In the Sheep Business: Raising the best bucks at eastern Wyoming’s Peterson Ranch
March 31, 2014
"My granddad on my mother's side came to the area as a sheep herder for the big John Wilkinson sheep outfit north of Cheyenne, and homesteaded at Mule Creek in 1908. My granddad Peterson moved from Denmark to Iowa, then came to Wyoming and also homesteaded at Mule Creek, in 1916, and went to work for the railroad," began Clyde Peterson of how his family originally arrived in eastern Wyoming.
He continued the story, explaining his mother was raised at Mule Creek, where she also filed a homestead. Clyde's father, Julius Peterson, was born while the family was in Iowa, but grew up right on the Wyoming/South Dakota line, where he also filed a homestead. Some of the improvements he made, including a dam put in with a horse and slip, can still be seen from Highway 18.
"My dad went to work for Ted Rumney, and that's how he met my mom, Mary Rumney. They got married on Sept. 30, 1941, at which time my dad sold his homestead to his brother, and my mom sold her homestead to her brother. That's how they made the down payment on this place in 1942, plus my granddad on my mom's side helped them get it purchased from Chris Fahy," explained Clyde.
The place has remained in the Peterson family since, and is located in the remote, northern part of Niobrara County, Wyo., roughly 20 miles straight west of Mule Creek Junction. An area known for its rich history, the ranch already had plenty of its own stories when the Petersons arrived.
"Marcus Nelson had a lot of his cowboys homestead this place to expand his own ranching operation. He also built the old, red barn we still use in 1916. All the lumber was hauled from Douglas, Wyo., with a team, and I doubt there's a single knot in it," noted Clyde.
Nelson also put in a dam and series of ditches out of what is locally known as Marcus draw, creating an irrigation system on the lower meadows of the operation where hay was raised.
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Clyde's father and grandfather worked with the State of Wyoming to get official water rights for the ranch, allowing them to develop an improved irrigation system, resulting in irrigated hay meadows Clyde still utilizes today.
"Dad built the first dike in Marcus draw in 1949, and the diversion ditch and dam out of Dogie Creek in 1949. Then he built a big dam up north in 1952 that went out in 1955 — that was the highest Lance Creek ever ran according to one neighbor. We asked how much rain he had, and he replied that he didn't know, his gauge only went to 6 inches," noted Clyde of the fact that flash floods and dry spells have always been a challenge of the area.
But, likely the most notable "improvement" made to the operation came when Clyde's parents, who ran commercial Hereford cattle, purchased their first sheep for Clyde's older brother Paul to show in 4-H.
"If I remember right, George and Juanita Deuel gave Paul a bum lamb for his first 4-H project. Then, that fall, before my other brother Steve or I were even old enough to be fulltime 4-H members, dad said if we're going to raise sheep we're getting registered ones. So, in December of 1952 dad bought four registered horned Rambouillet ewes that were bred and three ewe lambs from Jim Peterson and his brother. He bought them as 'Peterson Brothers.' That's when we all got into the sheep business, and I guess I never had sense enough to quit," explained Clyde with a chuckle.
In addition to showing their sheep, the Peterson brothers also began selling registered horned Rambouillet rams from day one, learning firsthand how to judge livestock, fit sheep and market rams as they went.
"Si West, my extension agent, was a big influence to me to stay in the sheep business. One comment he made that has always stuck with me was, 'don't worry about what the other people want; raise the type of livestock you like.' I was probably just out of high school when he said that to me, and it has stuck in my mind ever since," stated Clyde.
Clyde took the advice and ran, creating a herd of Rambouillets that have since topped every sale and test they've entered. He has sold rams into every state west of the Mississippi except North Dakota, as well as into several eastern states, Mexico, Canada and India.
"We first sold our rams at a ram sale in Lusk while we were in 4-H. Then, in 1971 I began attending the Wyoming Ram Sale, which was in Casper at the time. It was 1967 when I started the America Rambouillet Association Test, which is also known as the Wyoming Ram Test. It was in Torrington originally, but is now held in Laramie," explained Clyde, adding the National Rambouillet Show and Sale as another place he has marketed rams over time.
"The most nervous I've been selling a ram was when a certified ram I raised topped the Wyoming Ram Sale. As soon as he sold he soared right over the panel, out of the fairgrounds and into down main street of Douglas. Lee Isenberger finally roped him in the middle of Douglas somewhere. But, he went home with his new owner, settled down and they got along well with him. That was a nervous day," recalls Clyde of a memorable selling experience.
Highlights of his career included showing multiple champion Rambouillet and overall rams and ewes at the Wyoming State Fair, as well as owning multiplied high indexing rams at the Wyoming ram test and the National Rambouillet Show and Sale.
"Another is that I had the champion fleece, which ended up in the Wyoming State Fair book," he noted.
But, perhaps the biggest reward has been the young people Clyde has helped get into the sheep business over the years.
"I've really enjoyed helping kids get started in the sheep business, and have helped several 4-H kids by giving them ewes or helping them with their projects," he noted.
When asked why Rambouillets, Clyde smiled and replied, "They are the best range sheep there is as far as I'm concerned. They're dual purpose in that they produce mutton and wool both. One thing about raising good sheep is you have to have the type of sheep you like and stay with them. I've stayed with the type I like since I got out of high school."
He further explained that his operation is ideally suited for range sheep run in combination with cattle, which he still raises.
"Si West always said this area is very qualified for raising sheep in because what they don't eat the beef do, and vice versa. You can really utilize this country by running both. It's short grass and fine grass country, and it's rough. I think that's part of what makes it good sheep country, but that also makes it good predator country. I haven't ever lost much, but I watch them, too — I shed lamb, and keep an extremely good eye on them year round," he noted.
Other advantages to his location include its abundant natural protection and general minimum snow on average.
"The challenge here is rain. The dry years can be tough. Those and some of the March blizzards when I used to calve in March, before moving to April calving," he said.
Continuing with his comment on cattle, Clyde added that over the years his family transitioned from a commercial Hereford herd to what is a commercial Angus herd today. The transition occurred strictly through the use of Black Angus bulls — no outside cattle were ever bought, and was driven by the increased demand for black-hided cattle.
"My dad sold pert-near everything in Lusk until that market shut down, then he went to Torrington Livestock Markets. I have always sold practically all my cattle in Torrington," said Clyde of how he markets his calves each fall.
Of his favorite part of ranching, Clyde listed sorting cattle out in the pasture, gathering and rounding up in the fall in addition to trailing cattle.
"I also used to ride through my cows twice a day, and to pop over a hill or look down a draw and see a little newborn calf trying to get up is always a highlight. Or, walking in the barn to a new lamb with mama taking care of it — that's what I enjoy," he concluded of his favorite aspect of the ranching lifestyle. ❖