Conversations about the Past and Future of West River Sheep Ranching at the Newell Ram Sale

Posted by Michael Zimny on

Newell recently hosted the seventy-fourth annual Newell Ram Sale, a premier destination for Western sheep ranchers in search of quality stock.  

Melanie and Marissa Pittman run a mother-daughter farming operation based in Belle Fourche. They're regulars at the sale. 

"It's a big deal," says Marissa. "We've been coming since probably 2011. We've been here every year since. They work really hard to make it a good opportunity to buy quality animals." 

"We started out as dairy farmers," says Marissa, "and when the dairy market fell apart in our area, we transitioned to more of a sheep operation with some beef cattle."

"They're easy to handle," says Melanie. "They're a low investment to get into. They're a good size, especially for women, as compared to cattle. There's numerous directions to go with them."

Domestic sheep production peaked during World War II and has mostly declined since, with strong competition coming from Australia and New Zealand. However, there are some trends that could help producers. The local food and farmer's market cultures, as well as immigrant cultures, have provided new markets for lamb. Legislation that requires military uniforms be sourced domestically, as well as anti-shrinkage advances, have benefited wool producers.

Dave Ollila is Sheep Field Specialist at South Dakota State University Extension. He says that sheep have been reared in South Dakota since Europeans began to arrive as settlers.

"Fortunately," says Ollila, "we see a new interest by the American consumer for not only having the connection with where their food, or their textile fibers and wool come from — because they want that story — but also a new interest in supporting American agriculture. As long as we do it environmentally sound and humanely, the American consumer has a set of standards that we need to rise to. It's never in any rancher's or farmer's interests to stress out their animals or degrade their natural resources because that doesn't help their bottom line at all."
The Newell Sale enables ranchers to find the genetics that could enable them to find their niche in a continuously evolving, global market.

"Sheep, especially, are impacted by world trade," says Ollila. Both the wool — which a lot of ours goes to China where [we are] facing trade barriers — and we're in competition with our lamb, with Australia and New Zealand and Uruguay moving into that market as well. As agriculturalists, we compete globally, and just like any company, you have to keep moving with the times and meet consumer demand."

The Newell Ram Sale can help producers achieve the efficiency they need to compete in a global market by syncing genetics with the local environment, selecting for what Ollila calls, "livestock superpowers to convert grass into meat, and in the same way into wool. The whole mission of the sale was to bring superior genetics to producers in this area so they could improve the quality of the product both in wool and lamb." 

"This sale, along with a number of other sales in Montana and Wyoming, have supported the sheep industry tremendously in developing the type of sheep that have created the best value for producers out here, that fit their environment."

The Sale itself is historically connected to local scientific research.

"It was spawned off of the experiment station that was established on the irrigation project," says Ollila.

In the Newell area, established sheep ranchers integrated their operations into the Belle Fourche Irrigation District — one of the first Bureau of Reclamation farmland irrigation projects — which started diverting Belle Fourche River water to land in Butte and Mead counties early in the twentieth century.

"Teddy Roosevelt and Seth Bullock — who was famous for being the sheriff of Deadwood and and the founder of Belle Fourche — were buddies," says Ollila. "When Teddy was out here in North Dakota, they could see that to get people to immigrate out to these Northern Plains, they needed some agriculture and had that foresight and vision to develop the Belle Fourche Irrigation Project. And not only does it provide a forage feed source for the ranchers in the radius around here, but they also established other enterprises. One of the first was the raising of cucumbers, and actually Nisland and Vale had pickling plants. 

"Then as that got along, they established sugar beets. The town of Vail — their school mascot was the Vail Beet Diggers. Sheep played a role in using the beet tops [left over] from the processing of the sugar. That was a great feed source for them. Sheep were wintered down on these little farms on alfalfa fields and the corn and beet fields."

The pickling plants and the Vail Beet Diggers are gone now, but the Newell sports teams are still the Irrigators, and sheep still graze the pastures of Butte and Meade counties. The Sale is still here, and Belle Fourche is still home to one of the largest wool warehouses in the nation. 

Ollila seems hopeful that sheep ranchers will continue to outperform picklers in western South Dakota.

"The new generations of people love the earthly things, like wool and the story it tells about being regenerative. Here you're taking a utilization of a native resource such as grass, that regrows, and cycling and nutrients through the animal back into the fecal material that feeds the soil. Then you're producing wool that has a great story of taking carbon out of the environment, putting it back in the ground, making a product from it. At the same time you're helping those grazing lands, keeping the weed pressures down and keeping the diversity of the plant community and the insects and the birds all in balance. We as ranchers have that opportunity to do that."

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