A South Dakota family finds the balance between sheep and cows both on the ranch and in the markets
Story and photos by Melissa Hemken
Access to markets for their livestock is a concern shared through generations of ranchers. In 1972’s “The Cowboys” film, actor John Wayne starred as an Old West-era rancher forced to hire inexperienced boys to trail his cattle to the Livestock Exchange in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Market options still rank as priority in the modern Belle Fourche of 2017. East of town, the Kukuchka family balances market prices by raising registered Angus cattle and Targhee sheep on their Bar 69 Ranch.
Craig and Deb Kukuchka, hailing from Wyoming and Montana respectively, came across the South Dakota border seeking land suitable for livestock in 1988. While Craig’s grandparents raised sheep, Deb’s family is steeped in generations of Sitz Angus. “My dad [Bob Sitz Sr.] used to call up,” says Deb Kukuchka of good-natured ribbing over their sheep, “and ask, ‘Is it a baa-aaaad day?’”
Available grazing leases brought the Kukuchkas to Belle Fourche and options to purchase land, coupled with the nearby Center of the Nation Wool, Inc. warehouse and nearby livestock sale barns, enticed them to stay. “This is awful good country here,” says Craig Kukuchka. “We looked all over Montana and Wyoming, and this area is the only place we could find where we could run cattle and sheep on good grass with few predators.”
The Kukuchkas followed historical paths to Belle Fourche: the Oregon Trail and Bozeman Trail brought land-seeking pioneers first to Wyoming and Montana in the early to mid-1800s. With no major pioneer route, western South Dakota stayed uncharted until Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s 1874 U.S. Army expedition to select suitable fort locations and investigate gold mining. The resulting Black Hills gold rush peaked in 1877, bringing ranchers and farmers to the area to feed the booming population.
What to do with those cows?
The first trainload of cattle left Belle Fourche for eastern markets in 1890. Five years later, the Belle Fourche Livestock Exchange shipped 2,500 carloads of cattle per month to become that time’s largest livestock-shipping point. When Craig and Deb moved to Belle Fourche, Deb’s father, Bob Sitz Sr., forwent the railroad and arrived in his semi-truck loaded with Deb’s registered Angus cows and her buckskin horse.
“At the time we were running commercial baldy cows,” Craig says. “I told Deb, ‘We need to do something with your registered cows or just get rid of them’.”
This conversation prompted Craig and Deb to begin AI breeding their registered cows to high-caliber Angus bulls. The Kukuchkas gradually transitioned to all registered cattle, and now most of their herd traces lineage to Deb’s original Sitz Angus cows. “My dad was big on performance,” Deb recalls. “We don’t trim feet on our outfit. Cows should have good udders and dispositions. Problem cows cost you money. That was his philosophy and it carried through to me.”
Deb names their herd sires as old friends: Alliance, Traveler 71, Rainmaker, CSU Rito, Thunder, Upward, Capitalist, Game Day and Pioneer. “Of course, we support family, so most of our bulls come from Sitz Angus,” Deb adds of their bloodlines.
Craig, Deb, and their grown children Chase and Callie focus on selling registered Angus bulls and replacement heifers at their annual April sale, believing only the best should be breeding bulls; only the top 50 percent of bull calves are selected as their herd sires and to market as seedstock. “The industry is changing rapidly,” Deb shares, “we try to stay up to date on new technology. We ultrasound our cattle for carcass information and DNA for genomically enhanced EPDs [expected progeny differences].”
Bar 69 markets their beef as Certified Angus Beef for the added value. “The Angus breed has a big advantage right now,” Deb continues, “there is no other vehicle that sells beef like Certified Angus Beef. We went to the 2016 National Angus Convention in Indianapolis, and the convention organizers took a film crew down the streets of Indianapolis.
“They asked random people, ‘What does Angus mean to you?’ And they all said, ‘Good beef.’ Then the interviewer asked, ‘What does an Angus look like?’ Nobody knew. They didn’t know what color, but they know Angus means good beef. It’s very successful marketing.”
Bar 69 sheep balance the cattle herd by their dual purpose accessing wool and meat markets, and provide greater efficiency of grazing resources. “We run the sheep through pastures ahead of the cows,” Deb explains. “Sheep eat flowers and forbs, and cattle eat grass. We can run a third more livestock being diversified.”
Ranch equipment is modified for both species: Craig rebuilt the truck-bed gravity feeder with two compartments so he can corn sheep and cake cows in one trip. The Bar 69 Ranch is home to a small grain elevator built in the late 1800s. A winter’s worth of shelled corn, 175 tons, is purchased locally and stored in the tin-sided elevator. Craig parks his truck on the scale, turns on the auger, and weighs corn into the gravity feeder. Some elevator bins contain oats to give early lambs a kick start.
The Kukuchkas schedule their lambing and calving to happen consecutively: heifers first, the first batch of sheep next, cows third, then the remaining sheep. Ewes are lambed through the barn as there is little natural shelter, and cows also calve through sheds for ease of birth records for registration.
“Two months in the spring,” Craig says, “the weather makes me nervous. Old timers say you can have a blizzard until Mothers’ Day. North of Belle [Fourche], it’s flat. When we moved here, and first started putting those old commercial cows through the shed, oh man, you talk about a bunch of hot cows. They wanted to be out hiding their calves. The registered cows’ dispositions are much quieter and they are easier to handle.”
By ultrasounding cows, the Kukuchkas verify calving dates — allowing later cows to stay on pasture until closer to calving. Ultrasounding also sexes calves and identifies any twins. “This year our vet came up with the idea of putting a little blue tag in the ear of cows expecting twins,” Deb says, “which is really nice to have that reminder to look for two calves.”
“Sometimes twins aren’t so good,” Craig adds, “ but it’s nice to have extra calves. We graft them onto other cows. Cows and ewes mother very differently. It’s pretty amazing to watch 200 lambs playing, hear an ewe blat, and her two lambs come to her immediately. My granddad always said, ‘Anybody in the cow business should raise sheep first’.”
The U.S sheep population rose from 7 million in the early 1800s to peak at 56 million head in 1945. With the invention of synthetic fibers, the sheep industry switched emphasis from wool production to meat production, and numbers declined to 5 million sheep as of January 2017. This decrease is reaching the critical number of sheep needed to keep wool warehouses, shearing crews and meat processors in business.
The decline of range flocks is attributed to steady re-population of predators and concerns of disease in Bighorn Sheep. “When we moved over here,” Craig recalls, “there weren’t any coyotes at all. Probably six years passed before I even saw or heard one here. But in the last 10 years, coyotes have gotten thicker. I think the larger wolf population in [Wyoming’s] Bighorn Mountains push coyotes east.”
While range flocks shrink, sheep gain popularity on small farms. “Farm flocks are increasing in eastern South Dakota,” Craig explains, “and further into the Midwest. Unfortunately the farm flocks are not paying attention to wool quality, and flooding the market with inferior wool.”
Prices for extra fine wool remain extremely good, benefiting the Kukuchkas’ wool sales on the apparel market. “As with any market, you’ve got to think of what the wool is used for,” Deb says. “When people buy wool clothing, they don’t want scratchy shirts. Consumers want fine wool for their shirts and socks.”
Sharing Ag and Culture
The Kukuchkas’ son Chase and his wife Ashton recently returned from North Dakota jobs to Bar 69 with their daughter Ellie. “Ellie is her grandma Deb’s helper,” Ashton says of their six-year-old daughter. “She pulled her first lamb last year. Now she wants to be a vet and watches Discovery [Channel’s] [The Incredible] Dr. Pol veterinary show.”
Ellie also shadows her aunt Callie when the South Dakota State University student returns home from her animal science and ag business/marketing studies. The Bar 69 is not short of young people and learning: the Kukuchkas regularly host ag exchange students from abroad. Craig and Deb hosted their first exchange student in 1993, and found the extra hands helpful for calving, lambing, and irrigating. Exchange students are ages 18-30, earn wages for their work, many receive college credit, stay for 8-month stints, and travel the United States while visiting.
“The students come to learn about U.S. agriculture,” Deb says. “They get to ride, work with the animals, irrigate and do a bit of everything. We have hosted students from nine countries, and its fun to learn about their culture and homes. My dad always said, ‘If you go a day without learning something, you wasted that day’.”
Some students return for second ag exchanges at the Bar 69, and, when they’re visiting the U.S., often come by the ranch to visit the Kukuchkas. “A few come with some ag experience,” Deb continues, “and all of them are interested in making agriculture their career. Our kids had the opportunity to work here, and learn if they wanted to be in ag, since they were young. The ag exchange gives other young people the same experience: by the time they clean their 100th pen, they know if this is what they want to do.”