weaned around the first week of September and most of them are placed in the Anderson’s feedlot.
The fat lambs are sold from the first of December until the first of April. The ewes stay on the mountain until mid-October and are bred on the hay fields in Ten Sleep.
They winter in the desert from November to March.
The Andersons utilize Peruvian sheepherders here on the H-2A program to help with herding and lambing. To help with all of the feeding, and farming Aaron has Paul Bleicher to help him.
“He’s a really good guy to work for,” Bleicher says of Anderson. “We get along really well and that helps.”
Aaron also keeps busy as the chairman of the Washakie County Commissioners.
“I became a county commissioner to offer some representation for the eastern side of Washakie County,” Aaron says. “A majority of the private land in the county is on the eastern side. However, the vast majority of the population lives on the western side. I felt like there were many issues where Ten Sleep needed representation.”
As a commissioner, Aaron has been very active as a cooperator in the Big Horn Basin Resource Management Plan Revision. He is also the co-chair of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association’s Public Lands Committee.
“My experience as a permittee on BLM and Forest Service lands helps make me more effective as a cooperator,” says Aaron.
“There is a perception that ranchers are just out to destroy everything, but I think that ranchers and farmers are far better stewards of the land than most of the federal agencies,” Aaron says. “I know a lot of ranchers who desire to conserve the land and improve its yield.”
He continues, “The agencies seem stuck on preserving Washington, D.C.’s vision and abandoning the productive yield of the land. Their model is not economically sustainable.”
In recognizing efforts to conserve and protect the land, Aaron was a conservation district supervisor for 13 years, and the ranch’s current feedlot is one of the first demonstration projects partially funded by the Wyoming Association of Conservation districts.
“They helped move our feedlot off of the river to higher ground,” says Aaron. “It was a cost-share program that ended up being a better place for us to lamb and improved the water quality in Ten Sleep Creek. It was a win, win situation.”
“I don’t think there are a lot of operations involved in every aspect of raising lambs from birth clear to the plate,” says Aaron. “I am proud of the fact that we produce a quality product that the consumer wants to buy.”
Mountain States Lamb
In the late 90s, the sheep industry reached a point that it just wasn’t profitable. That is when the Andersons, like many other sheep producers, decided that they had to do something different.
“We gambled money we didn’t have to join Mountain States Lamb Cooperative (MSLC). The last load of lambs we sold prior to joining the Mountain States Lamb brought 49 cents a pound – about 30 cents less than our cost of production at the time,” says Aaron.
“If it hadn’t been for the MSLC, I don’t think we’d be in the sheep business today,” says Aaron. “Before the MSLC there was such volatility in the market. The good years never made up for all of the bad years.”
MSLC consists of 127 family ranches in 10 western states of the U.S. and gives producers more ownership of the lamb market, allowing them to play a bigger role in the lamb industry.
The Andersons have been a part of MSLC since its inception.
“The fat lamb market is a different market than the feeder lamb market. It’s kind of a different ballgame, but it does offer the chance to take a bigger piece of the pie,” states Aaron. “There are some bonuses with the MSLC. For instance, if our lambs hit the grid or if the lambs are naturally raised.“
“We see a carcass premium on about 90 percent of our lambs and are able to produce about 98 percent of our lambs naturally. It is nice to get paid for producing what the consumer wants,” states Aaron.
Aaron also notes that they have seen a change of mindset with the change of sale venue.
“It’s been a change of mindset to go from producing feeder lambs, which are sold to a feedlot, to producing meat that is sold on the rail. I’m a lot more concerned about the price of corn and the genetics of my sheep than I used to be,” explains Aaron. “We start thinking more about how to produce a better product and how the product will look on the table for the consumer.”