LETCHER - From the first moment Tate Williams worked on a friend's family farm, he knew it was a life worth living.
The decision was made before he even graduated high school, starting with just three cows. It became his focus - bypassing a chance to play college football to make it happen - and it led the eventual first-generation rancher to meeting the love of his life.
"When I got introduced to cattle, ranching was so intriguing to me," he said. "Deciding not to play football wasn't easy, but I wanted to keep moving forward in the cattle industry."
First-generation cattle ranchers are a rare breed today, but Tate and his wife Calli are bucking the trend while chasing their dreams in the process of building their Letcher ranch.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture's National Statistics Service's recent census, the average age of a U.S. farmer and rancher is 58 years old. Of that figure, roughly less than one-quarter of the nation's farms and ranches are owned and operated by millennials ages 18-34.
Given the steep overhead costs of starting a cattle operation without any inherited land or cows, Tate, 28, took a risk when he bought his first head of cattle. A dozen years later, Tate has watched his ranch grow to 50 bulls. Together, Tate and Calli have built the cattle company he started in 2008, TW Angus.
Growing up in a house near Lake Mitchell, Tate was unfamiliar with ranch life until he formed a close friendship with the Bussmus family.
"Hanging out with the Bussmuses is where I started learning the basics and grew my knowledge in the cattle industry," Tate said. "They were and are some of the top people in the registered black Angus business, and it was really intriguing to me."
Tate was gradually getting exposed to the cattle world by spending countless hours at the Bussmus ranch a few miles south of Lake Mitchell; little did he know it would be the beginning of his journey as a cattle rancher. And in 2007, at age 16, he bought his first set of cows from the Bussmus family.
"I was helping Gary (Bussmus) out in the summers, and I bought three cows of my own," Tate said. Bussmus allowed Tate to keep his initial cows on the farm.
The Williamses produce seedstock cattle, which are breeding cattle typically used to produce purebred bulls and improve genetics for commercial herds.
"It's been fun learning the pedigrees and genetics of cows," Tate said, noting his cattle are 100 percent purebred black Angus bulls.
Tate grew his cattle business credentials by spending a summer in Dallas, South Dakota, as a farmhand for the Graesser family, who were friends of Tate's family. In 2010, Tate expanded his herd, purchasing 15 cows from a dispersal sale, prompting him to move his herd to the Graesser ranch, where he lived for four months.
"At the Graessers, there was no cell phone reception, so I was seeing the day-to-day work that goes into ranching," Tate said of his time in Dallas. "It was a good way of life, and I loved it."
Finding love through ranching
The current cattle business came together in 2014, when Tate Williams met his wife, Calli. At that time, she was making a name for herself in the 4-H community, winning a stack of awards showing cows during high school competitions.
And in the middle of fulfilling a summer internship in Ohio, Calli traveled roughly 1,000 miles to show cattle at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron and do what she loves best. Little did she know it would be the first time meeting her future husband. Both were showing cattle and they hit it off.
"I loved showing cattle, and I always knew I wanted to stay in the industry somehow, some way," Calli said. "To find someone that was willing to put in the hard work and finances to make all this happen was huge."
Although Calli was raised on a ranch in the small town of Aurora, near Brookings, she's learned something new from her husband in their livestock journey.
"I never had maintained bulls, so that's something I learned from him, but marketing the operation is where I stepped in," said Calli, who attended South Dakota State University for agriculture communications.
In 2015, Tate and Calli got engaged, and married a year later. With the TW Angus cattle operation sitting in Dallas, Tate and Callie were pleased for the breakthrough that led them to purchasing their ranch near Letcher. Charlie and Darlene Bailey, family friends of the Williamses who previously owned a Letcher farm, were selling their property.
"It was so exciting to finally have the opportunity to own our ranch," Calli said.
While also tending the family's Letcher ranch, Tate is busy helping his father, Joe, run the family business, Williams Masonry. Tasked with the challenge of juggling two careers, the rancher and brick mason said he's adapting well.
With a new house and land to call their own, the Williams family ranch has grown with the addition of their son Jack in 2018.
In between raising Jack and feeding cattle, Calli has been busy carving her own professional journey as an insurance sales agent at Fischer Rounds and Associates in Mitchell.
"Being the first Fischer Rounds bull mortality insurance sales agent has been such a great opportunity that has added another way for me to follow my passion," Calli said.
As millennial ranchers, the couple grasps the importance of marketing their business through social media, which they've been utilizing since the founding of TW Angus. With 300-plus followers and counting, the Williamses said their Facebook page has made a difference in the competitive seedstock industry.
Looking toward the future, the Williamses hope to add 30 more head of cattle, rounding out the total number to 80 purebred cows. In the meantime, they are busy selling purebred Angus bulls under the TW Angus name.
"Our biggest focus is to produce high quality, registered Angus cattle," Calli said. "We feel it's important to share our story as millennial ranchers, but also to promote the beef industry as a whole."