The Dixon family – A love of ranching “way out there”
July 23, 2013
When Clayton Dixon's granddad came to America from England looking to make a living in American agriculture, he started a family tradition of ranching in one of the country's most remote areas that is still going strong four and five generations later.
"My granddads name was Snowden, and he was only 5'3" so they called him Little Snow. He and his two brothers came from England on a ship and ended up in Missouri first. The immigration people told them that if they wanted to be in agriculture they should be in Missouri. Well, they tried it and realized that wasn't what they wanted, so they migrated to Wyoming and my granddad ended up over in the Black Hills of western South Dakota while his brothers settled in Northeast Wyoming," explained Clayton of the early travels that lead his family west.
After meeting his wife, Little Snow moved back to Wyoming and homesteaded near Newcastle, running what Clayton described as a small ranch by today's standards.
"He raised three boys on it, including my dad Robert, or Bob, who got his start in ranching working for Dick Pfister on the Cheyenne River. My mom Helen came along and they got married when they were both about 20 and continued working at various ranches around the country before finally homesteading over on Snyder Creek in northern Niobrara County in the late 1920s," noted Clayton.
His parents ran both Hereford cattle and Rambouillet sheep in the early days of the operation, sometimes taking a week to trail to the Lusk sale barn to sell calves each fall.
"In 1934 there were so many grasshoppers in this country, and no rain, that five different ranchers from around the Cheyenne River, my folks included, all got together with their sheep and cows and trailed them on foot and horseback from here to south of Torrington at Yoder. They got down there in the beet fields and that's where they wintered and where I was born. The doctor told my dad it would be $35 if he paid now, and more if he had to wait, so my dad would always joke that I cost him $35," recalled Clayton.
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When his family headed back north, Clayton's mother drove the team pulling the sheep wagon, and pulled a drawer out to lay Clayton in for the ride.
"I don't know if when I got to fussing if they shut the drawer or not, but that's the way we came back," added Clayton with a chuckle.
During the depression, coyote pelts were the only available form of income, with a large one fetching up to $25.
"That's kind of how they lived. They had three or four big hound dogs, and they would take them and go horseback and chase those coyotes all over the country hunting them. Selling the furs is the way they survived," explained Clayton.
But, while the grasshoppers and depression were tough, the blizzard of '49 was the worst thing the family ever got into according to Clayton.
"My mother was trying to take us kids back to Newcastle, where we were going to high school. We got stranded and stayed up there for the entire blizzard, which was several days. My dad was stranded at Douglas, so when the blizzard let up he borrowed a saddle horse and rode all the way from Douglas to where Glen Hanson lived on the Cheyenne River and got on the phone to Newcastle to find out if we had survived. He was glad to hear we had, but he snowburned his face and must have had a terrible trip," noted Clayton.
While the tough times in eastern Wyoming were extremely tough, the good times were very good, and Clayton said you wouldn't have believed how the area looked in about 1958. It rained abundantly and everyone had dikes full of water.
"People all ran sheep they had all the water and grass they could want, and there just wasn't very much to do there for a few years. But that all kind of got over with," he commented.
His wife Donna added that all their dikes went dry in 1975 and had never held more than a puddle of water again until about three years ago.
Because of the uncertainty of naturally occurring water sources, one of the major improvements Clayton and Donna made to the operation was a large scale pipeline in 1982, which supplies a reliable and consistent water source across the ranch. Today multiple solar wells have further improved the efficiency of the man-made water system.
"When we got married and into the ranching business we started buying black cattle. Because of the health problems we had with our Hereford cows we thought the black ones worked better for us," noted Clayton, adding the operation still runs commercial Black Angus cattle today.
Donna explained that they also sold the sheep and went strictly into cattle in 1979 or 1980 because there were too many coyotes and headaches associated with the sheep.
"We had two boys, Tom and Ken, come along and over time they started becoming our ranch help too. Then Ken's wife LeAnn was also raised on a ranch, so she has been great help too, as have their kids Brenna and Garrett. We used to have a lot of hired help, which wasn't always fun. But, as the kids got bigger we didn't have to hire as much help, and eventually went to just hiring day help. It's nice to have everyone here working together as a family," continued Donna.
Today Tom and Ken run the ranch as two separate entities, but still do the majority of work together as a family.
"We run a cow-calf operation, and also run our own yearlings. We've always sold a portion of our calves, usually on the video, but this year we are going to try to keep everything to yearlings," noted Ken of the current scope of the cattle operation.
Tom, who is also a pilot, typically summers many of his cattle on leases in the Newcastle area. He noted that flying helps him to efficiently manage his livestock, even when they are over an hour away by car.
"I'll use my airplane to get around and check my cattle, the water and the grass, and just see in general how they're doing. The plane makes it a lot easier," explained Tom.
However, he further stated that one of the biggest and most expensive components of ranching in Dixon's location is being in such a remote area, regardless of the mode of transportation used.
"Anything you do is a lot of miles to get it here and a lot of miles to get it back, whether it's yourself, livestock, feed – whatever it is, this is a remote area to bring it to or take it out of it," said Tom.
Another challenge brought with the ranches remoteness is the difficulty to obtain a labor force. Young people often move away, and from a salary perspective it's difficult to compete with the oil field and coal mines. Being 55 miles from a high school and grocery store also makes the ranch less appealing to some young families.
"One of the most difficult things is that there aren't any people around, but that's also one of the best things about it – there aren't any people around," explained Ken, adding that the implementation of modern technology whenever possible has made the remoteness of the ranch and limited labor supply less of an issue than in the past.
"The boys have implemented a lot of changes that have been really beneficial since they started. Plus, every person here was raised on a ranch, and we all enjoy being out in the quiet of God's country, away from the hustle and bustle of town life. It's a good life," concluded Donna.
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