Montana Ranching in The Big Sky Country

We are a third generation ranch family living in S.E. Montana. My grandparents traveled to America from Norway and acquired the first piece of our ranch nearly a century ago. My parents built up the size of the ranch, purchasing more land. I grew up on our family ranch, leaving for a brief time after I was married. Upon return, my husband and I purchased an adjoining ranch and settled into the job of raising cattle, feed grain, hay and three children. We have raised wheat, safflower, and millet here as well, but the soil, climate and rainfall limits what we can successfully grow. We are non-irrigated.

Montana is a large land state and very diverse. Our cattle ranch is located in an area where there are high ridges, small creeks and ravines.  It overlooks the Powder River breaks, which are rugged and very steep. S.E. Montana is a semi-arid region. Our expected annual rainfall is only 12 inches. The creeks on our place are not live; they have brief runoff periods in spring, when the snow melts, or during a large thunderstorm.  Western Wheatgrass, a rhizomatous native grass that is drought resistant, is our best range grass. The ridges are covered in a deep rooted short dense grass the settlers dubbed “Buffalo Grass.” I am not sure why, because it is too short to feed many big animals, but its deep roots does a great job of preserving the soil on the windy tops of the ridges. A hardy grass, it is always the first to green up and grow in the spring, which is rapidly approaching. We also have sage brush, prickly pear cactus, hardpan (salty/clay soil deposit that doesn’t grow grass), horned toads and rattlesnakes. This is cattle country, because the terrain, except for creek bottoms, is not suited for crops. It takes 35-40 acres to support a cow and her calf for a year. The soils are not that fertile and with the scant rainfall, the best crop here is native grass growing on the hills.  Our beef cows harvest and convert that grass to food.

Lillian 2

On our ranch we raise red angus beef cattle, similar to black angus, only red in color. Our cows are calving (having new babies) right now. It is an exciting, but work intensive time for us. We normally have mild temperatures here in March, 40 to 50 degrees F above. However, Mother Nature had another thought about a week ago. With bitter cold temperatures, our family crew had to check calving cows every hour around the clock. Since it is better for the cows to be out in the fresh air and pastures where we roll out the hay and feed them, we only bring the cows that are in labor to the barn. In our calving barn we have a warming box and warm room for newborns. Since they are born with cloven hooves and a thick coat of hair, once they are dry and have a tummy full of their mother’s milk they are fine to leave in their mothers’ care.  They are then moved to a different pasture, with other cows that already have calves and we continue to monitor the cows that are still waiting to calve.

lillian

This calf was born just two days ago in our barn.  Calving season will continue through March and into April.

We ride horses to move cattle from pasture to pasture, although we do have 4-wheelers for near home and for repairing and checking fences and watering places via roads. Horses are safer and better suited to traversing the steep hills and gullies (short deep creeks) on our ranch while following cows. In summer the cows are moved farther away in large pastures, where they graze until fall, when the calves are weighing around 550 lbs and it is time to wean them off the cows.

Lillian 3

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