Jim and Lora O'Rourke own 400 acres near Chadron, NE. They knew their property wasn't big enough to support many cattle year round, but yet they wanted to get some income stream back from the land. Their solution? They custom graze about 60 cow-calf pairs during the summer for neighbors and also have developed a unique agritourism business that allows people to camp on their property.
Both Jim and Lora have degrees in rangeland management (he's a retired university professor; she works with the U.S. Forest Service). Thus, caring for the land is their foremost goal.
Using an intensive rotation grazing system, the cattle are rotated through about 13 pastures ranging from 5 acres to 40 acres. Cattle stay in the pastures only a few days before being moved to the next pasture. Jim says they usually bring in the cattle about June 1 and have enough grass for about 90-100 days. No pasture is grazed for more than 20 days, which allows the remaining 345 days for use by wildlife.
The agritourism aspect of their business is called Sheepwagon Hideouts. The couple has restored two historic sheepwagons, which guests can spend the night in. The first sheepwagons originated in Wyoming in the mid-1880’s as a home on wheels that sheep herders (and often their families) could live in during the spring and summer months as they and their dogs tended to large bands of sheep out grazing the open rangelands.
The historic sheepwagons all featured a bed, wood-burning stove, table, benches, cabinet, dutch door and a window in the back over the bed. They were so efficient and practical some people dubbed them the first "American mobile home."
The O'Rourkes say their sheepwagon stays are designed to give visitors an experience of a simpler time of life. "It’s not a bed and breakfast," says Jim. Instead, he and Lora have set the sheepwagons up in secluded, Ponderosa pine canyons on their 400 acre property. "We want this to be a quiet, private place for people to relax and get away," says Jim.
To that end, there are no phones, electricity or plumbing – it's porta-potties, sunshowers, and cooking your own meals. To enhance privacy, the wagons are situated half a mile to a mile off the road and guests must walk in and pack their own food, water and necessities. (The O'Rourke's will help pack in the items upon request.) Linens, towels, lanterns, cookware and utensils are provided at the wagon, as well as a 10-gallon cooler for cold storage.
Looking to the future, the O'Rourke's hope more people will seek out the solitude and the opportunity to be close to nature that their Sheepwagon Hideouts offer. Jim believes it's the perfect retreat away from the big city – or for anyone just wanting quiet time. Located adjacent to the Nebraska National Forest the site offers ample hiking, bird and wildlife watching, and photography opportunities.
Because of the O'Rourke's career experience and passion for rangelands, Jim and Lora also hope that guests will learn about the rangeland resource that surrounds them as part of their sheepwagon stay experience. If guests request it, Jim and Lora will provide guided nature walks and native plant identification along with information about medicinal plant uses, historical land use, grazing management, and history of the sheepwagons. Books and literature about these subjects are also included in each wagon.
"It is rewarding for us if people go away from here having learned about rangeland use and the ecosystem. We hope people go away with the facts," says Jim, who credits that desire to his career in teaching and role as an educator.
Sheepwagon Hideouts is located five miles south of Chadron on Hwy 385. For more information visit www.sheepwagonhideouts.com.