Watertown, SD, family steps up after death of father, sheep industry giant
WATERTOWN, S.D. — Dion Van Well towered over the sheep industry in the Upper Midwest like few do. He was dubbed the “Lion of the Lambs,” in a 2009 Agweek story, and his family vows to continue his legacy.
Van Well, 47, died in his sleep of heart failure on Jan. 5 while on a pheasant hunting trip with buddies near Hoven, S.D.
His wife Stephanie and their sons, Trevor, 25, and Travis, 23, are moving forward, with help from their many friends, who say Dion was a central figure — probably the central figure — in the industry in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota, with considerable influence extending into Iowa and Nebraska.
Starting from nearly nothing in the 1990s, Dion built a sheep shearing business into the biggest sheep aggregation business anywhere in the Northern Great Plains.
Van Well Livestock enterprises are responsible for marketing upwards of 150,000 fat lambs a year from the region — an average of about eight semi-loads per week. Roughly half of “fats” are raised in Van Well-related operations, including a total of about 10 commercial feedlots. The Van Wells also acquire market lambs and other sheep from a network of buyers from about 10 other sale barns in the Dakotas and surrounding area.
People from 250 miles around bring their lambs, ewes and fat lambs to a Van Well buying station at Glacial Lakes Livestock in Watertown, S.D. Dion was a large force in making the market in the region, and took about 90 percent of the feeder lambs he bought into his own feedlot system.
Progressive sheep man
Jeff Held, South Dakota State University Extension Service sheep specialist, says Dion developed a “legacy of being a progressive sheep man and moving into uncharted territory” with numbers and methods.
Dion had the work ethic and know-how of a shearing professional, Held says, noting that Dion created numerous construction features and feeding techniques, making him famous for his improvements to efficiency. Among other things, he designed and built wall-style feeders that could be filled from outside a building. He was also an innovator in the ways foreign workers can fit into an operation. He hired Peruvian herders for their expertise in lambing.
About 150 people got their first look at it last September when trade group South Dakota Sheep Growers toured his facilities.
“People hadn’t ever seen anything like that,” Held says. “He was a shrewd operator. He was always on the move, looking for new ideas.”
Mike Caskey, an instructor for the Minnesota West Community and Technical College Lamb and Wool Management Program based in Pipestone, Minn., describes Dion as a competitive, confident individual who — just by the size of his lamb feeding operation — was a major market conduit for South Dakota and North Dakota.
“He bought a lot of lambs and cull ewes and helped place commercial breeding ewes with sheep producers,” Caskey says. “He knew how to work the existing market structure and was pretty good at creating competition among packers — at times raising the lamb market. He seemed to be able to get that job done better than anybody I’ve ever seen before.”
Caskey, whose program includes 76 producers representing some 38,000 head of ewes, says small producers in the region depended on Dion if they wanted to expand in the sheep business.
“If they needed to buy replacement ewes, he was the go-to-guy. They’d call Dion and tell him what they needed and what they were willing to spend. He’d put it together. That part will be missed as much as anything.”
Bigger sheep feedlot operations do exist in Colorado, Caskey says, largely because they’re closer to feed and slaughter facilities, but none as big as Dion in a five-state area.
Filling the gap
Stephanie says it seems impossible that Dion is gone.
He was a force in motion, often talking on two phones at once — one on each ear. (Stephanie continues to carry his cell phone; his number remains on her speed dial.) Dion had been in good health, but had erratic high blood pressure that he attributed to stress.
“It was a shock to all of us, but we just kept going,” Stephanie says. “We had a lot of help from family and friends. I was grateful that the boys knew what was going on outside. I knew what was going on with the books and haven’t gone outside much since then.”
Travis says his father kept a lot of information in his head, but in the past year had become more diligent about keeping notes about deals.
Ray Krones of Chicago, a purchasing agent for Strauss Brands Inc., of Milwaukee, came as quickly as he could and spent nearly two weeks with the Van Wells after Dion’s death. Krones, who acquires lambs from the Van Wells for Strauss’ harvest facility in Chicago, helped Trevor understand the process of writing up invoices for the packing plant that Dion had always handled.
Dion had scheduled loads and negotiated prices for fats. Stephanie says now the boys have to do that. Krones credits Trevor and Travis with getting their minds around many of the details of the business.
Krones says his friendship with Dion extended far beyond business.
“There’s no one that had the drive like him, spanning across the Midwest. He was unbelievable,” Krones says. “But the relationships he’d developed over time, those relationships take time.”
Caskey agrees connections and the comfort with market risks allowed Dion to do what he did, but he agrees the strong family will move forward.
Trevor says his father’s knowledge of customers will be “one of the hardest things” to replicate, but he and Travis will make strides as they get through the year.
“We kind of got everyone tossed at us at the same time and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time of the year because we were starting to lamb,” Trevor says.
Stephanie had always helped with the farm but dropped her off-farm job in 2006 to work with her husband in the sheep business.
“I sometimes thought Dion worked the boys too hard,” Stephanie says, remembering how they had to do chores before or after school. Trevor had to work chores around sports commitments. “Now, I see that because they worked so hard, they were really prepared to step up.”
There is a lot to step up to.
“As soon as you got off the bus, you had to have a sandwich and then get outside (to work),” Travis says, grinning.
Dion was born in 1966 and moved to Watertown with the family in 1976. His father Vic remains in the purebred sheep business and manufactures sheep handling tools. Dion was the oldest of four siblings.
He received a mechanical drafting degree from Watertown Area Vocational Technical Institute. He’d met Stephanie when they were in fourth grade at Immaculate Conception Elementary in Watertown. They’ve been together since they were juniors in high school.
At first, Dion worked a day job as a draftsman for a local manufacturer and would go shearing sheep on nights and weekends. In 1993, the couple bought a farmstead three miles south of Watertown. He started with a 150-ewe flock and sheared in a 100-mile radius.
In 1995, Van Well quit his drafting job and went into sheep full-time. They hung in there in a down period in the sheep business from 1998 to 2002. In 2009, When John Morrell and Co. closed a killing operation in Sioux Falls, S.D., Dion started aggregating sheep for a Denver packer, starting with one semi-load a week, and climbing to the current level.
In the past three years, the Van Wells have grown their own flock by about 1,000 a year to 5,000 ewes. Lambs are born in buildings on one of four farmsteads in the area. The Van Wells plan for bunches of about 1,000 a month for five months. After a couple of days in a “community pen,” the ewes are moved into larger buildings. Lambs are weaned at 60 days old.
Animals are shipped to pasture starting in May. Three main pasture complexes — two in the Faith, S.D., area, and one in Lisbon, N.D. — use the sheep to control leafy spurge. The Van Wells employ about six Peruvian sheep herders, who come on H-2A visas — here for three-year stints and back home for a three-year stint.
In 2012, Dion designed a sheep barn that is 60-by-500 feet. It was a drought year and the family moved some of the flock to Boardman, Wash. They took 2,000 there this year because of a lack of nearby pasture.
As the sheep buildings empty out with lambs being taken to summer pasture, the Van Wells convert the buildings on the four farmsteads into a summer feedlot operation. Market lambs come from all over the region and are then sent to one of two slaughter plants — Strauss Brands in Chicago or Mountain States Lamb in Greeley, Colo.
The final step is to empty the feedlots in time for the ewe flock to come back in the wintertime so they start lambing and start the cycle again.
About 900 people came to Dion’s funeral at Immaculate Conception church.
People came from all over — Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and Kentucky. Many talked about the counsel Dion had given them.
“He wasn’t a vet, but if he didn’t know what to tell them he’d refer them to the vet — here’s so-and-so’s number, and he might be able to tell you,” Stephanie says.
“One gal came up to me at the funeral and said Dion was the only one that was honest,” Stephanie says. “She said she’d never had someone be so nice to her, and to her sheep.” She says Dion had the experience of not getting paid for sheep, and didn’t want to do that to anyone.
As big as he had become in the sheep business, Dion had dreams. One of his ambitions was to lamb year-round. That is easier in the Pacific Northwest, Trevor says, so it will have to wait.
In 2012, when the Van Wells completed the big barn, he knew he’d stepped into new territory. A banker commented that it was a visible sign the business now was probably too large for anyone other than the Van Wells.
There have been other losses since Dion’s death — in February Dion’s long-time border collie and companion, Tes, and then Clyde Morrison, 74, a long-time sheep producer and buyer, who had offered counsel to the family until he died on May 2.
Stephanie remembers that Dion sometimes would joke that the sheep business might not continue if he’d ever be gone.
“He’d say to us, ‘You guys would probably sell this place if anything ever happens to me.’ We’d say, ‘We would not,’ and I said, ‘I’ll probably go before you anyway,’” Stephanie says.
In their blood
On the Sunday he died, there were semis of lambs to load that morning and only the family to do it, Travis says. With animals, the business must continue regardless of circumstances.
Not all of the family’s help is human. A cadre of Great Pyrenees mountain dogs protect the sheep from coyotes and other predators. The Van Wells had 10 of the big guard dogs in 2009 and now figure they have roughly 30, including about 20 pups. They also have about five border collies for herding.
“We buy dog food by the pallet,” Stephanie says.
As they’ve grown, Trevor stuck closer to home, helping manage the crew.
Historically, Travis had taken charge of the field work and the feeding. Dion took care of the sale barn.
“Now the boys have come together and share pretty much all the duties, and they’re doing a really good job,” Stephanie says.
Trevor is most involved in the sale ring operation, aggregating animals. Travis helps coordinate buyers for outside sale rings.
“We can stick around here and get stuff done instead of driving around to sales,” Travis says.
It is difficult to say where the future will take the family, but they’ll keep it going, Stephanie says.
“He wanted to be the biggest, and now this is our thing,” she says. “It’s what he would have wanted.”
Trevor adds: “Right now we’re just in the keeping-up stage. After we finally get the hang of everything, there will be bigger dreams.”