UW college of agriculture graduates seize niche industry opportunities

What does a meat connoisseur, a Western fashionista and a multimedia guru all have in common?

All are University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources graduates with a passion for entrepreneurship.

Kelcey Christensen, owner of 307 Meat Company in Laramie, found his passion for the meat industry early. Both his grandfathers and his father were butchers, and he spent nearly 11 years working for the University of Wyoming Meat Lab.

Man in suit and tie
Kelcey Christensen began operation of the 307 Meat Company in Laramie this spring.

As time went on, he noticed capacity for slaughter and processing in the region was drastically declining. The meat lab was getting more and more calls from people needing help.

“A lot of the help was needed for small ranchers trying to direct consumer market their livestock, so I set out to fix part of the problem,” said Christensen, who graduated from UW in 2005 with a bachelor of science in animal and vet sciences and a minor in business management.

The company serves the state of Wyoming in meat processing; specifically, it helps small label, private meat companies and serves as a craft butcher shop, explained Christensen.

“I wouldn’t have ever tried to take this step without my time spent in the industry,” said Christensen. “There are a lot of regulatory restrictions and regulation that go on meat processing plants and having an idea of those as well as product management, product flow, employee management, were all things I learned at UW that are valuable.”

Christensen incorporated 307 Meat Company in 2016 and began operation this year in March when COVID-19 hit.

He explained due to COVID, the company has faced issues getting supplies like hairnets and gloves because they lacked established relationships with suppliers but since the business has opened, it has seen more interest with the private label side as well as the craft butchery.

“We started off doing freezer beef for people, one or two, but it’s really started to pick up with the private label business that I set out to help,” said Christensen. “Those are becoming more and more every day, and our retail craft butcher shop is doing way better than we had ever projected in the beginning years.”

Christensen explained that, when starting a business, taking time to do research by identifying costs, employee sources, and seeking advice from others is important.

“All of us went through this to start a business, and it’s still to be determined if we succeed or fail, but even those who fail learn lessons that would help others, and the people who succeed learn lessons that can help,” said Christensen.

Like Christensen, Ashley Hyche, owner of LUK Ranch Boutique, notes her network has helped expand her business.

Girl with horses
Ashley Hyche began LUK Ranch Boutique her junior year at UW. (Photo courtesy Caree Prince)

“The Western fashion industry is full of so many strong, remarkable women,” said Hyche. “There is no way I would have met all of them without my business.”

Hyche, who graduated from UW in 2020 with a bachelor of science in agricultural communications, started her boutique her junior year in November 2018. Her boutique is online and focuses on Western women’s clothing, fine art, home décor and Native American jewelry.

“I have always loved fashion and Western style,” said Hyche. “Every month, my mom would get the Cowgirl Magazine, and I’d look through it and fall in love with the colors and the art behind it.”

After spending a summer cleaning houses, Hyche decided to invest that money into inventory and start a boutique. Originally, she expected her boutique to be a fun hobby but within the first two months, she made back her investment.

She credits her boutique experience and time at UW to helping her land a full-time position at WyoTech in Laramie as director of marketing.

“If I didn’t have that knowledge in my toolbox, there is no way I could do the job that I have now,” said Hyche.

Ultimately, she wants to open a store somewhere, but right now she’s taking it day by day to build and to create the brand and style she believes in.

Kenzie Holmberg, owner of KNZ Brand, LLC, recently made the jump to take her business full time this June. Like Hyche, she started her business while in college.

Girl sitting at desk looking up
KNZ Brand, LLC, is Kenzie Holmberg’s main business. She also owns Castilleja Cowgirl and Knockout Performance Horses. (Photo courtesy A Call Creative – Andrew Call)

“I did it as a side hustle to help me pay my way through college,” said Holmberg, who graduated in 2018 with a bachelor of science in agricultural communications.

KNZ Brand, LLC, is her main business where she specializes in graphic design like logos, websites, flyers, posters and cover art mostly focused on the Western industry but open to anything. She also operates Castilleja Cowgirl, a Western lifestyle photography business, where she sells prints for décor and does family photography, engagements, equine sale photography and a few weddings.

It wasn’t until she took a multimedia course at UW with a unit focused on photography that she expanded her toolbox of skills.

“I had an assignment to go take some photos, and I borrowed a friend’s camera to go do that, and I actually enjoyed what I was doing,” said Holmberg. “I thought that might be beneficial to add to my already existing services because before I was having to hire people to go take photos with me.”

Her days begin around 6 a.m. to feed horses and clean stalls because she also owns and operates Knockout Performance Horses, where she sells and trains horses. After taking care of the horses, she gets started with her design work, checking emails, making website edits, and creating and sending content to and from clients for approval.

“I get to really do something that I love, and I enjoy what I do so it doesn’t really feel much like work,” said Holmberg.

Like Christensen and Hyche, Holmberg believes finding and doing something you are passionate about is important when considering starting your own business. She relates having your own business may seem like an opportunity to be independent but that building your network and collaborating with others is an important part of owning your business.

“A good business isn’t built without the help of multiple people,” said Holmberg.

UW research targets horn fly scourge variables

Two people entering data into an instrument held by hand
Craig Calkins with animal care specialist Corporal Kathryn Elzen from Freeport, IL

Two cows. Same University of Wyoming McGuire Ranch pasture northeast of Laramie near Sybille Canyon.

One cow has 383 horn flies sucking her blood; the other cow has four.

Why that remarkable difference?

Cody High School graduate turned veterinarian, turned Army major, and now a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming, Craig Calkins is helping UW Extension range specialist Derek Scasta unravel the mystery of a pestilence that costs the livestock industry billions of dollars in losses.

Calkins is eyeing whether shorter blood clotting times of individual animals clogs a fly’s attempts, whether a thicker hide frustrates flies, and if elevation and environmental conditions, such as colder and wetter areas, affect fly parasitism.

Considered a filth fly, horn flies (Haematobia irritans) feast on a cow’s blood, leave to lay their eggs in manure, then fly back to their beef buffet. Eggs hatch after about two weeks, and a new generation begins.

The flies pierce the hide and inject an anti-coagulant to help free the flow of blood. Cattle swing their heads, slap their tails and twitch their skin in attempts to stop the biting.

“Seeing an animal with horn flies is a really discouraging situation when you think about that animal,” said Scasta, who noted the constant irritation. “Cattle producers suffer production losses because the animal is losing blood but also because of these annoyance avoidance behaviors. Every time that animal picks its head up and swings, it’s not taking a bite of grass, so grazing time decreases.”

Photograph of man in Army uniform
Major Craig Calkins

He said other scientists have found such cows produce less milk, which lowers weaning weights. The biting also slows growth rates of the younger animals such as calves or yearlings.

Some animals will be bothered more than others in any group.

“They may all look similar as far as you and I can tell, but there will be some cows infested more than others,” he said. “We’re trying to identify the traits those individual animals have that make them more or less susceptible to parasitism.”

Calkins’ study began with help from the military. The 438th Medical Detachment (Veterinary Service Support) from Fort Carson, Colo., helped draw blood from UW cattle, and Calkins analyzed blood clotting times. Hide thickness in three different areas was measured using ultrasound, said Calkins.

“We were kind of surprised how fast some of the cows’ blood coagulated,” said Calkins, a graduate of Chadron State College who joined the Army in 2012 as a veterinarian. “Sometimes, it would be clotted in the tube before we could even get to the machine to run it.”

Army veterinarians have to return to school and specialize to continue in the service. They have several options. Calkins chose public health, and the program in the rangeland ecology and watershed management at UW returned him to his home state. After eight years in the military and deployments overseas, including Iraq, Calkins is happy to be where he is.

“I can’t think of a better place to be,” said Calkins, who lives with his wife and children in Cheyenne, and whose travels take him across the varied vistas of his home state.

Cattle studied include those in the Bighorn Mountains and lower altitude herds at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle. Other cattle are near Cheyenne, Cody and on the McGuire Ranch.

Calkins’s study requires documenting the extent of horn fly parasitism on cattle. He noted trends across the state show decreasing horn fly parasitism in the higher elevations.

“This is related to colder temperatures as elevation increases,” he said.

Full-frame, high-resolution photos of individual cows, taken just after sunup, are analyzed on computer, and the number of horn flies counted by rangeland ecology and watershed management undergraduate Cora Knowles of Santa Maria, Calif.

“The sun illuminates the whole side of the cow, so the flies are really easy to see,” said Calkins. “You’re counting all the flies over the body. We stratify the head, side of the legs, the belly, brisket and tailhead.”

Horn flies are easy to spot.

Cow having ulstrasound
Craig Calkins enters data from cattle at the Laramie Research and Extension Center.

“They are a different size and for some reason horn flies always eat with the head down so their wings are making a ‘V’,” said Calkins, and added “Who knew?”

Only one side of a cow is counted. “So realistically, whatever number we come up with is likely doubled,” he said.

The highest fly count was 383 noted Fourth of July last year, and that was just one side, he said.

“The next were 319, 280, 229, 219, 205 and 190,” he said. “The lowest was four. So what’s the difference between the cows on the top and the cows at the bottom? That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

The goal is to identify traits that make an animal more prone to parasitism then cull it from the herd.

“Potentially removing those outlier cows that you know are super-prone to parasitism could save producers a lot of money,” said Calkins.

Producers use various treatment options, said Scasta. Those include a fed-through product containing an insect growth regulator (IGR), spraying, ear tags that contain an insecticide and back rubbers that disperse a chemical.

Each has its limitations, including insects becoming resistant to the insecticides, like some weeds are becoming herbicide resistant, or the need for re-treatment.

The data from the study may help develop options that help producers save money.

“If we are going to have an integrated pest management approach, some of these other things will be really important so we can select for certain cows that are less susceptible,” Scasta said.