By Sarah Hill
Photos courtesy Jim and Joni Hunt
Open Box Rafter Ranch leverages its rich history in American Quarter Horses and Angus cattle to great success today.
A family with a strong faith in God, American Quarter Horses, and Angus cattle calls Open Box Rafter Ranch home, near Faith, S.D. Jim Hunt and his wife, Joni, are fifth-generation ranchers who operate the Open Box Rafter Ranch.
Strong Ranching Roots
Jim’s heritage is Lakota, and he’s a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. His family has been ranching on the Cheyenne reservation for more than 100 years. One of Jim’s grandfathers, Alberto Francisco Lopez, was of Spanish descent and came to South Dakota in 1923 as a wagon boss for Diamond A Cattle Company. Lopez leased land on the reservation and stayed, developing a Quarter horse breeding program. He hosted his first annual production sale in 1943.
“Grandpa Lopez raised Coffee Jeff, and Paul Tierney purchased him. Paul Tierney went on to ride Coffee Jeff when he won the World Championship in calf roping in 1979 and the World all-around championship in 1980,” Jim said.
Joni also hails from a ranching family near Belvidere, S.D., and has political ties in her family tree. Her great-grandfather, Tom Berry, was governor of South Dakota from 1933 to 1937. “Our grandparents both became members of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) in 1949 and were some of the first AQHA members with registered horses in South Dakota,” Jim said. “There are only a handful of families in our state with that early history for the American Quarter Horse, and both Joni and I are proud to be part of that group.”
Jim was involved in 4-H as a youth and attended a private Christian high school before attending South Dakota State University on a rodeo scholarship. Jim had success riding saddle broncs in college, and even competed for several years on the PRCA circuit. Although Jim never made it to the national finals, he won the Great Plains College Region in Saddle Bronc in 1981 and 1982 and was a runner-up in 1983; won the title in saddle bronc at the NRCA world finals in 1982; qualified for the college national finals in saddle bronc; and the Badlands circuit finals in 1984. He also did team roping, steer wrestling, and rode bareback.
Meanwhile, Joni graduated from the University of Virginia with a nursing degree. The pair connected in Wyoming while Jim was working at a bank, and the pair tied the knot in 1987. Not long after, the Hunts bought a ranch not far from where Jim grew up and started their own horse breeding program and raising their family.
Jim and Joni are the proud parents of seven children:
• J. Tom and his wife, Sage, work on the ranch and have five kids, Elizabeth and Rebeca, 5, Hannah and Jack, 3, and Elloise, 9 months.
• Jessica currently manages Open Box Rafter Ranch’s horse program, with a little time for her massage therapy business.
• Justin, a flight instructor, is currently at training for helicopter maintenance in the South Dakota National Guard; he and his wife, Erica, a teacher in Rapid City, are expecting their first child in October.
• Josh just finished two years as Dean of Men at an Oregon Bible college and is overseeing the haying operation on the ranch this summer.
• Jordan serves in the Army National Guard and is finishing a business degree; he and his wife, Grace, a graduate of the Oregon State University veterinary medicine program, live in Weatherford, Texas.
• Jeb is a professional certified journeyman farrier near Brock, Texas; he returns home for the horse sale, shipping calves, and spring branding.
• Jimmie Jean is getting foals ready for the September horse sale; she plans to work towards a nursing degree.
Jim proudly shares that Jordan won the high school state saddle bronc title in high school, and all the Hunt kids have participated in high school rodeo; mainly roping, cutting, steer wrestling, and working cow horse events.
Building on Sugar Bars
“A good horse has always been a useful friend and tool on the ranch,” Jim said. “Our family heritage has been good genetics in horses, so we were really serious about genetics when we went on our own.”
The first thing the Hunts did was purchase Sonny Sugar, a son of Sugar Bars. Jim said that the Sugar Bars line has one of the most dependable and predictable genetic lines in the AQHA. Sonny Sugar was 21 years old when the Hunts bought him, and they got four crops of foals out of him.
“Crosses with horses from the Sugar Bars line have produced many horses that were successful as cutting horses to roping to barrel racing,” Jim said. “We tried to build the nucleus of our breeding program around those same bloodlines.”
The Hunt family breeds 100 broodmares each year and sells both stallions and mares. They focus on breeding for sound legs, conformation, and athletic ability for stallions. For mares, they emphasize strength and balance. “Seventy-five percent of a colt’s traits come from the mare,” Jim said. “Good horses, like good men, have good mothers.”
While the Hunt family likes predictable genetics, they’re also not afraid to try to promote newer, up-and-coming stallions. “We currently have sons out of Frenchmans Guy, Dr Nick Bar, Sun Frost, Sonny Pep San, Special Effort, Dash Ta Fame, and Fire Water Flit,” Jim said. The Hunt family started hosting their own annual production sale in 1994, after years of selling their horses through an extended family production sale, and they also sell horses through private treaty.
In 2012, Jim was honored to be asked to become a national director for the AQHA. Eight years later, he began serving on the executive committee, and will become president in 2024. In addition, Jim serves as a deacon for the family’s church.
“It’s very rewarding to serve an industry that’s been such a rich part of our lives,” Jim shared. “I’m delighted to be part of the AQHA and help recognize the ranching and livestock industries. So many people are dependent on a good horse in ranching, rodeos, horse shows, county fairs, and with youth.”
The Hunts are particularly proud of their involvement in developing a program through the AQHA called the Young Horse Development program in 2012. “Each year, we donate 5 to 6 registered foals to the AQHA, and the youth department selects young people to receive those foals,” Jim explained. “Other ranchers have joined us, and now the AQHA places 45 to 50 foals per year. It’s a win-win because our colts get into the hands of these very excited youth. The kids bond with the colts and learn responsibility as they care for the colts and train them—they learn so many valuable life lessons. The result has created some top-notch young adult leaders.”
Jim said it’s his belief that kids who are engaged with livestock are healthier minded, have more focus, objectives and purpose.
Pounds Pay the Bills
In addition to the thriving Quarter Horse operation, the Open Box Rafter Ranch has a black Angus commercial cow operation with 400 to 500 head. Cattle graze on native grasses, although the Hunt family does have a few alfalfa fields for hay. Cottonseed cake makes up the rest of the herd’s diet through the winter, in addition to grazing. “When the snow gets deep, we do have some stockpiled hay, so we can supplement with that when needed,” Jim said.
While the Hunt family primarily uses bulls for breeding their herd, some artificial insemination is used on replacement females. “We calve our herd outside, but not until April, when we’re at less risk of having bad weather,” Jim said. “We breed for calving traits and moderate birthweights. Because pounds pay the bills, we select bulls that breed for maternal traits with high EPDs in milk. We also like moderate size cows.”
Open Box Rafter Ranch has been marketing their cattle through Fort Pierre Livestock, Fort Pierre, S.D., for 60 years. Each October, calves are weaned and sold, weighing around 525 to 575 pounds. About 50 to 100 replacement heifers are kept, with many established repeat buyers purchasing the calves.
In the future, Jim and Joni plan to continue raising good Quarter Horses and Angus cattle, while waiting to see the destiny God has in store for each of their children. “The ranch is always their home, and we may have more of our kids come back to the ranch,” Jim said. “They love horses, but they’re also gifted in other areas.”
30th Annual Production Horse Sale:
Saturday, September 9, 2023 - held in Rapid City, S.D.
learn more at www.rafterranch.com