Improving an operation: Progressive management keeps Roberts on top
Cokeville – Despite the struggles livestock producers face year in and year out to stay viable in ranching, Fred Roberts is one of those producers who conquers those challenges head on by carefully managing his commercial sheep and cattle businesses.
Where it all started
Roberts is the third generation of his family to call Cokeville home. His grandfather, Fred Roberts, migrated to the area from England in the late 1880s.
“Back then, Cokeville was categorized as the sheep capitol of anywhere west of the Mississippi,” Fred says of his hometown.
Once the elder Roberts settled in the area, he started in the sheep business, later passing the tradition on to his son, Lou.
“My dad was really involved in the business and continued to take an active role until he was 88-years-old,” he adds.
His father passed away at age 90. Fred is now the owner and manager of the operation and may be the last in his family to do so. His two children, Kyle and Lacey, both have interests outside the ranch.
Managing a migratory sheep operation
Over the years, the Roberts family has built up successful commercial cattle and range ewe operations.
While the cattle are based at the home place, the commercial range sheep operation is migratory, according to Roberts. The ewes are at the home place from the end of April until the first of July. During the remainder of the year, the ewes graze private, state and BLM lands.
Although most of the areas the ewes graze receive considerable snow during the winter, Roberts said he is typically able to graze the ewes with little supplementation. The wind blows hard enough that it usually blows the snow off the grass so the ewes can reach the plants beneath.
However, this year is different. Roberts is already planning a feed program to accommodate the sheep through the winter months, since the drought has prevented new forage growth, and there is little to graze.
“This year, we will be supplementing because there isn’t any feed out there for them,” he says.
Carefully selecting the ewes
Roberts has nearly 7,000 head of Rambouillet Columbia crossbred ewes on his operation. He raises his own replacements, and those he doesn’t keep go to the same ewe lamb customer he has had for over 30 years. He purchases purebred bucks from reputable breeders in the surrounding area that perform well in the harsh environment they live in.
The ewes in the operation have been carefully selected not only for their size and bone structure, but also for their wool.
“I have big sheep, and I want a lot of frame and bone to them because that translates to lambs that feed well, and that’s what pays the bills,” he explains.
The wool, which is considered the second paycheck in the sheep operation, runs in the low 62s, which Roberts says is desirable for his operation.
“They pay you more for a certain micron,” he says.
Having a say in the
As a progressive producer, Roberts purchased shares in the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative many years ago because he wanted to have more control over how much he earned for his lambs. It is an investment he feels has paid off in a big way.
“It has been one of the biggest positive influences on the lamb industry,” he explains. “It was a stabilizing factor in the market and has helped the market improve. The way the lamb market has been the last two years, I think our members are benefiting a lot from their membership. They are able to get their lambs killed and have a place to go with them.”
“Looking at the overall picture, I think our members are much better off being members of the co-op than not,” he explained.
By being a member, Roberts has to sell his lambs as a finished product.
“I own them from birth until they are processed,” he explained.
After weaning, some of the lambs are grazed on alfalfa fields until they placed in a feedlot. The lambs are finished in feedlots in California and near Riverton and slaughtered when they reach 165 to 170 pounds. Most of the lambs grade predominantly twos in yield, a fact Roberts is quite proud of.
While he continually works to improve upon the genetics of the flock to keep a desirable product in front of the consumer, Roberts also fights predators and finding labor, which are the two biggest obstacles standing in the way.
“Coyotes are a continual problem, and except for the summer we can semi-control them,” he said. “Now we have wolves and bears where we summer the sheep. At one point, we had 20 wolves.”
“This past summer was the biggest loss I ever remember having. The wolf situation affects not only sheep and cattle, but wildlife too,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether having a hunting season for the predator can be used as an adequate control method.
The cattle operation
In addition to sheep, Roberts also maintains a herd of commercial Black Angus cattle. The cattle run at the home place where they graze until Thanksgiving before being supplemented through the winter months with hay.
Roberts says the cows average 1,150 to 1,200 pounds and calve at the end of March. When the steer calves are shipped to western Nebraska around mid-October, they weigh 550 to 560 pounds.
“I have done a lot of work on genetics over the years,” Roberts said. “We used to be a Hereford operation and just sell calves, but through the years I have converted to an Angus operation.”
“With the help of Gary Darnall of Darnall Feedlot in Harrisburg, Neb., I have been able to improve the genetics in the herd. Gary is sharp on genetics and very proactive and forward-thinking,” he said. “With his help, I have been able to build a herd of cattle that produce calves that will feed and finish well and have eatability. One of the biggest things I have worked on is feed conversion, which is extremely important during years like this when corn is high.”
Carcass data is collected on the calves, and Roberts spends a considerable amount of time analyzing individual data to see how the calves performed and what improvements need to be made.
“It has been a major conversion for me moving from being a cow/calf operator and selling calves to being a feeder,” he says.
“Most years, we also feed out cull cows with Gary to add value before we sell them,” he adds.
As Roberts continues to stay on top of the game by being a progressive manager, his goal is to remain a viable operation.
“There are a lot of challenges on the sheep side with predators and labor and on the cattle side with corn and fuel. We have exports driving the price in the cattle market, and you never know when something could happen, like another BSE cow, that could drive that price down,” he says. “The hardest part of being a rancher is trying to deal with the things that we don’t have control over.”