Montana – A Ranching Visit and Education

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

— Anthony Bourdain

Pretty sweet place to stay

Anthony said it best – get out and walk in someone else’s shoes and we are trying.  We invited ourselves to a ranch in Montana to see what all this cattle stuff is about. Our friends Justin and Jennifer moved back to the family ranch 7 years ago from Bend. Having never been on a working ranch I was EXCITED! We could be ranchers for a week, get some good beef and pet a few cows. And maybe in the process understand a little about this part of the country and how they think. 

My initial impression of ranching was – get some cows, toss them some food and you have steak and hamburger. Sounds pretty easy.  I mean I do watch Yellowstone and I know how to buy and cook hamburger. Makes me an expert, right. OMG I am SOOOOOO wrong. There is so much science in ranching. 

I received a readers digest level course on ranching and now am qualified to do absolutely NOTHING on a ranch.  However – I understand it so much better. And it is this understanding, however light, that lets me better understand what is important in this area of the country. I may have all my facts wrong – but it impressed the hell out of me about how much science was involved. Here is a little of what I Iearned. 

First and foremost – never ask a rancher how many cattle and how much land they have. It is rude and you will be driven off the land with a shotgun. Thankful we learned that before the shotgun came out.  Be warned – NEVER ASK!

Breeding is a real science with stats on bulls, circumference of the goods, and everything about the offspring to extreme detail (think ratios, sex, weight, unit size). The stats are far more comprehensive than any sports league. Every rancher has different ideas about what makes for the best beef and the best growth rates. So unlike the pro teams, the stats are closely guarded. But there is a stats book for bulls going up for auction. I imagine that every rancher has their own ideas as does every neighbor near where we stayed. We saw black cows, red cows and white cows just on our little drive into town.  We all know of Black Angus, and many believe the marketing behind that brand. However, marketing is little more than convincing people what they should know and seldom based on facts. Most of the folks we talked with didn’t think that Black Angus was the best and felt strongly about raising other breeds or cross breeds. 

I also witnessed ‘calling the cows’ which was pretty cool.  I thought Justin was pulling my leg – but lo and behold they came running. Raising your cows to come when you call is helpful for moving and managing the herd. It was amazing to see all the cows and bulls come running to the fence when Justin called them. Of course they raise happy cattle as opposed to another run in I had with a neighboring bull who tried to charge me. After a little huffing, puffing and some charging behavior he decided he was too lazy to actually run to the fence line after me. After all I was just snapping a few pictures of an old falling down barn. My assumption is that happy cows are better cows.

Along with breeding we learned all about the gestation period and saw a little breeding behavior. Learned a little about how many long nights are involved in calving season and some of the traditions on timing and a few new ways of thinking. Like breeding a little later so the calving is later so the weather his better. Because bad weather can mean a high mortality rate for calving.

That is another thing to never ask – how many calves did you loose.  NEVER ASK! It’s the same as asking how much did you loose in the stock market today.  You just don’t go into details. 

Managing the land is based on science and experience. A goal is to have enough land to support your own herd. But many land owners sold off during tough times and now lease back fields or lease from BLM for seasonal grazing. There is also another thought that you raise the cattle on the ground you want them to thrive on. So toughen them up on BLM and keep them born and raised in the same state/environment. 

For grazing you need enough water to create good feed, keep out the weeds without spraying (which could be bad for the land and bad for the cattle). Montana weather only permits harvesting/bailing the crops once a year – so you want a strong enough crop to feed them and enough to bale for the winter. There are different thoughts on how far down to let the cattle graze. If you are kind to the land, you don’t need to reseed, as it will happen naturally. But if you overgraze – then you just get a big old dirt field that will need lots of help. The ranch I was on had soil testing done to identify what they lacked (science at it again). The result was no deficiency and to keep up their current rotation practices which is a barley crop every 12 years – which is a hell of a rotation.  They rotate a small barley crop every year (creating their own feed for cattle and pigs and seed for replanting) and move the cattle around enough to prevent any possibility of overgrazing.  As a result the hay is thick, tall and super healthy with no deficiencies in the land. Seriously it was over my knees when I walked around out there. 

I learned a little about grain bins and how dangerous they can be. I never knew the big silos often have blowers in the bottom to dry out the feed and keep the humidity at the right level. They are very dangerous and lives are lost because people crawl in there to move the grain around and end up sinking like quicksand.  I heard some horror stories while on the ranch. But then there are so many pieces of big machines and things (like bears) that can hurt you. I think staying out of the grain bin will be the easiest one for me to remember. 

Montana is a fence out state – so if you want your neighbors cattle to stay out of your land, you put a fence up. That is pretty different than Washington and Oregon where we get after our neighbors if their dogs are running loose. One ranch had an idea to take down their fences to create an Elk Sanctuary and now are open to anyone coming and grazing. To put the fences back – one HUGE bill. 

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.  We heard this over and over and after a high-level explanation, I am only beginning to understand how complicated it is. Some have water rights based on the original landowner, others rights come after that. So some land can irrigate to run the creek dry and kick off all the other lesser property owners. When the river is high – everyone can irrigate, but when the river is low. Then the pecking order comes in. Along with all these different agencies and timing and location of water rights, the state also measures and tells you if the water is too low or something is happening down the creek.  While I was there, we went to check the headwaters as there had been a complaint downriver. We found no issues – but LOTS of signs of bears! What struck me about the water issue is how many agencies, agreements and laws are involved in just this one aspect of ranching and farming. Honestly if I was just starting out in this business I would have no idea who, what, when, where or how to do it correctly. 

Moving the lines is a big job that I experienced first hand. There are lots of ways to irrigate – flood, pivot and ground lines. Flood is an old school method that can waste a bunch of water through evaporation.  A pivot is the big watering ‘machine’ you see with all the sprinkler heads that moves across the field. These huge machines are an amazing feat of engineering with all sorts of checks and balances to keep them in a straight line, moving and reversing direction.  New ones can even be programmed on a per sprinkler head basis to regulate based on what the need is for just that small area. The ground lines require regular maintenance to move across the field. I donned some waders and helped Justin move pipe. While I was more of a hinderance than a help – I did see first hand how much work it is and what a wet job.  I had on a borrowed pair of waders and was swimming in the large boots. But it was a blast to get out there and lend a hand. I did about as much work as the dogs did…

On top of everything about cattle, the land and water I didn’t even touch on all the machinery they maintain. Between the grain bin, pivot, tractors, trucks, bailers and everything else a rancher needs to be a master mechanic and electrician. This alone will shut me out of my future as a rancher.

I had seen lots of pictures of Justin going out to fence lines armed to face bear as he fixed fence line. This of course made me worried we would be eaten by a grizzly. While obviously that didn’t happen, we did have some great discussion about the threat from predators and practices they now put in place to help mitigate.  It used to be practice for every rancher to have a carcass pile – those animals that didn’t make it for whatever reason piled up on one corner of land. This of course created a buffet for the bears – who have no issue eating something that was killed by someone else.  You can imagine how these piles would just bring the predators right to the door of the ranch. The state also had a program to pick up carcasses and dispose of road kill – which would attract other animals and then create hazardous road conditions.  Current thinking brought the two programs together and now you can call a number and get your carcasses picked up and they will be taken to a state location for disposal. 

In an area as sparsely populated as Montana it is not surprising to learn they have a large population of bears, including Grizzly.  What I didn’t know or at least never thought about was how Grizzly once populated all of North America. The Grizzly is actually on the state flag of California and once roamed the entire state all the way to San Diego! So imagine the surprise and distress of Montanan’s when a grizzly is caught on a golf course and where do they relocate the bear? To Potomac – a cute little valley outside of Missoula. Of all the areas where the bear could exist and thrive, they tend to relocate the animals to districts with low representation – thus farming and ranching communities. As we talked about the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf I learned that 13 packs exist in the forest around Potomac.  That is a HUGE number! I can see why you might get a distressed about reintroduction efforts when all the wildlife is dropped at your front door. 

So thoughts on all the reintroduction and relocation? Surprisingly it wasn’t ‘not in my backyard’ (which is what I would expect). It was reintroduce them everywhere equally.  If you put some here, you need to put them elsewhere. Put them in the entire native habit and not just here, where we don’t have much governmental representation. That seems like a reasonable request. 

We had amazing meals and wonderful discussions. We celebrated Midsummers Eve with a fire to drive all the trolls back into the woods.  We share a Norwegian heritage so we had fun bringing some Norsk traditions to Montana. We went to the Blackfoot River (the legendary location of A River Runs Through It), visited some breweries in Missoula and drinks at Paws Up (a luxury tent camp resort which serves Iverson Beef).   After enjoying our beautiful parking spot, great company and wonderful food, it was hard to pull up stakes. Yet another spot along our travels where I could see staying for an extended amount of time. 

4 thoughts on “Montana – A Ranching Visit and Education

  1. Hans Kohls

    Wow! Nice post and thanks for all the ranching details. I see you and Dave getting your ranch soon! 😉

  2. Laura

    What an awesome experience! I would love to be able to learn about stuff like this and get all my dumb questions answered. I had no idea how fascinating this stuff could be. Very cool…. And great photos!

    1. Shannon Bassett

      Thanks, Laura – yes every day I was filled stupid city slicker questions. Thankfully Justi was patient at answering them and dragging me around showing me stuff. I seriously can’t wait to go back. In the meantime, I am binge watching Yellowstone to fill my ranching desires.

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