The Graves Family
Jim and Donita are proud of the life they have made and the family they have raised on the Platte County plains. Their two sons both landed back in Wyoming after college. Nathan works in the State of Wyoming Engineer's Office as the State Dam Inspector. Josh, his wife Jill and girls Jadea, 11, and Jessie, 9 are all living and working on the ranch. Donita says she and Jim encouraged their boys to work for someone else after high school. “We didn’t want to force this life on them,” she says.
Before returning to the ranch, Josh completed a welding degree from Casper College, a skill he often uses on the ranch, as well as honed skills as a mechanic. He and Jill also had a barn building business for several years.
The Graves run a cow-calf operation and keep back steers to carry over to yearlings. For a time, the ranch sent the steers to fatten at a feedlot in Omaha, but ended the practice when record grain and gas prices made it financially unfeasible.
Jim says their operation is able to utilize their good grass as their main source of feed. They graze year-round, keeping half the forage back for winter feed. The operation has stuck to its roots, while incorporating preventative medicine techniques and current research.
Jim’s family moved to Platte County in 1948 and bought the first part of the ranch along Antelope Creek Road. His father, Herb, was a farmer in Colorado, but was never quite happy in the fields. Drawn to the cattle industry, Herb made a change in his mid-forties and moved his family to Wyoming. The family had four kids and Jim was the youngest. “I was the only one that stuck around,” he says.
The ranch has since grown, with most of the additional purchases connecting to the home place. In 1962 Jim was fresh out of the Army when Herb bought the ranch and house they currently call home. In 1970 Jim married a nurse who came to Wheatland from a family farm in Brookings, SD. Donita jokes and says she had to come looking for him.
The Graves family looks at ranching as a business, not just a lifestyle. The ranch became a corporation in 1973 and each working family member is a shareholder. They use a common-sense approach to management and finances. “We’ve never felt the need to keep up with the Jones’,” she says. “You just wait until the money is in the bank.” Jim agreed and says he never saw a reason to buy a $40,000 pickup to drive around his pastures. “If you’re trying to impress your neighbor while you’re on your ranch I wonder what your neighbor is doing in your pasture,” he jokes.
The Graves are very proud that they are debt free. The family has chosen not to borrow money except for land purchases and has taken no government assistance. Their financial planning has paid off and before Herb died at nearly 102 years old, he was able to see the entire place paid off.
Another source of pride for the Graves is their quality Hereford cattle. They consider them a low-maintenance and cost-effective breed. Bulls are purchased off the ranch and they raise their own cows. “Most people know we have good Herefords,” Donita says and Jim adds, “It’s a proud moment when our animals go through the ring and everybody oohs and ahhs.”
One of their newer changes to the operation is implementing a later calving program. Several years ago, they pushed their March 1 calving date to April 15. The family does notice a difference in weaning weights, but believe the later date is one of the best things they have ever done for their operation. “They are definitely smaller, but they’re alive,” Donita says. “It’s a lot easier on the carpet when we’re not pacing back and forth staring at a spring blizzard we can’t do anything about.”
Record keeping is also an important part of the business and Donita is known for plugging away at the computer. The operation has records dating back to 1952 when they used only a pencil and paper. Jim says sometimes it can be hard to change, but it is important to be flexible. The Graves try to stay informed and incorporate new ideas into their operation. Jim and Donita agree that what works for one operation won’t necessarily work for the neighbor across the fence.
Another tool the Graves family often utilizes is Jim himself. Jim attended the University of Wyoming and studied architectural engineering and art. A self-proclaimed “tinkerer,” Jim is always building gates, head catches and even a pickup they lovingly call “Mongrel.” Jim also continues to indulge his love of art and his sketches fill the family walls and scrapbooks.
Jim and Donita have stayed very involved over the years. Jim previously served as a 4-H beef leader, on the Wheatland Irrigation District Board, and the Wyoming Beef Council in several capacities. Donita is very active in the local cattle women where she writes articles and takes photos for the group. She also is an avid quilter.
The Graves family, now rearing its fourth generation, has worked hard, living a typical Wyoming ranch life. Jim and Donita have scrimped and saved, sacrificed and adjusted and ultimately thrived as top-notch examples of Wyoming ranchers and stewards of the land. They continue to celebrate their accomplishments and look to the future.
FEATURE DATE: 2015
In memory of Jim Graves