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Building and transitioning a legacy herd – 2013 Part 1

By Martha Mintz

Dawn breaks over the hills near Thermopolis, Wyo., as The V Ranch cattle are gathered.
Dawn breaks over the hills near Thermopolis, Wyo., as The V Ranch cattle are gathered.

Nine-year-old Emme Norsworthy may have been able to play hooky from school on shipping day, but that doesn’t mean she got a break from work or learning. Mounted on her spry sorrel, she cheerfully helped gather and sort cattle and was a shadow to her mother, grandparents and the rest of the crew at the V Ranch the entire day.

Her inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for all things traveling by four legs bring a warm smile to her grandfather Jim Wilson’s face, as he wasn’t always sure of the end game for the Thermopolis, Wyo., ranch and reputation herd he built with his high school sweetheart, Terry. Their only daughter, Billie Jo Norsworthy, had gone off to college earning a master’s degree in music with a focus on flute.

“One day she called and said, ‘Mom and Dad, is there a place for us at the ranch?’ I never thought someone who played the flute would want to come back to the ranch. It was a good day for us,” Wilson says.

Only in their mid-60s, Jim and Terry are already working to transfer the ranch they’ve poured their lives into building to Billie Jo and her family. Handing over the reins may be difficult for many ranchers, but making way for the next generation is something Wilson is proud to do.

“They can’t just work out here with no guarantee for the future,” Wilson says. “If you love your children, you will not hang on. You will acknowledge their dedication and help them succeed while stepping back.”

Jim remembers his own start down the path to building the V Ranch. Born and raised on a Hereford seedstock operation, Jim initially partnered with his parents. Then, he and Terry were able to branch out on their own and turn other people’s lemons into lemonade in the 1980s when bankruptcies made land in the area plentiful. They scraped and borrowed to buy up land in the rough countryside around Kirby, Wyo., as it came available.

Those initial investments have flourished into a 60,000-acre ranch north of the sulfur-laden bubbling hot springs town of Thermopolis, Wyo. The rocky red hills support a commercial herd of reputation Salers-Angus composite cattle 950-head strong whose prime genetics have been spread to many other area herds, creating a powerful marketing opportunity. The Wilsons leverage the genetics linked to their original composite seedstock herd, which now numbers 60-head after selling most of it to a collaborator in the 2000s, to group market more than 4,000 cattle from about 10 different ranches in Montana and Wyoming.

“I don’t know if we were that smart or that dumb,” Jim says of their success in building a ranch during shaky financial times. “We worked extremely hard and we gambled. We didn’t know you could go broke and we just lucked out and started buying cattle to stock the place. We’re kind of living the dream.”

It’s a dream that has long been supported by the sturdy legs of top-notch genetics and strict management of herd health and nutrition.

Building the base

Starting as Hereford breeders with Wilson’s parents, Willard and Maycle Wilson, the family took a sidestep into Salers as he and Terry branched off on their own. They, along with his parents, wanted to build something better, something that could boost the whole industry, and they saw that potential in the relatively unknown breed.

“We liked the carcass traits and thought that’s something the beef industry needs, something the American public needs,” Wilson recalls.

In 1984 they purchased a Salers herd out of Canada and by 1987 had completely dispersed their Hereford herd. Eventually they had one of the largest Salers herds in North America. Though addressed by the Wilsons in their herd, the Salers had a bad reputation for a not-so-sunny disposition and the breed suffered for the black mark on its record despite excellent performance on the rail.

Wilson got out of the purebred business, but bull customers he had served as a Hereford and Salers breeder came back and asked him to raise a composite instead. He and Terry took the challenge and hit the road looking at various breeds before settling on Angus for a cross.

“We took the best of the Angus breed we could find and the best Salers genetics we could find. Dad thought I was crazy for wasting a good Salers cow on an Angus bull,” Wilson recalls. “But, when we did that, we got some exceptional cattle that would go on and breed true and better than either of their parents.”

Not one to rest on a success, Wilson has poked and prodded at his composite cattle to create a herd that performs in the harsh Wyoming countryside, flourishes in the feedyard and delights at the meat counter.

“There are a few things from each breed that we need and benefit from,” Wilson says.

Crossing frame score 7 Angus cattle with frame score 6 Salers cattle yields what Wilson says to be the ideal kill weight of 1,300 to 1,400 pounds and a 6.5 frame. Angus genetics bring in docility, maternal traits and higher marbling while Salers genetics contribute a larger ribeye, higher milkfat milk and more vigor.

EPDs are a great base, but the Wilsons rely heavily on visual evaluation.

“I like to evaluate cattle phenotypically,” Wilson says. “Billie Jo and I sort all the replacement heifers (by) horseback while they’re still on the cow. If we don’t like their mother’s disposition, udder or body, we don’t select her heifer calf.”

Going one step further, Wilson won’t bring a herd bull into his program without getting a good look at his mother.

“That cow has a tremendous impact on how he’ll produce. I like strong-topped cattle that have a lot of rib in them, which you won’t see on paper,” he says. “When the going gets tough here in Wyoming and it’s 25 below, a cow without a lot of rib won’t do well. It’s also an indication of more muscling and ribeye.”

The papers and data that do matter to Wilson are the performance records he gets back from Knight Feedyard where all the calves from the V Ranch and Wilson’s marketing group are shipped every year. Wilson pours over the data, as he has for the past 30 years on all his cattle, and looks for areas that can be improved starting at the ranch.

“We’ve followed those genetics for 30 years,” Wilson says. “We’ve watched how they gain, how they grade, what kind of ribeyes they produce, death loss and how all those things fit together. Everybody always goes straight to the bottom line on the kill sheets and we want ours to be in the plus column making money for the Knights.”

Fresh genetics to keep the herd performing positively down the line are continually rolled into the 60-head composite seedstock group and passed along to the larger commercial herd through half outcrosses to maintain consistency.

“Looking at our cattle today you will see little difference in frame size,” Wilson says at shipping. “The cutback pen is 15 head out of 600 cattle and I take pride in that. We’ve worked really hard on uniformity and consistency through genetics and by maintaining a 60-day calving interval on the cows and a 42-day interval on our heifers.”

The cattle are also uniformly healthy, thanks to rigid vaccination protocols, nutrition and cattle handling methods. Cattle are worked at their own pace in a custom-designed corral that directs the flow of cattle back toward where they entered the corral, making for fast, instinctive, smooth movement.

“A cow is pretty smart if you give them time to think. If the corral is designed right they’ll flow. The longer they stand there breathing dust and without water, the more stress they’re under, which we want to avoid. We’re able to bring in the whole herd and have the calves sorted, weighed and on the truck to Kansas in 3 hours,” Wilson says.

Wilson does everything he can to reduce stress and produce a product that keeps his buyer coming back for more.

“In the last couple of years we’ve delivered a product to Knight Feedyard that had a 0.6 percent death loss,” Wilson says. “That tells me the vaccination program, nutrition and the way we handle the cattle is working. I believe in getting and keeping a healthy calf from day No. 1.”

Pride for land and family

An extension of producing top livestock is the protection and management of the Wilsons’ delicate pastures. They were awarded the 2012 national BLM Rangeland Stewardship Award as part of the 16-member Kirby Creek Coordinated Resource Management Group. The V Ranch has management areas that serve to protect and stabilize streambeds and maintain wildlife habitat on Kirby Creek, which threads through the ranch, and on Copper Mountain.

“Even though it’s 60,000 acres, this is our backyard and we take care of it as such,” Terry says. “We have a fragile ecosystem and fragile soils and we take care to protect them. We take pride in the fact that we have wildlife and can coexist with them on the ranch.” It’s that sort of pride that drew Billie Jo back to the ranch when she and her husband, Jason, wanted to start a family. “We wanted to give our family the values that I got to grow up with on the ranch,” Billie Jo says.

Both she and her daughter, Emme, have great role models to look up to as they prepare to continue Jim and Terry’s legacy on the ranch.

“My mom is an awesome bookkeeper, an amazing businesswoman and has a lot more insight into different situations than my dad and I do,” Billie Jo says. “I admire that Dad is a great cowman. His understanding of animals carries over into horsemanship, working with his dog and talking to people. My parents are great community leaders serving on a lot of boards and bringing a lot of positive things to everything they join.”

Billie Jo is gradually taking on more and more responsibility at the V Ranch, even running all operations for several months in 2012 when Jim battled some health issues.

“I’m very proud of the herd my family has built,” she says. “Year after year after year they get a little better, gain better and perform well in the feedlot and here at the ranch. I always say that shipping is my favorite day because it’s the culmination of all of your efforts.”

Jim and Terry are happy to see the pride their daughter and granddaughter show in what the family has built and look forward to transitioning their legacy herd to the girls. They are in the process of gifting their land to Billie Jo and some small shares to Emme.

“Billie Jo has an excellent eye for cattle. She sorted the cattle today and it makes me proud that she can do that and wanted to do that. When we’re gone maybe the cow herd will be here or maybe Billie Jo will develop her own. We’re just glad to have them here,” Jim says.

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