To View the November 2023 Digital Issue — Click Here
Brad Boner, ASI President
Well, the Biden Administration is at it again. This time the Bureau of Land Management has chosen the most extreme alternative as their “Preferred Alternative” for the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan here in Wyoming.
The draft plan affects 3.8 million acres in southwest Wyoming and proposes to significantly reduce the grazing AUMs and remove all lethal predator control from being done on these federal lands. In addition, it greatly restricts any oil and gas activities and seeks to eliminate thousands of miles of roads used by recreationalists to access and enjoy these lands.
As has become customary for the Tracy Stone-Manning led BLM, this decision was made in a complete vacuum with no input or discussions with state and local governments or the stakeholders the decision will affect most.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said it best, “this draft does not accurately reflect the 12-year cooperative process undertaken during my entire time in office as governor and as state treasurer, three presidential administrations, a multitude of public meetings, cooperating agency input, technological and scientific advancements, and millions of taxpayer dollars. So, it is completely incomprehensible that the BLM selected for its Agency Preferred Alternative, Alternative B, one considered an outlier in previous attempts at issuing an RMP one that was meant to serve initially as a bookend – an alternative with the most resource use restrictions and concomitantly with the largest socioeconomic impacts. Over a decade’s worth of contributions from local stakeholders, cooperators, counties and state agencies are either falling on deaf ears or disingenuously being thrown by the wayside with this decision.”
ASI joined the Wyoming Wool Growers Association in submitting written requests to withdraw the proposal and reissue for comment with industry input.
It is incomprehensible to me how easily this administration dismisses decades of work on a cooperative working relationship that has proven itself time and time again to be a win-win for all involved. I can only imagine how difficult this must be for those employees within the BLM agency who have spent their entire career developing these relationships and have seen the resulting benefits to the resources they manage. To now have those important relationships compromised because the appointees of the agency want to push their own extreme agenda is certainly disheartening and frustrating to all involved.
Unfortunately, it appears as we move into a presidential election year that the current administration has a sense of urgency to complete its agenda no matter the cost. Hang on everyone, the next 14 months are going to be very bumpy.
Until next time, keep it on the sunny side.
A variety of factors have been affecting lamb prices, some positive and some negative. Recent weeks have shown some mixed signals for the direction of lamb prices.
Lamb prices have, generally, been climbing during the last couple of months. Lighter weight lambs – whether designated for feeding or slaughter – have been rising. Feeder lambs weighing 60 to 90 pounds, averaged across Texas, Colorado and South Dakota markets hit $218 per cwt. during the first week of October. That is higher than both last year and the 2017-2021 average. After terrible feeding losses in 2022 and early 2023, lower corn prices are likely helping returns. Some profitable feeding opportunities are likely boosting some lamb prices.
Lightweight slaughter lambs – averaged across those same markets – have been flat since early summer around $185 per cwt. In the Texas market, lightweight lambs – hair or wool – have been more than $200 per cwt., but below a year ago. Heavier slaughter lambs in the Sioux Falls, S.D., market continue to be above last year, at $202 versus $119 last year.
Heavier slaughter lamb prices tend to decline seasonally toward the end of the year. We might expect that seasonal pattern to hold because lamb and mutton production normally increases in the fourth quarter. This year, however, production remains below a year ago.
While it should increase from the third to fourth quarters of the year, the amount is likely to remain smaller than last year. Since the first week of July, lamb and yearling slaughter is 2.1 percent smaller than last year. But, in the last four weeks, slaughter is actually running slightly ahead of last year.
The key is weights. Lamb and yearling dressed weights are averaging 6.6 pounds lighter since July than during the same period last year. The combination of slaughter numbers
and average weights means that lamb production is down 10.5 percent in the last three months and down 6.7 percent in the last month from the same period last year. Reduced production is helping prices climb.
The amount of lamb and mutton in cold storage declined from July to August (the latest data). Stocks – at 26.6 million pounds – are 2.5 and 9.6 million pounds below last year and the five-year average, respectively. Less stock in storage, along with tighter production, is a positive for the market.
On the meat side, the cutout has increased slightly, about $28 per cwt., in the last couple of months to $464 during the first week of October. It was $494 last year at this time. Shoulder and leg prices have advanced compared to a year ago while rack and loin – the middle meat – prices remain below last year. Reduced production has not been enough to get wholesale prices above last year. USDA’s retail lamb featuring data has exhibited a lot of variability this year, but in September the average featuring price was $9.43 per pound compared to $9.73 per pound last year.
Lamb imports jumped in August to almost 23 million pounds, slightly more than August last year.
That is the first month this year where imports had exceeded last year. An increase in lamb from New Zealand exceeded a reduction in Australian lamb compared to a year ago. Imports from both countries were the highest since March.
A widening gap between American and Australian leg prices has created more price incentive for imports. And the U.S. dollar has been rising in value compared to Australian currency for most of the year.
In the wool market, the first sales of October brought lower prices for finer wools – 19 micron and finer – and even to higher prices for coarser wools. For example, 18 micron declined U.S. $0.05 per pound to U.S. $4.50 per pound. That was the lowest price since September 2020.
Twenty six micron wool gained U.S. $0.03 per pound after having remained at U.S. $1.89 per pound for the last four weeks.
If weekly offerings follow last year’s pattern, supplies offered for sale will increase in the coming months.
Overall, wool prices continue to trend lower, as they have since peaking in 2022. Risk of an economic slowdown around the world is likely contributing to lower prices. More wool has been offered for sale compared to a year ago and greater supplies on the market are likely contributing to lower overall prices.
Although, relative supplies by micron can affect prices of those qualities. A long, hot summer likely has not helped demand either. Recession fears have certainly affected the prices of other natural fibers, such as cotton.
Overall, uncertainty about economic growth, inflation, rising interest rates, incomes and the possibility of a recession does weigh on the market.
So far, recession fears have not materialized. A little less production than last year should allow for some continued increase in prices. The sharp increase in imports is a cause for concern and is likely incentivized by higher leg prices and the exchange rate.
It’s time once again to submit nominations for ASI awards, which will be presented during the 2024 ASI Annual Convention on Jan. 10-13, 2024, in Denver, Colo. The deadline for all award nominations is Nov. 17.
There are five awards open for nominations: The McClure Silver Ram Award, the Peter Orwick Camptender Award, the Distinguished Producer Award, the Industry Innovation Award and the Shepherd’s Voice Award.
The McClure Silver Ram Award is dedicated to volunteer commitment and service and is presented to a sheep producer who has made substantial contributions to the sheep industry and its organizations in his/her state, region or nation.
The Peter Orwick Camptender Award recognizes industry contributions from a professional in a position or field related to sheep production. Nominees should show a strong commitment and a significant contribution to the sheep industry, its organizations and its producers above and beyond what is called for in his/her professional capacity.
The Distinguished Producer Award was launched in 2014 to recognize the 150th anniversary of the national organization – the oldest livestock association in the country. This award is a way to recognize an individual who has had a significant long-term impact on the industry, including involvement with the National Wool Growers Association or American Sheep Producers Council.
The Industry Innovation Award recognizes the accomplishments of an individual or organization that improves the American sheep industry in a game-changing way, regardless of whether its impact is felt at the regional or national level.
The Shepherd’s Voice Award for Media recognizes outstanding coverage of the sheep industry by either print or broadcast outlets. The award excludes all publications and affiliates related solely to the sheep industry, allowing for recognition of outlets with general coverage of sheep industry issues.
Nominations must be submitted to ASI by Nov. 17, and past recipients of these awards are not eligible for nomination. For more information, visit SheepUSA.org/events-awards.
Shearing Schools Planned for 2023-24
A handful of shearing and wool classing schools have announced dates for the 2023-24 season. Interested students should make plans now to attend, as spots generally fill up quickly.
• North Dakota State University Shearing School, Nov. 18-20 in Hettinger, N.D. Contact Dr. Christopher Schauer at Christopher.firstname.lastname@example.org.
• North Dakota State University Wool Classing School,
Nov. 18-20 in Hettinger, N.D. Contact Dr. Christopher Schauer
• Utah State University Shearing School, Jan. 18-20, 2024, at the USU Animal Science Farm in Wellsville, Utah. Visit Eventbrite.com/e/usu-sheep-shearing-school-2024-registration-
722911155727 for more information.
• Missouri Extension Shearing School, March 6-7, 2024, at Lincoln University’s George Carver Farm in Jefferson City, Mo. Contact Jody Bruemmer at email@example.com or 573-681-5540.
• Shepherd’s Cross Shearing Schools, April 11-13, 2024, and April 15-17, 2024, in Claremore, Okla. Visit Shepherdscross.com/sheep-shearing-school-asi.html for more information.
• Washington State Beginner Shearing School, April 22-26, 2024, Moses Lake, Wash. An advanced shearing school will also be conducted on April 27. Contact Sarah Smith at 509-754-2011, ext. 4363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Archived SSWS Webinar Available for Viewing
A webinar on the Secure Sheep and Wool Supply tabletop exercise that was conducted during the summer in conjunction with the American Sheep Industry Association, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and industry stakeholders is now archived and available for viewing. The webinar was recorded on Sept. 29.
Presenters in the webinar shared lessons learned, preparedness tips and opportunities to achieve business continuity for the sheep industry during a Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak. Attendees learned more about the complexities of the sheep industry and how partnerships can be built through preparedness planning.
The project was funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperative agreement with ASI and was the first exercise of ASI’s SSWS Plan.
To view the webinar, go to https://youtu.be/dhxSfDW9mSU?si=jFRdNKY7py8NApxS.
DSANA Schedules Symposium for Nov. 8-9
The Dairy Sheep Association of North America has scheduled its annual symposium for Nov. 8-9. The symposium will be conducted online again this year.
Each day will feature four presentations. There will be an opportunity to network with other producers through the chat box, and attendees can ask questions of the expert speakers.
Here’s a preview of topics:
• Assessing, and breeding for, udder conformation.
• How to recognize and mitigate heat stress in a lactating flock.
• The economics of feeding dairy ewes.
• Yogurt production, both on-farm and using a co-packer.
• Mastitis vaccine trial results and on-farm experiences.
• The impact of grazing a milking flock part-time.
The symposium will also include video farm tours, which are always popular. The cost for this symposium is free for members, but registration is required.
For more information, visit DSANA.org.
ASGA Conducting Solar Grazing Survey
Have you ever wondered how many acres of solar farms are being grazed or how many solar grazers there are in the United States? What about the average cost per acre to graze solar? These are all questions that are frequently asked of the American Solar Grazing Association.
That’s why ASGA is conducting the first U.S. solar grazing census. The association needs your help to ensure it gets the best data possible by taking the survey and sharing it widely with your network of solar grazing contacts.
Every survey respondent will receive $10 off the cost of an ASGA membership. In addition, all survey respondents will be entered into a drawing to receive a $100 Amazon gift card and special gifts from ASGA.
Visit https://tally.so/r/wMNGqp to take the survey.
Join IWTO in Montreal in December
The International Wool Textile Organization will hold its annual Wool Round Table in Canada for the first time this year. Members of ASI – IWTO’s national committee in the United States – are cordially invited to attend the three-day event in Montreal on Dec. 4-6.
The Round Table brings the global wool textile community together for three days of networking and knowledge sharing, with a focus on local industry. This year’s program features speakers from the world’s major wool growing countries, alongside voices from across North America.
Day one covers wool market intelligence and sustainability, plus an update from the Campaign for Wool, while day two explores wool for interiors and wool production. A visit to local industry takes place on day three.
Visit IWTO.org/wool-round-table-2023/ for information.
A methionine research project at the Arlington (Wis.) Sheep Research Unit might one day lead to a greater understanding of how the diet of a person’s parents and grandparents affect their overall health. It’s a vast undertaking with a long way to go, but in the short term the project has provided a lifeline of funding for the unit.
Under the leadership of longtime professor Dave Thomas, Ph.D., the University of Wisconsin developed a tremendous commitment to sheep. But when he decided to retire in 2017, the university set about dispersing its dairy flock in Spooner, Wis. Concerned that the same might happen in Arlington, he approached several fellow faculty members about developing research projects that would involve the unit’s inhabitants, which consisted of Polpay, Hampshire, Targhee and Rambouillet breeds at the time.
“Dr. Thomas was pretty concerned that the lack of research out here was going to cost us the sheep unit,” recalls Arlington Sheep Unit Research Program Manager Todd Taylor. “Dr. Hasan Khatib was one of the first ones he nudged to come up with some ideas for projects, and he came up with this idea right before Dr. Thomas retired. We started getting the framework in place.”
The research started as a small, pilot project with a minor grant. But positive results from the initial efforts led to a full-fledged, five-year study with significant backing from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. Dr. Khatib has since applied for a second grant to continue the research.
“You’ve heard the old adage: You are what you eat,” Taylor asked? “What we’re looking at is are you what your parents and grandparents ate?”
The five-year study fed methionine – an amino acid – to rams to see how it would affect the DNA of the sperm cells. With that study complete, a second project feeding methionine to both rams and ewes will look to see if there is an additive effect.
“A lot of this stems around human medicine,” said Taylor, who oversees the methionine feeding process on a daily basis. “A lot of the health issues we see in humans – such as diabetes – could come from the diet that their parents or grandparents were consuming during depressions and wars, and how that diet affected their DNA. It’s an intriguing project.”
But the results could also change the way sheep are fed, as those consuming methionine in the project have shown a tendency to reach maturity more quickly, while also developing leaner, more heavily muscled carcasses. Sheep are penned in small groups during feeding and hand fed a supplement that includes cracked corn and molasses along with the methionine.
“Swine diets are heavy in balancing for specific amino acids, not just overall protein,” Taylor said. “But it was never looked at very hard in ruminant diets. This project isn’t so much about nutrition as it is in the reproduction of the animal and the DNA it passes on. The other thing that there’s been some evidence of in small animals is that the DNA change can skip generations. That’s why the first study followed five generations. We’ve looked at everything from performance traits to wool. We didn’t see any real differences in the wool, so we haven’t looked at that as closely.”
For more detailed information on the initial project and its results, go to NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9885981/.
“Dr. Khatib told me that having access to those sheep is one of the best things that’s ever happened for his research,” Thomas said. “I was retired by the time they really started those projects, but I’m pleased to see that research going on and to know that it has secured the future of the sheep unit. It’s tough to maintain sheep research because those always seem to be the first projects to go when budgets get cut.”
The current project seems less likely to lose funding in such an instance because of its human health implications and will benefit the sheep unit and the industry in the process.
“Some of what we’re doing will definitely extrapolate to the sheep industry,” Taylor said.
THE SHEEP UNIT
“When Dr. Thomas was still at the university, the sheep were utilized mostly for his teaching and extension programs, but we haven’t had a sheep production class since he retired,” Taylor said. “We still need the sheep here to service our extension mission. The research project kind of got us back on solid ground.”
But the sheep unit has had to change and adapt in the last six to seven years. There was talk of dispersing three of the unit’s four breeds, but in the end only the Rambouillets were completely eliminated. Polypays are the dominant breed on the unit and the ones involved in the current research.
“We’ve always sold a lot of genetics through the National Sheep Improvement Program,” Taylor said. “We built the Polypay flock to be very prominent and our Hampshire flock has always sold pretty well. The Targhees are consistently competitive at the national show and sale, even though we’ve never had a lot of them. Our biggest source of income is the production sale we have every fall.
“If we had sold those Hamps and Targhees, I knew we’d never get them back, so I drug my feet a bit when they talked about getting rid of them. I felt like we needed a few different breeds to suit our research possibilities. I also thought it was important that we have at least one fine wool breed.”
One argument against drastically cutting numbers at the sheep unit was the dispersal didn’t necessarily cut expenses. The Arlington Agricultural Research Station consists of more than 2,000 acres with beef and dairy units, but also grows most of its own feed – which is mixed at its own feed mill. Approximately 45 acres are devoted to sheep pasture and two large barns provide plenty of room for lambing and dividing sheep into small pens for research. As long as the unit hosts sheep, expenses don’t vary much whether there are 10 or 300 head on the property.
The sheep unit has also proven to be a critical cog in the Wisconsin sheep industry. While Taylor’s appointment includes only 8 percent extension funding, he spends a fair amount of his time working as a resource to the state’s sheep producers. At the annual Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival in September – put on by the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders’ Cooperative – he provided bred ewes for a lambing area and brought in sheep for the shearing demonstration and judging competitions.
“My current department chair was a dairy extension specialist, so he has an appreciation for extension work,” Taylor said. “He’s very supportive of my involvement in that.”
Other programs Taylor oversees include lambing and shearing schools, as well as the Arlington Sheep Day, which serves as WSBC’s annual meeting.
Managing a university sheep unit is the only job Taylor has ever known. He grew up on the University of Wyoming’s sheep unit, where his dad managed the operation.
“Dad was the one who drew the paycheck, but we all worked the barn,” said Taylor, whose dad ran the unit from 1975 to 2004. “That’s basically the way I brought up my family here in Wisconsin. I raised four kids and the youngest one is 20 now. They’re all still involved in livestock in some way. We still have 75 to 80 ewes of our own in addition to what we manage here at the sheep unit.”
And thanks to the current research, Taylor’s day job has been secured for the immediate future. That’s good news for sheep producers throughout the state.
The American Sheep Industry Association invites you to attend the largest gathering of our industry at the ASI Annual Convention, Jan. 10-13, 2024, at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. In addition to all that Denver has to offer, you’ll be minutes from daily activities at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, as well as the wonderful splendor of the Rocky Mountains. Join us as we tour lamb plants and Colorado feedlots, set policy to lead our industry and handle the business of the association.
Registration is now open and early bird rates apply through Dec. 8. All online registrations must be completed by Dec. 18. Any registrations after that date will have to be done onsite in Denver. The Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel is offering a discounted rate for registration attendees through Dec. 18. Convention attendees should sign up as early as possible for desired tours, as spots will fill quickly.
Meetings of ASI’s councils and committees are open to all convention attendees. The Genetic Stakeholders Committee will once again host a Genetics Forum in conjunction with the National Sheep Improvement Program and Sheep Genetics USA.
Meet Us in Denver
Meeting alongside ASI are the American Lamb Board, American Goat Federation, ASI Women, American Shearers Council, Food and Fiber Risk Managers, Make It With Wool, National Lamb Feeders Association, National Livestock Producers Association, National Sheep Improvement Program, National Sheep Industry Improvement Center, Sheep Genetics USA, Sheep Heritage Foundation, Sheep Venture Company and Western Range Association.
Cowboy State Daily
One of the last things people passing through the remote Lost Cabin area of Wyoming might expect is to see is an architectural wonder sitting in what is the high plains desert. It’s a big mansion built of sandstone and pinewood, with a turret at the top that makes it seem like a castle.
It is the multi-story mansion of J.B. Okie – Wyoming’s “sheep king” – a man who came out West with nothing more than the clothes on his back and some spare change borrowed from his mom for a train ticket to Rawlins, Wyo. Okie dreamed of making his fortune as a cowboy, but became a sheepherder instead – and made millions of dollars doing it.
It wasn’t an easy road, but the incredible success is evident with just a glance at the five-bedroom mansion. It includes a third-story cupola, out of which Okie would gaze at the land around – most of which he owned – as well as an additional servants’ quarters over the garage space and a tremendous sandstone wraparound sun porch.
Today the mansion is still there, about an hour northeast of Riverton, Wyo., and is not readily visible to the casual traveler until one gets really close up. Ancient cottonwood trees have surrounded the place. In fact, well before the mansion comes into view, there are several signs that warn of “bad gas” when lights are flashing.
That “bad gas” is hydrogen sulfide from nearby oil and gas activity. It’s one of the first things the home’s present occupant – Zane Fross – tells guests about before he gives a tour of the 122-year-old place.
“We are surrounded by pipelines to carry the nasty gas from 26,000 feet below the surface,” Fross told a recent tour group. “They say your first breath (of that gas) is your last breath. So, I want you to be aware you’re here at your own risk the whole time. I’ll do my best to keep you safe.”
A GLASS WONDERLAND
One of the favorite stories Fross likes to tell is about the glassed-in aviary that Okie added to his mansion after marrying his second wife.
“It was large enough to be a house,” Fross said. “And he boasted of having the largest collection of exotic birds in the territory.”
The aviary was built in 1910, after Okie and his second wife Clarice went on a six-month world tour to places like China, Paris and Japan. When they returned to Lost Cabin, they had bought a home in Denver and another in Pasadena, Calif. They also built California-style bungalows, and the giant glass birdhouse.
It was a glass wonderland with more than 140 exotic birds, including cockatoos, macaws and birds of paradise, and the exotic plant life to match, in what resembled a lush jungle oasis. It must have been quite a contrast to the brown sandy dirt and dried grass that’s more usual for this area.
It’s possible the aviary was just the beginning of Okie’s dreams for the place with his second wife. Years ago, Fross found a set of blueprints while he was working for the Spratt family as a ranch hand, helping them with maintenance of the mansion. They outline a much bigger footprint for Okie’s mansion.
“I kind of hid them,” Fross admits. “I kind of brought them over and I hid them here in the big house. We weren’t living here at the time. I was just a ranch hand, right, and never dreamed I’d ever live here. But so, I stored them in a closet here, out of the sun.”
The Spratts eventually sold the mansion to ConocoPhillips, which in 2009 asked Fross if he wanted to live in the mansion. Fross said he has been working through a process with the oil and gas company since then to eventually own the mansion.
The blueprints Fross found show a massive addition that would have come 80 feet out from the mansion. On one side of that addition, a wing of rooms 20 feet wide. On the other side, a wing 18 feet wide.
Together, the two wings helped define an indoor courtyard with a mosaic fountain.
“The addition was two stories high on both sides,” Fross said. “And the blueprints show that one side would have a master bedroom, which would be Okie’s.”
There were also bedrooms for each of his children in these wings, with their own private bathrooms. An indoor swimming pool was part of the layout, as well.
“These are old, old blueprints,” Fross said. “They can’t be copied easily.”
J.B. Okie didn’t spend his first years in Lost Cabin in anything at all like a mansion, however. His first home was quite humble – a big trench with a lean-to for shelter. He lived a hardscrabble life of wildcat speculation and almost unimaginable hardship. Not at all the life his well-off parents had planned for their son.
At 16, Okie had been appointed as a cadet in the school of the U.S. Revenue Marine, the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard. They felt his future would be assured upon successful graduation from the program – and with much less hardship.
But, while on a surveying trip to the West, Okie heard an instructor casually remark, “A man could get rich out here.”
That stirred Okie’s imagination, and, within a year, the 17-year-old had resigned as a cadet and set off to seek his fortune in Wyoming. He rode in on a Union Pacific train with not much more than the clothes on his back.
In fact, after landing in Rawlins, he had only his cadet uniform for attire, which soon earned the would-be cowboy a nickname – “the cadet.” There’s still a draw near Lander that is referred to by some as Cadet Draw.
Okie, as it happened, wasn’t great at being a cowboy. He would even later joke he made a “damn poor one.”
Ultimately, he talked his mother into loaning him $4,500 to buy a sheep flock instead. She had a few conditions. The sheep were to remain hers, and they would divide any profits equally.
Okie, as it turned out, wasn’t a great sheepherder either. He kept his sheep too long in each camp, and he was herding them along the creek when they should have been up in the hills.
There was a terrible snowstorm in 1883, and his sheep were already in such poor condition they couldn’t withstand the record minus 57-degree temperatures.
He lost all of his bucks, and his ewes were in no shape for lambing come spring.
He threw his flock in with A.D. Bright’s and worked for Bright as a sheepherder for $40 a month. That didn’t even begin to cover his expenses, but Okie gained invaluable sheep sense.
Okie had cash to build back up again at this point. No doubt, he didn’t want to tell his mother he’d lost most of his sheep and needed more money. Instead, he sold off a little shanty he’d built as a youth in Washington, D.C., which he’d been renting to a family for $5 a month.
With the $300 from that sale, he bought 150 ewe lambs, increasing his flock from 718 to 868 ewes. Not as many as he’d had before. But as close as he could get.
There would be more winter roller coaster rides in his future, but Okie was more knowledgeable and managed to ride them out, even the particularly bad winter in 1886-87 that ruined so many cattle ranchers. Unlike cattle prices, sheep prices rose thanks to that debacle, making the sheep Okie had left even more valuable.
By 1889, Okie had more than 5,000 sheep and the Wyoming Derrick newspaper took to calling him the “Sheep King.” In the spring of 1891, the Derrick reported that Okie had sheared 12,000-some sheep.
He’d restored his flock and then some. But as Okie’s empire grew, he chafed at the restrictions his mother had on his sheepherding activities. Facing a downturn in real estate that had dried up her own cash flow, she had forbidden him from making investments in the ranch, to prioritize his payments to her. That was, as he saw it, holding him back from improvements he needed to make.
Okie ultimately bought her out so that he was free to invest where he needed to in his growing empire. A day after, the volatile sheep market exploded on an upward trajectory. That prompted his own mother to sue him, claiming he’d undersold the value of her interest.
A judge, however, determined otherwise, and Okie prevailed in that case – as he would in subsequent suits brought against him by various others seeking one claim or another on his wealth.
EASY CREDIT, EASY STREET
Freed from his mother’s shackles, Okie opened general stores in not just Lost Cabin but surrounding communities like Lysite, Arminto, Moneta, Shoshoni and Kaycee. At these stores, he allowed his fellow sheepherders liberal credit – at the low end of market rates – which allowed them to buy what they needed now and pay later, after shearing or lamb-shipping time.
Hugh Day, a beginning sheepherder, recalled this tale, which he told in the 1970s to a researcher named Karen Love.
Like other ranchers in the area, Day bought on credit at the Bighorn Sheep Company stores and typically paid his bill when he sold his stock. But one morning, when he had ridden to Lysite to get supplies, a clerk told him his credit was no good anymore. He’d charged too much, he was told, and would have to pay first.
Just as Day was leaving, however, Okie happened to arrive in his car and asked the man what was wrong. Hearing that Day had been summarily cut off, Okie went to the clerk’s office and told him – in front of Day and anyone else in the vicinity – that he was to sell Hugh anything he asked for, and that he was to continue to sell to Day until the shelves were empty. After that, he was to offer Day the shelves, too, if Day wanted them.
In addition to business horse sense, Okie wasn’t afraid to defend what was his, either, Fross said, even against outlaws that struck fear into the hearts of most other people. When a bandit loaded up supplies with no intention of paying, Okie’s store employees watched from afar, afraid to intervene. Okie stepped into the unsavory character’s path, and fearlessly demanded payment for the items.
The bandit scoffed and said, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the bad man from the Stinking Water.”
“Well,” Okie replied, pulling his gun out. “I’m the stinking man from Badwater, and you’re going to pay for that.”
Okie wasn’t at all content during his short life with the fortune he’d made. He was always seeking ways to do things better and to expand the empire he began in Lost Cabin.
When a disastrous winter led him to send his sheep to Mexico to graze there instead, he ended up buying a Piggly Wiggly franchise in Mexico, which included six stores.
The sheep transport idea proved a bust. He quipped that he not only had to hire sheepherders there, he had to hire men to watch the sheepherders and then other men to watch the men watching the sheepherders. He ended up selling his flock at a loss. But the Piggly Wiggly stores were a big win, and more than made up for that loss.
Okie also had an impressive list of firsts to his name. He brought the first steam sheep-shearing plant to the United States in 1894.
“Right across the creek over here, there’s an old sweat shed,” Fross said. “What they would do is they’d bring the sheep in and put them under the shed overnight. That would pull the lanolin out into the wool. You could increase the weight of that fleece 10, 15, 20 percent by putting them in that shed overnight.”
Okie also built a warehouse to store his wool, noticing that sheepmen all tended to sell their wool at the same time, depressing the prices. He would hold onto his wool and sell it later, when the price had improved. Okie tried to talk his fellow sheep ranchers into building a $10,000 wool-scouring plant in Casper, which would have increased the value of wool before it went to market. Reducing the debris in the wool would have also lowered the wool’s weight, saving money in shipping costs. The wool-scouring plant didn’t catch on.
But, when the tariff on foreign wool was revoked in 1913, Okie built an Australian shearing shed, which is still standing in Moneta, to better compete on the world market. He also hired Basque sheepherders, recognized as the best sheepherders in the world, to run his flocks. They were in such great demand, only the best operations could afford them. Okie had a big advantage because he was a world traveler and could afford to bring Basques in directly from northern Spain. He also spoke several languages, so he could talk to his herders directly.
Okie recognized the value of learning foreign languages. His children – who were all homeschooled – had to learn a foreign language. He would then send them to the country of their chosen language for at least six months, to ensure they were fluent.
HE HAD A CAR
Okie had the first car in central Wyoming. When he built his mansion, it had a carbide-based electric system, likely also a first for central Wyoming, if not the state. A little moisture on the carbide produced acetylene gas, which would burn clean and produce lights for the mansion. In one of the living room areas, there are green-fringed glass beads original to the house, along with the original green paint, Fross said.
“Imagine having that light send the glow of green through those beads,” he said. “The ambiance in this room must have been kind of incredible.”
Incredible, too, is the mansion itself, built in the high plains desert with running water in the year 1901. Okie was the home’s architect, Fross said, but employed French masons to cut the stone for his mansion and carpenters who framed the home using pine wood he had hauled in by freight train.
“Some people said he was crooked,” Fross said. “But I really don’t see that. To work for J.B. Okie was a coveted thing. He had that bunkhouse that looked like a depot. He had a pool table there for all the people to play pool. And they had beds in there that didn’t have bugs. That was a big plus. To work for Okie was a valued thing, a treasured thing.”
So, too, is the chance to keep up Okie’s mansion, Fross told Cowboy State Daily.
“I love this old girl,” he said. “She’s definitely worthy of our respect. What Okie did here was phenomenal really. And for Wyoming and the time period, way ahead of his time.”
Republished with permission from Cowboy State Daily.