COVER STORY: Lion of the lambs

WATERTOWN, S.D. -- Anyone who's sold lambs recently in South Dakota, North Dakota or Minnesota is in a market influenced by Dion Van Well. Van Well has grown from nothing to becoming one of the region's largest individual producers and an aggrega...

WATERTOWN, S.D. -- Anyone who's sold lambs recently in South Dakota, North Dakota or Minnesota is in a market influenced by Dion Van Well.

Van Well has grown from nothing to becoming one of the region's largest individual producers and an aggregator, based in Watertown, S.D. With his connections, Van Well handles some 143,000 market-ready lambs a year, about 40 percent of which originate from his own family's production connections.

"We help set a market in the country, by bidding on lambs in various sale barns," Van Well acknowledges. "In this small industry, the more players you have, the better."

The Van Wells have their own flock of some 3,000 ewes and put them out on summer pastures in South Dakota and North Dakota. He and his sons keep some 14,000 to 20,000 sheep on feed at any given time, using a network of his own four farmsteads in the Watertown area, as well as arrangements with commercial feedlots in Hoven, S.D., and Corsica, S.D., and three others in Iowa.

Van Well also accumulates sheep loads at a buying station in Watertown and weekly participates at eight sale barns in South Dakota and North Dakota. sending out six to 12 loads of market-ready animals a week to a major lamb kill in Denver.


Know-how and hustle

Van Well, 42, grew up with a livestock tradition.

Dion's father, Vic Van Well, was raised in the Hoven area. Vic started out farming in Hoven with a brother, raised hogs, dairy and sheep. In 1976, Vic moved his operation about 150 miles to a farm about three miles west of Watertown. (In a separate operation from Dion's, Vic continued with in a purebred sheep business and remains a partner in a family business that makes paddles and cattle sticks for the livestock industry.)

Born in Hoven in 1966, Dion is the oldest of four siblings.

"Originally, we had hogs and when I was in grade school we had about 600 ewes," he recalls.

After graduating from high school in 1985, Dion spent a year at South Dakota State University in Brookings, briefly considering a career in wildlife management. Impatient with the introductory courses at SDSU, he returned home and attended Lake Area Vocational Technical Institute in Watertown, where he earned a mechanical drafting degree in 1988.

It was a busy year.

Dion married Stephanie Walder, a Watertown girl, and started work as a draftsman for Amtec, a Watertown company that made tire changers and other under-car service equipment.


Always, Van Well stayed in the sheep business.

"When I was at Amtec, every night after I was done with work at 4:30, I'd go out and shear sheep until 10 p.m.," he says. "A lot of these guys had a little ewe flock, and I'd shear them all over the country. That's how I got to know most of the people in the business."

Expanding home base

In 1993, Dion and Stephanie bought a farmstead three miles south of town, and they got even busier. While raising two young sons, Trevor and Travis, they gutted and remodeled the farm house and started a parade of farmstead building projects.

This started with a 24-by-64-foot lean-to onto an old hip roof barn that had been on the place.

"It was an old horse barn and had a wooden floor, 8-by-8-inch beams on the ground, and 3-by-10-inch planks," Dion says. "I've never seen anything like it. We had to tear that out of there. And we went in with cables and drew up the roof. We hauled in a bunch of clay for the floor."

At the time, Dion was working in town, running the 150-ewe flock, and continued to shear the lambs.

Before long, he custom-fed lambs for his uncle, Ray Van Well of Watertown, and for Tom Meyers of Humboldt, S.D.


"We were working 18 hours a day," Dion says. "The shearing income helped give us a chance to save some money to build the place."

He sheared sheep until about two years ago.

In 1995, Dion finally quit the Amtec job and concentrated entirely on the sheep.

That year, he built his first barn with built-in feeder.

"I'd never seen one that before. I thought about it every winter when there was a blizzard and the feeders were under 2 foot of snow."

When Meyers expanded his own feedlot operation, Dion went into the feeding business with his father for a couple of years.

"We'd had 2,000 to 3,000 finishing lambs and didn't have room for them here, so my Uncle Dave Van Well started feeding some at Hoven, too."

Sudden downturns


In the 1998-to-2002 period, things got tough in the sheep business.

"Lambs got to 43 cents a pound," he says. "Whenever hogs are at 6 cents, things get bad for lamb prices. We couldn't afford to build any buildings during that period. The main thing is to hang in there when things are tough."

About that time, John Morrell & Co. closed its lamb killing operation in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"I got on the telephone and called and called and called," Dion says. "I got hold of Superior Farms in Denver and told them I knew these people from shearing and that I could put a load a week together. Three days later, they called back and said go ahead and start buying."

In two years, Dion's one load a week turned into sometimes up to a dozen a week, but averaged seven to eight. Each market-ready load is about 340 to 350 lambs.

Today, all 3,000 ewes lamb are lambed in a remodeled barn and the expanded hip-roof barn, in bunches of 600 a month for five months, starting in January.

Once the lambs are born, the Van Wells wait two or three days and then move the mother and lambs to one of the other larger, buildings, at the home farm or other nearby farms.

"We start weaning the first bunch after they're 60 days old. After they're weaned a month, we get them in and brand them and pour (pest control), vaccinate them and send them to pasture. Every month, we send 600 more to pasture, starting in April."


Dion uses three different pasture complexes.

A little canine help

One part of the flock goes to a 3,000-acre pasture south of Faith, S.D. Another goes is north of Faith, on 14,000 acres.

There, the sheep are guarded 24/7 by Great Pyrenees mountain dogs he owns. Largely, these canine guardians operate independently, without human supervision.

"The rancher throws a bag of dog food out in the corrals, the dogs climb in and get what they need. At night, the dogs are out patrolling for coyotes. I own 10 of 'em," Dion says. "Those dogs have been very important."

A third part of the flock goes north to a 2,000-acre pasture near Lisbon, N.D., where a Peruvian shepherd runs them with the cattle herd to control leafy spurge.

"The spurge is like a yellow carpet up there," Dion says.

Once the ewe flock is gone from the home places, Dion gradually converts the facilities to a summer feedlot.


Some of the lambs he's produced from the home flock. Others are bought through sale barn, or western locations in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and western South Dakota -- 500 in a load.

"We bring them in, start them up on feed and shear everything up after it's been here two or three weeks," he says. "We can hold quite a few sheep among the four places -- about 8,000 in the four locations."

Beyond that, Dion sends lambs to six different custom feedlots.

He has some in Remsen and

Orange City in northwest Iowa.

"I send them there because I have to empty this place out by January because we start lambing. All of the lambs here have to be sold or taken to another feedlot, where they'll finish them and they'll go to a packing plant -- Denver, predominantly."

When it works, it's fun

In early September, Van Well had some 14,000 lambs on feed. In 2008, there was a time he had 20,000 on feed. He also has about 1,200 cattle on feed near Platte, S.D.

"When you're making money on those numbers, it's great, but when you're losing numbers, it's not very fun," he notes

Everybody knows about the latest downturn in the sheep industry,

It's affected the number of customers he has for the buying station.

"There's fewer lamb operations than there were in 2008," Van Well says. "The $7-per-bushel corn just kicked the sheep industry's ass. It was the ruination of the country; it didn't do no good. We lost a lot of customers. A lot of them just got their first feed bill during that period and said enough is enough."

As corn prices have moderated, Dion sees a bit more interest in ewes again.

"We'll never get those numbers back that we lost," he says. "We don't have new people jumping into this thing. There's a few, but very few."

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