MEEKER, Colo. — The Theos name has been synonymous with the finewool sheep business on Colorado’s West Slope going on 100 years. Angelo “Butch” Theos, the third generation patriarch of the family operation, now partners with his youngest son, Tony. For this family it is all about quality — producing the best of the best — for both lamb and wool.
The Theos operation is one of the best examples of a truly gate to plate operation in that their range-raised lambs essentially come right off the mountain and are marketed through Whole Foods to eager lamb aficionados in Colorado, Utah and Kansas. Plus part of their finewool clip is sold to Ramblers Way Farms, a niche retailer on the East Coast, who makes next-to-the-skin wool garments of 100 percent American wool and is manufactured from start to finish right here in the U.S.
Karin, Butch’s wife, even contributes with her own line of soaps which she makes herself using the lamb tallow.
Both of Butch’s grandfathers, Angelo Theos and John Jouflas, came to America in the late 1890s through Ellis Island. Theos went immediately to Price, Utah, where a lot of Greek immigrants resided, to work in the coal mines. Jouflas came to Helper, Utah.
The plan from the get-go for these sheep herders from Greece was to work in the mines only long enough to save enough money to buy a herd of sheep.
During Theos’ tenure at the mines, he met two brothers, Nick and Gus Papathasion, and after a few years the three partnered in the sheep business. It was all open range back then, so the focus was on accumulating numbers.
They wintered and lambed their sheep in Utah, not far from the Colorado-Utah border, and then trailed them to Loma in July to put them on a train that carried them to Tennessee Pass near Leadville. It was there that they summered their ewes and lambs. From there the lambs would go to market by train to the Denver stockyards; the ewes were shipped back to Loma and then trailed again to their winter range the following season.
Back then, Butch says, an 85-pound lamb was a big lamb, but wool was also at a premium during those days. Still, most of their income then, as today, was derived from the lambs.
After a few years the two brothers convinced Theos that he needed to go back to Greece and marry their sister. Having never met her, he did just that, and he brought his new bride back to America.
By then the partners had accumulated several thousand head of sheep, and their profits were substantial. In 1921 the men decided to sell out and split their profits. Angelo decided to take his young family home to Greece. Tom, Butch’s father, was just three. He had two older brothers as well.
Angelo, however, wasn’t happy back in his homeland. He was just a young man and wasn’t ready to retire, so the family came back to America in 1922.
Because he couldn’t bring his money with him, the young sheep herder had to start anew. It was still open range, but Angelo understood that those days were rapidly coming to an end. In 1925 he moved into the Meeker area, where he began buying up 80 to 160-acre parcels from struggling homesteaders. In time he accumulated 15,000 acres, paying anywhere from 50 cents in the beginning up to about $20 an acre at the end.
Unfortunately, the better land with the water rights had already been taken up. Knowing he couldn’t raise enough hay to feed his sheep through the winter, Theos had the foresight to also buy winter range. He found that winter range 80 miles to the west at Rangely. He also bought some summer permits on the forest, and in that way the process of trailing to the winter range, back to private ground for lambing, and then up to the summer permits began. They are lucky in that today all four of the summer permits are essentially connected to the ranch, which allows them to basically continue the practice of trailing rather than shipping by trucks to their summer range.
“We basically open a gate in the summer and we’re on forest permits; and we open a gate in the fall and we’re back on private ground,” Butch explains.
They also still trail down to the winter range.
“Back in the 1950s there were as many as 50,000 sheep that made the annual trek on the stock trail to the winter range near Rangely. Twenty years ago that number dropped to about 20,000 sheep.” Today, Butch says, only about 7000 sheep make that annual trip. The 80-mile trip from the ranch to the winter range has the Theos sheep on the trail about eight days.
Butch was nine when his grandfather died. Some of what he remembers about him is that unlike most of the Greeks today, he was blond and blue-eyed and well over six feet tall.
“He guarded the Greek palace because he was so tall,” Butch says. “He was quite a man and made quite an impression.”
After returning to America the second and final time, three more children were born to Angelo and Mary, two more boys and a girl.
“From sixth grade on my grandfather took those five boys out of school in April and took them to the sheep,” Butch says. “I don’t think any of them, except my aunt, were there for graduation.”
The first year Butch went on the trail with his father was in 1959; he was 11 years old. The trip to their summer range took 14 days.
“It took three days to get from the ranch to Horse Ridge,” Butch recalls. “Then to Morapas, then to the top of Sleepy Cat, to Lost Park, from Lost Park to San Peak, from there to Pagoda Peak, and then to Ripple Creek, to Picket Pen to the Indian rock corral, and then on to our permit. It’s embedded in my mind like it happened yesterday.
“Every morning we had hot cakes, bacon and eggs.”
He also recalls fishing in the mountain streams during his downtime.
“I could catch 10 fish in 30 minutes. That’s what I remember, being with the sheep and also cutting wood and hauling it to camp with the mules. I remember thinking how awful the water at the ranch tasted after drinking the water up in the mountains.”
For young Theos, this was all part of the growing up process. Like those before him, sheep became his life, and though he completed a degree from Colorado State University, Butch says raising sheep is all he ever wanted to do.
Like his father, Tony came back to the ranch immediately following college. In fact, he never really left, as he worked part-time all through college. In a 2001 Livestock Weekly article, Tony had this to say about raising sheep:
“This ranch has taught me a lot of things. I learned more in one spring of lambing than I did in a whole year of college. Many of my friends work for the weekend. They work to have a good time, to have their toys. My thinking is this work is my good time.”
That still holds true today, he says.
Today the family runs about 3000 ewes. Numbers are down about 10 percent because of the terrible drouth in 2012 and a tougher than normal winter this year. They run basically a Merino ewe, of which about 45 percent are bred to Merino bucks, the remainder to Suffolk and Suffolk/Hampshire bucks. For the last 35 years they’ve purchased their Merino rams from John Jewell at Rifle.
With this change in genetics, they’ve significantly improved their wool clip from a 24 micron clip down to about 20 microns on average. Their ewe lambs average 19.3 microns. Even the coarser lines, wool that comes from the Merino ewes crossed to the blackface rams, average 22 microns.
Their reputation clip, arguably one of the best in the nation, yields 65 percent or better and has good length to boot.
Their ewes average 175 pounds as opposed to the more common 200-pound Columbia ewe.
“We’ve lost some size, but that’s not all bad,” says Butch. “For some, eye appeal is important,” he adds, “thus the reason some prefer the Rambouillet, and that’s fine, but for us productivity is more important.”
Butch and Tony believe in investing in their operation. For that reason all the profits go right back into the sheep or the ranch. They recently made one such investment when they built an Australian style shearing shed. It makes the entire shearing process run much more smoothly, and it allows them to produce an even cleaner clip of wool.
“We don’t just want the wool off; we want it done right,” states Theos.
Shearing takes place the first week of April. For the last year or two they’ve been using Peruvian shearers; prior to that it was Australians and Kiwis. And from what they’re hearing now, future shearers may actually come from China, because it is China that now claims the top spot in terms of actual sheep numbers.
Shearing is truly a lost skill, Tony says.
“We still have a few domestic shearers, but they’re mainly in the Midwest, where they shear the smaller farm flocks. They typically have more flexibility when it comes to shearing. For us shearing occurs in a concentrated time period right before we start trailing back to the ranch for lambing. That’s why we have to have a crew we can depend on year in and year out.”
As with most western range operations, the Swallow Fork sheep run on a combination of deeded and government land — Forest Service in the summer and BLM in the winter. The sheep are on private ground for about four and a half months out of the year. Their winter range encompasses about 30,000 acres, of which 8000 acres are private. Because they do not put up any hay, their winter range is a particularly critical piece of the puzzle. And, because they don’t supplement the sheep on the winter range, they are also particularly aggressive on how they cull their ewes.
“We need a younger flock,” says Butch.
Other than the genetics and the way they handle their wool, little has changed in the last 100 years in the way they manage their sheep. The sheep leave the desert (winter range) around the 20th of April, just after shearing. They’re back at the ranch just in time to start lambing, typically about the fifth of May. The ewes lamb on the open range on their private ground at the ranch in Meeker. They keep them in small bunches in about 16 different pastures, and they’ll ride through them several times a day, sorting off those that lamb. During the height of lambing, 160 to 170 ewes will drop lambs every 24 hours. If a ewe has trouble lambing, she’s loaded in one of their all-terrain vehicles and taken to the barn, where they have 20 or so jugs and can give the problem ewes the necessary attention to get a healthy lamb or two on the ground.
The majority of the lambing lasts about 21 days. Twenty days later the lambs are docked and turned into larger pastures on the ranch. In a good year they’ll dock 125 to 130 percent. From docking to shipping, they’ll lose five to six percent to predators — that’s in a good year.
The ewes with lambs at side begin the trek to their summer permits on July 1. Depending on the numbers, they’ll run three to four bands. One herder and several livestock protection dogs are in charge of a band of ewes and their lambs, typically 800 to 1200 ewes depending on overall numbers.
The sheep have the chance to graze fresh feed every day. Rarely does a band bed in the same place for more than one night. Camps are moved every 10 days or so.
Butch and Tony maintain a good working relationship with both the Forest Service and the BLM, in part because they police themselves by doing a lot of self-monitoring. Tony takes pictures of the area before the sheep come on to a permit and after they leave. He recently discovered a new phone app which allows him to take a picture of an area and describe what he’s seeing. The photo is also identified by GPS coordinates, along with a time stamp. He then e-mails that picture from his phone directly to either the BLM or Forest Service.
In addition to sheep, Butch’s grandfather also ran about 300 head of cattle, but the forest permit was not the best cattle country because of the larkspur. Too, Butch says, back then much of the forest was overgrazed because so many cattle came here during the summer months during the early trail driving days.
Today it’s the elk that are the problem. In fact, this area is known to have one of the largest elk herds in the nation. On just one of their forest permits, elk numbers are estimated to be at 300 head. Yet amazingly, the elk are not factored in by the Forest Service when it comes to managing the resource.
“We’re the manageable resource (sheep), so we’re the ones who have to reduce numbers,” Tony says.
Typically, though, because they leave enough nonuse every year, they are not significantly impacted if such cuts occur.
By mid-August they expect their lambs to be gaining a half a pound to three-quarters of a pound a day, and when the lambs come off the mountain September 15th they’ll average 95 to 105 pounds.
This fall will be the sixth year in a row that the Theos lambs will be sold to Whole Foods. It’s a relationship that more than pleases both father and son. The paperwork in the certification process was a bit cumbersome, Tony says, but they worked with Whole Foods to streamline the whole process, and it is now easier for new producers entering the program.
Making the switch to Whole Foods, was not that difficult in the end, Tony says, because the vast majority of what the company asked for they were already doing. They don’t use antibiotics or steroids; any lambs that are treated with antibiotics are sorted out. Drenching the ewes in the fall was not a problem, and treating them for ticks was permissible, as is salting.
That first year Whole Foods asked for 200 lambs; Butch asked that they take at least a truckload. So they sent 400 lambs in that first shipment.
“We shipped them the very best lambs we had. Twenty days later they called wanting more. The lamb was selling like hotcakes. They said, ‘It’s natural; it’s local; it’s what we want.’”
The problem was that by then they’d already shipped the rest of the lambs. They had about 50 left, so they sent those. They next fall Whole Foods wanted 1200 lambs, the next 1600, and by the fourth year they wanted them all.
Ideally they’d like to ship all the lambs right off the mountain, but the Whole Foods Colorado distribution system isn’t yet capable of handling their entire lamb crop at once. It is the one downfall of their new marketing program in that they had to lease additional land to carry the lambs over for another 60 days or so. Rather than ship the lambs right off the ewes from their corrals on the ranch, the lambs go to private lease pasture around Meeker, where they’re loaded out, one truckload at time, in two to three-week intervals. This year their first shipment is set for September 22 with five or six more to follow.
The lambs are shipped on a Sunday so they can be at Superior’s Denver plant first thing Monday morning. The Superior plant as well as the JBS-Swift plant in Greeley have been audited and given the Whole Foods seal of approval.
The lambs are harvested as a load lot first thing Monday morning and broken down into primals on Tuesday. The primals are then shipped to the Whole Foods stores on Wednesday, where they are further processed into specific cuts and placed on the shelf Thursday morning.
Initially, Whole Foods didn’t want anything under 45 pounds or over 55 pounds. Today the spec is for a 50 to 60 pound carcass.
“We pay for the trucking to Superior and the harvest fee. At that point our obligation ends,” Butch says.
“There are some incentives built into the program,” he adds, “but there are a lot of other expenses that we incur. For example, the lease expense is the big one because we don’t have the kind of pasture necessary to keep them gaining. Plus, we have to keep herders with the lambs, and we’re monitoring them closely for an additional 60 days or so.”
Whole Foods also requires that they take out additional insurance, an umbrella policy through the retailer itself, which protects both parties in case there are any consumer-related issues resulting from the sale of the product.
Marketed as all-natural lamb, the product is branded with the Theos Swallow Fork Ranch name right on the label and includes their telephone number and e-mail. Their chops sell for about $16 a pound, legs $11 to $12.
As part of the deal, the family participates in a couple of in-store cooking demonstrations every year. They focus on product that the retailer might be having a hard time moving. They provide samples and recipes, and there is a video of their operation running in the background.
Having that one-on-one contact with consumers is extremely effective. Tony says every time they do a demonstration they sell out of product.
“We’ve built a name for ourselves,” Butch says. “We have consumers who come back every year; they wait for our lamb.”
They negotiate a live lamb price annually with the Whole Foods regional meat manager based in Boulder. That price varies some according to what’s happening in the conventional lamb market.
“They’re not ignorant as to what’s going on in the lamb market as far as live price,” Butch points out. “We build into our asking price the extra costs associated with leasing the land, but we’re really fair with them, as they are with us.”
Tony adds that one of the values of their marketing arrangement is less volatility and more consistency in price.
They do not have a formal written contract with Whole Foods. Rather, it’s the old-fashioned handshake agreement.
“They’ve always done what they said they would do and vice versa,” Butch says.
Their product is essentially available in Whole Foods from October through December. And while their product is a seasonal one, Butch reminds their customers that there is nothing wrong with double wrapping a leg of lamb and freezing it until Easter.
Both Butch and Tony give an extensive amount of their time to functions outside the ranch. Tony was one of the youngest producers, to date, to serve as president of Colorado Wool Growers; both have served on ASI’s wool council, and Butch is now on the American Lamb Board and has served on ASI’s executive board in years past as well. Recently they participated with their local NRCS to help educate state politicians about the industry and their business.
“We feel like our participation outside the ranch makes our operation a little better, and hopefully it makes things better for everybody in the industry,” Butch says.
They also do lamb barbecues for several area-wide and local events. The Meeker dog trials is but one. They often host chefs at their ranch, and they help promote lamb in several other venues. Earlier this year they were invited to participate in a trendy new upscale event where “local” producers come together to feature their products in a five-course meal. For this particular event a winery from Grand Junction and Theos Swallow Fork lamb were the focus. Lamb was included in each of the five courses, even the desert, which Tony says was incredible. The event sold out.
The sheep business is not an easy business, particularly for those who depend on public lands. Yet, despite the weather challenges, price volatility, overregulation, predators, and lack of skilled laborers, particularly shearers, it is a life that the Theos family is clearly committed to.
“We do live this life 24-7. We wake every morning thinking about what we need do to or what we didn’t get done yesterday,” Butch says. “In fact, I’m already looking to next summer. We went over to our winter range yesterday, and it’s looking good, so we’re thinking of maybe increasing numbers again. So we’re thinking a year in advance about what we need to do and how to manage our product.”
Since becoming an owner in the family operation, Tony’s vision of the future for his family’s sheep operation has been clouded some by the various challenges.
“It seems we have a barrier at every front,” Tony says. “Still, we’re not about to give up the fight.”
“There are still a lot of good people in this industry who understand what we’re going through who are willing to fight alongside us,” Butch adds.
Tony remains hopeful, in part, because he and his wife, Dani, now have their own son, Thomas, named after Tony’s grandfather, who will soon be two. Thomas already goes with his dad to check sheep camps. Recently the little one made an all-day, 75-mile round trip in their all-terrain vehicle. He’s been camping, too, since he was just a few months of age.
Butch’s other grandson, 16 year-old Brady works for him during the summer months. He, too, loves the sheep.
And so it seems the Theos sheep operation will continue for at least another generation. That’s the plan, anyway.
This article originally appeared in Livestock Weekly and is reprinted with permission.