Beef, barley and hay, grown in the USA: Willis family strives for excellence in diversification
Cokeville – Roland Willis’ family started out in Cokeville in the early 1950s, when his father decided to move from Laketown, Utah and purchase land south of Cokeville.
“There wasn’t enough land to expand over in Laketown, so when a parcel of the B. Q. Ranch came up for sale, we purchased it,” comments Roland. “Today, we raise cows, alfalfa hay, grass hay and barley.”
In 1969, Roland and his wife Linda got their start purchasing the original ranch from Roland’s father, along with 120 Hereford cows.
“Over the years, we started changing to black,” he says, referencing the Angus they now raise.
Linda adds, “I think the Angus work better in this country, and they are more adapted to it.”
Roland, Linda and their family run the extensive operation.
Currently, they have three boys on the ranch, and two daughters, Teresa and Trudy, who live away from the area. Jordan, Jed and James and their families play an integral role in the functioning of Willis Ranch. Teresa, Trudy and their families play an active part in the ranch providing additional help when needed.
Black Angus operation
At first glance, the operation resembles many of those in Lincoln County, but the focus on integrating technology and efficiency to raise cattle sets them apart.
“We start calving in March,” says Jordan of the commercial ranching operation.
They begin pasture calving in areas closer to their headquarters. Following calving, the Willis family moves cattle to pastures.
“We summer on BLM and private lands. The cows enter BLM grazing May 11,” says Linda. “We come off Sept. 25, and we start feeding about Thanksgiving.”
The operation, like others in Lincoln County, spends a large number of days feeding. Jordan notes that they usually plan to feed between 150 and 160 days.
“We have put a lot into the cattle since we started,” says Linda. “It has always been a goal of our to always strive to make them better and use better genetics.”
In attempting to continually improve the herd, she adds that they are searching for better, higher quality cattle that produce and thrive in the their environment.
“We are looking for cattle that sustain themselves and that will wean a big calf,” Linda continues. “That is why we like the black cattle – they work for us.”
“We have also produced alfalfa and barley since the beginning, but not to the extent that we do now,” Linda says.
Roland adds, “We were the first really to produce alfalfa.”
“We pioneered alfalfa here,” Linda says. “We plowed up the sagebrush to start producing. Older generations didn’t think you could produce alfalfa in this climate, but it does well.”
James, who is most passionate about the barley segment of the operation, says, “This is good barley country, because we usually have cooler weather. It makes a good yield.”
Though raising barley is challenging, James adds that the cool weather results in a heavy, plump kernel with a lot of meat.
“In other parts of the country and state, most people’s barley is lighter, so this makes for better feed barley,” he explains. “It’s also a good rotation for alfalfa.”
“I get more enjoyment out of watching the crops grow than working with the cattle,” comments James.
The Willis Ranch’s barley is sold to dairies for a feed product.
Like many other ranches, short growing seasons and harsh weather are difficult for the Willis family to deal with, but they enjoy the challenge and have worked out how to handle the challenges.
Jed says, “The window of opportunity to grow crops and be productive is narrow in this county, due to climate and limited natural resources”
“The biggest challenge we have here is weather,” Roland notes, “but here, we have our pastures close, and we can keep tabs on the cows.”
“We are prepared for a blizzard, if it comes,” Jed adds. “We get at least one blizzard a year during calving season.”
“It’s also fun to see if what we plan comes out,” Jordan mentions.
“We try to do better, and we always have the odds stacked against us, it seems,” James continues. “We can learn something every year to try next year. It’s a challenge, and it’s fun.”
Being the best
“In our crops and our livestock, we try to be the most efficient as we can be,” Jordan explains. “We strive to have what we think is a good looking cow and what we think are good crops.”
While they strive for the best cows and bulls across the board, Jordan adds that they have developed length in their cattle, as well as good disposition and carcass merit.
“We have seen some big improvements over what we thought was good years ago,” Roland mentions, specifically referencing weaning weight. “We used to think it was good to wean a 450-pound calf. Now we get calves between 625 and 650 pounds at weaning.”
The reason they have been able to continually improve is because they have changed how they operate, as well as in the equipment and technology they utilize.
“We have become more efficient, and a lot of that is the machinery and technology that has changed,” Linda explains.
As part of their increasing technological developments, the family utilizes GPS technology in their field equipment, and they utilize electronic identification tags in their cattle.
“We can keep better files and better records,” comments Jed’s wife Stephanie.
Jordan explains, “I’ve got a handheld program that I use, and it keeps track of everything – all the cow information, the sire information, dates of birth, health comments and any other data we have.”
“I don’t ever think that we can get too much information,” Linda adds.
“We try to take advantage of new technology,” Jordan mentions. “We want to be the most productive and efficient we can be.”
While the Willis family doesn’t see themselves as being in competition with their neighbors, but rather as competing against themselves.
“It is our goal to keep doing better and to keep improving,” Roland says of the operation.
Ranching for family
Roland mentions that, while they enjoy raising cattle and watching the crops grow, “The biggest thing is that we try to keep our family together.”
“We want to have a family on the ranch for forever,” he continues. “Hopefully the boys will keep it going.”
“The future of Willis Ranch,” says Linda, “is keeping our family tradition intact and passing the legacy on to our children and grandchildren.”