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Dawn Hnatow

As written by Whitt Hibbard and printed in the January, 2014 issue of the Stockmanship Journal.

Before meeting her mentor and teacher, Bud Williams—a meeting that would radically change her life—Dawn Hnatow lived a “little house on the prairie” type of childhood.

Born into a ranching family and raised in a small, rural town in north central Alberta, without power or water until she was six years old, the family lived off the land by raising their own beef, milk cows, and canning or freezing produce from a huge garden, only buying flour, sugar and coffee in town. As a young girl, Dawn missed school to ride with her father to cow camp for three or four days at a time, her rodeo stock contractor uncle exposed her to the wilder side of livestock handling, and she remembers seeing 300 head of brood mares and foals coming down off a mountain into a corral. “I wouldn’t trade the experiences I had in that environment for anything,” she says. “It was a difficult way to go, the work was really hard, but I loved it. Nobody is prouder of the western culture than I am. I was born and raised in the middle of it, including the community I came from. Our local rodeo was one of the oldest and best in Canada.”

The family ranch, primarily a cow-calf operation with some stockers, shaped her interest and desire to be involved in agriculture. Her family encouraged the involvement of the kids in the ranch at an early age, and her parents made sure they all had a horse to ride and to feel like they were contributing. “Those experiences totally shaped my entire life. My Dad never left me at home because I was a girl and my Mom never tried to keep me there because I was a girl. I wanted to go help and they let me. I’m so grateful to my parents for that.”

Living off of what they could raise and take care of, Dawn explains, “nurtured the notion that you have to take care of your animals because if you don’t, there’s not a whole lot to eat. It’s important that they be cared for and kept alive.” All the animals were fed and taken care of before breakfast, even on Christmas day. “My Grandfather, who immigrated from the Ukraine, would come in from taking care of the stock with a bundle of grain that he placed under the dinner table as an offering to the animals, in recognition that, ‘Yes, it’s Christmas time, but lets be grateful for their contribution to our life.’ I got a lot of that as a kid. I was very lucky.”

After attending a small school in her hometown of Marwayne with only 11 kids in her graduating class, Dawn spent one year at the university in Edmonton. She enjoyed school, but hated living in the city so she left. It wasn’t where her heart was, she explains, so she came back to Lloydminster, which is about 30 miles from Marwayne.

Her grandmother, who was a hand herself, tried to nudge Dawn in a direction other than ranching because it was such a hard life. But after hearing Dawn out she said, “Dawn, yah know, you’re never going to be happy unless you’re staring at a cow’s ass all the time.” Dawn said it “was like a switch went off in my head” and she decided to follow her heart. Consequently,she did a two-year animal science program at a local college, then managed an animal shelter for a brief period after graduation, but decided to leave because it “was heartbreaking and I just couldn’t do it anymore.” At the same time a local feedyard, Vee Tee Feeders, was looking for someone to hire for their cattle crew. She talked to the owner and hired on in 1989.

Shortly afterwards she met Bud Williams. Bud came to Vee Tee circa 1990 and Dawn worked in close association with him—except for a two-year hiatus to help her dad on his farm—until he left in 2001 to work at the Addison Ranch in Bowie, Texas. Dawn continued working at Vee Tee until 2003, then moved to Bowie to join Bud. Moving to Texas was something “I needed to do on a professional level because I wasn’t finished with Bud. I felt I’d reached a point where I couldn’t go any further without more input from him.” Also, the ranch in Bowie was a completely different situation and environment than she’d been in (i.e., a 6,400 acre cow-calf outfit in rough country instead of a feedyard). “I knew that I needed the experience if I was ever going to try to help other people, so I chose to move,” she says.

Dawn worked at Addison’s until 2012 as the livestock and forage manager, but did everything. She left Addison’s to work as the livestock manager at the Cattle Up Ranch in Como, Texas, where she will manage up to 1,800 stockers and is making plans to begin teaching what she learned from Bud.

When asked what’s important to her, Dawn replied, “Staying true to my values, which are to treat people and animals the way they should be treated, to honor the people who have given me so much, to be honest, sincere, trustworthy, and responsible, basically the values I was raised with.”

When asked what’s her passion, Dawn replied “My passion is livestock. There really isn’t anything else that drives me like that does. I don’t know if that was something that I was born with, but I guess I was genetically predisposed because my family had been ranchers forever, and that was nurtured as a child. Every bit of it is pure joy to me. Every day I get to do what I love more than anything. Honestly, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a day in this industry where I wished I was doing something else.”

Following in the footsteps of her great, great grandfather—who was said to have between 800 and 1,000 horses—and her father who had numerous saddle horses and fed with a team, coupled with an interest in genetics, Dawn got into breeding horses. She wanted to breed “structurally sound yet eye-appealing Quarter Horses,” and she admits that “There’s not much that I enjoy more than watching a good horseman working a good horse.”

As the most senior student of Bud Williams, Dawn feels “a huge responsibility to preserve the integrity of Bud’s message because it was given to me. Maybe that’s my purpose in life.”