November 18, 2002 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

SUMMERVILLE — The sight of healthy, shiny calves gaining their feet without too much trouble keeps Sharon Hamilton going.

It's a reward for the winter nights she spends waking up every few hours to check on calving cows — grabbing jackets, gloves and hats, and heading out to the barn in freezing rain or snow.

"It's not something I always wanted to do," Hamilton admits. "I like being out in the country, and I like animals. I adjusted to it."

Unlike a majority of the ranchers in Union County, Sharon and Ron Hamilton didn't come from a ranching background.

Sharon's family rented a country home in Colorado, and Ron had uncles with farms in Kansas, but Sharon married a military man in California — an Air Force man who thought about retiring by dreaming of ranches and farming.

The couple visited Union County in the early '80s to see Sharon's mother, found a 40-acre place and bought it. Sharon and their two children, a daughter, 13, and a son, 11, moved in while Ron continued to serve.

"I didn't see myself doing all of this. It kind of evolved," Sharon admits.

What's evolved is a working cattle operation with about 160 head of mixed-breed cows and calves. The core of the herd is somewhere about 100 cows, but even that changes.

"We just kind of kept growing," Sharon says.

In the early years, there were two cows, pigs, a few sheep, chickens and various other animals. Now the cows rule, with the help of five border collies.

Five years ago, the Hamiltons bought a larger Simmental ranch along Hunter Road west of Summerville.

So the cattle operation grew.

Most of the Simmentals are gone now, and this year the Hamiltons used black Angus bulls on the cows, understanding that the Angus mix seems to be the market preference in the area.

Maintaining the cattle operation has meant an active role for Sharon.

Ron, who likes the country life, also likes equipment, so he works graveyard shift at the Boise mill in Elgin to keep an income coming in, Sharon says.

And their children, now in their late 20s, haven't chosen to stay involved in the ranching.

So Sharon feeds through the winter and does most of the calving herself, taking her enjoyment from the calves playing in the spring sunshine. Ron helps with many chores, and also puts up the hay, but Sharon handles the day-to-day work.

"We're putting New Zealand fencing in," Sharon says. The fencing involves multiple lines of electrified wire, a system Sharon believes will make her life easier.

"When (the cows) get out now, I go out and fix the fence," she says. Having the New Zealand fence, she emphasizes, "makes a big difference."

Sharon, who hasn't gotten involved in many ranching organizations, admits she and her husband have been "lucky" to be able to do all they've done.

"It's just mostly been trial and error without us. We've done whatever works."

A friend watches the animals if they need to get away, and a neighbor lets the Hamilton cattle graze the fields in the fall. Ron's dad comes in the summer and helps with ranch work, so it all gets accomplished.

The Hamiltons sell their beef animals at the local sales yard, usually in the spring when the calves weigh about 900 pounds each.

With a laugh, Sharon admits that the timing of the sales has more to do with when they need money than whether the market is up or down.

Next summer, for example, their daughter, a nursing student, is planning her wedding. Sharon is planning a cattle sale to get ready for that event.

Leaning against a gate studying a pasture of growing calves, Sharon says that with forethought about how to set up pastures and small details like where to stack the hay, "the two of us can do it."

Would this have been her vision of retirement?

Sharon grins without answering directly.

"I've always liked animals," she says.

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