‘Stick’ Stillahn raises family, show champs at Cheyenne
November 11, 2016
Yup, that's what Gene "Stick" Stillahn claims, saying "I'll tell you how a cow started a family."
A 1980 Register of Merit (ROM) Hereford Show in Abilene, Texas set the scene, with Gene exhibiting the fine winter heifer calf "Bo" for the Ted R. Cooper Ranch of California. She was a pretty thing, the kind to really turn a man's head. Oh no, not Bo, that classy ribbon girl who came out to hand Gene the Champion Heifer rosette.
She was spectacular, mesmerizing, and once she caught his eye, he was never the same! In fact, for the next few years he did everything he could to keep himself on her mind too, maintaining a long-distance relationship between California and Texas. Their romantic Tahoe wedding proved his success, and he's never regretted it. Why, yet to this day Gene will proudly proclaim, "Cindy works a good job in town so I can have a little ranch, out here where the wind blows through the hills."
Gene spent his youngest years in Eastern Nebraska near Syracuse, where his dad farmed and was in the registered horned Hereford business. In the mid 60s they packed up and moved to Wyoming where Gene's father went to work for the amazing Art Killian in the show barn of the prestigious Wyoming Hereford Ranch (WHR). They ran 1,200 mother cows just east of Cheyenne, and when Art retired Mr. Stillahn took over the show barn.
“For a few years Stillahn juggled cows and books, coming out with an ag business degree from the University of Wyoming. At that point he had lots of living to do, and it all revolved around cattle.”
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After graduating from high school in Cheyenne, Gene found a job with Waggoner Herefords at Henry, Nebraska, barely over the state line east of Torrington. "That's where I met Wayne Fields," Gene explains. "He was like a dad to me and really inspired me. I still go back and see him when I can. I lived with them, and his wife Jan cooked for me some of that time," he remembers; and the twinkling eyes say those are warm, friendship ties.
For a few years Gene juggled cows and books, coming out with an ag business degree from the University of Wyoming. At that point he had lots of living to do, and it all revolved around cattle. "I expanded and clipped for a lot of bull sales, did a lot of traveling. I was single and could do it. I clipped for lots of places, like Stones' sale out in Oregon; later went to work for Pruitt Wray in Arizona and met Teddy Morgan who taught me a lot."
"That was southwest of Tucson almost on the Mexican border, near Sassabe. I went down each October or November and got out of there in March right after their sale because it got way too hot then."
"In March of 1980 Pruitt Wray was going to disperse, so I went on to the Ted R. Cooper Ranch at Paso Robles where I stayed for three years and got to work with Floyd Wampler. He was as good a cowman as I knew, and really had an eye for cattle."
The nomadic lifestyle suited young, single Stillahn, which is a good thing because there was a lot of it. "We showed a lot way back east," he recalls. We even showed in Louisville one year. Of course we stopped and showed at Kansas City on the way."
Those years and experiences paid off foundationally in Gene's life. "I met and made friends with a lot of really good cattle people, and that has helped me really more than anything," he said.
After three years with the Ted R. Cooper outfit, Mr. Cooper died. Floyd moved on with his cattle and I went with him," Gene recalls. By then he'd married the beautiful ribbon girl Cindy, and they all settled on the Belford Ranch near historic Mulhall, Oklahoma, where Belford was a banker.
"I never liked Oklahoma, it was too hot. But we had a great calf named Reggie, and he grew into a senior yearling that won every ROM show in the book, except Denver, We'd sold a lot of his semen, then he sold at Denver, for $165,000 to Ben Weslin of Oregon, who then sold a lot of semen on him and sure got his money back. Reggie helped me win the Herdsman of the Year award; at the same time my brother Jerry was showing a heifer named Sherry for the Bright Brothers in California and won Herdsman of the Year as well."
Soon the Oklahoma ranch herd was dispersed. "Floyd wanted to buy some of the stock and I did too." So Gene bought what he could afford – three cows. An acquaintance bid on the stock they wanted and when the dust settled Cindy and Gene discovered Floyd had also purchased "Bo" for them, since she was the cow that started their romance. "So "Bo," by then a 5- or 6-year-old cow, came along with us when we left Oklahoma."
They all found a home near Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was early-1980s and Gene went to work in an agriculture chemical plant. "There was a lot of shift work and I didn't like it, but it bought a lot of stuff," he grins now, having reared his family and been free of the chemical work some 15 years.
Gene and Cindy's first son Christopher was born in 1984. Naturally growing up amid livestock showing and ranching, he learned to clip cattle and to teach others to do it. Today he's employed at the John Deere dealership at Bridgeport, Nebraska, married, and living at Scottsbluff. "I like him doing what he does," Gene says, and then adds, "And, they're going have a baby!"
Daughter Amy, three years younger than Chris, is the one Gene proudly calls "my workhorse!" She clipped and taught clipping and was a top hand calving and saving calves in tough situations, which evolved into a nursing career – of course specializing in the care of newborns. Mom Cindy, employed by the Wyoming State Board of Nursing, naturally encouraged that career field. After nursing in Scottsbluff for years, Amy recently moved to Omaha to become a traveling nurse. After starting her career as an NICU nurse in Scottsbluff, Chris recently moved to Omaha to become a traveling NICU nurse.
The youngest installment of "what the cow started" is Trey, who Gene quips "Doesn't think I'm very smart." He's still needed at the family ranch along Crow Creek near Carpenter even though much of the time he's a Laramie County Community College student. He's a cowman by osmosis.
"We don't have a lot of land or a big cow herd," Gene grins, "and our sales are all private treaty." Cattlemen know the Stillahn family, and their quality cattle. They "won about everything" at the Colorado State fair this year, and the ranch's clever name helps attract attention as their big white and blue banner emblazoned with "STICKS AND STONES RANCH" hangs over their stalls.
Gene accepts responsibility for the catchy name saying, "My nickname has been 'Stick' for as long as I can remember, and when we got on our own and moved out here there was plenty of stone around on the ground so I figured 'Sticks and Stones,' why not?"
Gene relies as much or more on his eye in choosing breeding stock as he does on numbers. "I don't believe in numbers, but I pay attention to them because everyone else does," he says, considering it a kind of necessary evil. "My biggest quest is for really good udders on our cows, and I concentrate on pigmentation because that's so important. Next I focus on good feet so they can move around, and solid structure to stand up and work. I've never been too picky about size, some cows are big and some are smaller and both can be good, but size equates to eye appeal with some people."
"I know how important calving ease is, and birthweight numbers are important, but just for one layer. If you stack birthweights, you can end up with a cow that has a pelvis the size of a Mason jar lid," he quips.
He says today he's selling more bulls to black herds than ever. "I'm so glad. There's no better cross, never has been, never will be. They outperform everyone in the feedlot and make the best cows ever."
Nearing his mid-60's, he is ever ready to help kids with livestock, as he's always done. As Cattle Superintendent at the Laramie County Fair he'll help "all the kids who come to me for help." He's ring man there, and says "I especially try to help the younger kids out. Just love those kids – and there's no better organizations than 4H, FFA and the various breed associations at the Junior Nationals. You know, those kids aren't covered in tattoos and don't have pieces of metal sticking out of their faces here and there," he grins.
Besides that, when you lead a polished high-quality, show-shape critter into the ring, you just never know what it might start.