Beaverhead Ranch Recognized By
By Colleen Schreiber
DILLON, Mont. It's a phenomenal beauty, a 250,000-acre contiguous ranch nestled in part in the Centennial Valley. For a West Texan visiting the area for the first time, the beauty perhaps isn't so much in the landscape itself but in the abundance of clear running streams and creeks. In West Texas, water is a precious commodity and windmills are common, a necessity in any ranch operation.
But cowboys on the Beaverhead Ranch most likely wouldn't know how to pull a windmill, because on this outfit there's not one windmill to be seen.
It was one of the first ranches established in Montana, sometime around 1865. Two California pioneer cattlemen, Poindexter and Orr, came to Montana with a herd of cattle to provide meat for miners in and around the Virginia City and Bannack areas. They intended to migrate with the miners. When a boom began somewhere in Oregon, the two cattlemen pointed their herd in that direction. They got caught in a bad winter storm and never got further than Dillon before they were forced to turn their cattle loose. The pair went back to California for the winter. The following spring they came back to the area, now known as the Blacktail
Meadows, to find their cattle fat and overall in great shape. Poindexter and Orr decided this was to be the place for their new ranch.
In 1876, in recognition of the country's birthday, Mrs. Orr named the valley in the high summer country the Centennial. Though Poindexter and Orr ran cattle and some sheep, horses were initially their mainstay. They sold carriage horses back East. Historical records indicate that at one time they ran some 50,000 head of horses. Eventually that number was cut back to 15,000 head.
In the late 1920s a series of devastating weather patterns, a terrible drouth followed by a severe winter, forced Poindexter and Orr's hands.
Times didn't allow for them to simply destock, load their cattle on a truck and sell them at the closest market. The cattlemen held on by having trainloads of hay from the Dakotas sent to the ranch. They paid an astronomical price for it, $70 a ton, and the ranch never really recovered. By about 1935 Poindexter and Orr were broke.
The late Fred Koch, founder of what is today the second largest privately held corporation in the U.S., bought the Beaverhead in 1951. It wasn't his first ranch investment; he had bought the Spring Creek ranch in Kansas a few years earlier, but the Montana property was by far the larger of the two. The Matador in Texas was added in 1953.
As the name suggests, the Matador's Beaverhead Ranch is located in Beaverhead County, the largest county in Montana. An abundance of surface water, live springs that run year-round and creeks water the majority of the livestock and wildlife that make their home here. Some gravity flow pipelines have been laid as well.
Snow melt is critical for recharge of the aquifers, springs and creeks. In the Centennial Valley an average snow year leaves only two barbed wires protruding out of a snow bank. In a good snow year, the landscape is devoid of fences. June is generally their wettest month. In the high country, average rainfall is about 12 to 14 inches.
As is typical in the West, the ranch is made up of a combination of BLM, Forest Service, state and deeded land.
Ray Marxer has been manager since the early 1990s. A veteran of the company, Marxer started with their cowboy crew on the 8th day of October 1974. Over the years, he's done it all. When he was 20, he was sent to Sage Creek to live in a camp some 55 miles from town. There he was responsible for 1000 first-calf heifers.
At one time the Beaverhead was one of the largest sheep outfits in the area, running some 12,000 head in the early 1960s. They sold their last 4000 ewes in the fall of 1975, primarily because of economics, labor and the increasing threat from predators.
Even a cow outfit isn't immune to predator problems, especially one thats only a stones throw away from Yellowstone National Park, where wolves acclimated in captivity were released back into the wild. Though an occasional wolf had been spotted prior to the wolf
reintroduction in the park, Yellowstone wolves first showed up at the Sage Creek allotment last fall.
It wasn't the first time park officials discovered that the wolves had left the park. Part of this pack had earlier been removed from a ranch on the other side of Yellowstone. Three times they came into the Sage Creek country before the wolves were captured. Since there had been confirmed cattle kills, the pack leader and another were destroyed, and the rest were returned to the park.
"The predator issue is something we have to learn to live with," Marxer admits. "We like to see a bear or a wolf just like everyone else. It's just that we have to live with the consequences when there's too many of them."
Today the Beaverhead is strictly a cow outfit. Some 6900 mother cows make their home here. The ranch runs a spring calving operation. Calving begins in late March. Their cows are developed in such a way that they are adapted to the environment in which they live.
"The cows do it on their own," Marxer says. "We give them the right tools, meaning that they're genetically designed to fit this environment."
For the Beaverhead, a genetically fit cow is moderate framed and weighs about 1075 to 1100 pounds. The goal is to provide the cows with the proper nutrition day in and day out to keep them in a body condition score of five.
The Beaverhead uses only moderate-sized bulls. Angus and Hereford bulls are primarily used in their commercial herd and Charolais are currently used in their newly established terminal cross program. The ranch adheres to a 60-day breeding season and between 75 and 80 percent of their calves are born within the first 30 days. Calving percentage averages in the mid-90s.
Heifers are synchronized and artificially inseminated. Time insemination rather than heat detection is used. Calving percentage on heifers averages about 91 percent.
Originally, the Beaverhead ran strictly Hereford cows. In 1988 they began using black bulls on a small basis on their Hereford cows. Today their cow herd is made up of black baldies and three-quarter Angus, one-quarter Hereford cows.
"Ideally, we would like to stay close to half and half because they're the best cows for us," Marxer remarks. "The three-quarter Angus cows milk better and they'll produce a little heavier calf than out of the black baldy, but the black baldy cow will have a little better conception rate, and reproductive performance is where it's at, much more
than weaning weight. That's what drives profit."
Marxer doesn't diminish weaning weight performance, however. Last year their steers averaged 509 pounds at weaning, some 110 pounds heavier than calves produced in 1988 that were 20 days older.
As a performance and production measure on their cow herd, first and second calves are weaned separately and individually weighed. A minimum weaning weight for the various herds is established, and cows producing
calves that wean below that predetermined weight get an ear notch. If a cow gets two notches, she's usually culled.
Though the figure is somewhat variable, their SPA data indicates that it costs about $250 to run a cow annually. The Montana outfit has built a reputation in and out of their own circles for raising high quality feeder calves.
"Everyone wants to feed our calves," Marxer says, "but it didn't used to be that way. Our northern calves are raised in such a clean, pristine environment, and when they arrive at the feedlot their immune systems are virtually naked. Thus they're prone to sickness."
In recent years, thanks to Koch Beef's philosophy of integration, sharing and exchanging information up and down the production chain, the health problem has been corrected.
Koch's goal is to capture the value that they create. Therefore, they retain ownership on most all of their calves. After weaning, calves go to wheat pasture or a backgrounding yard and then right on to one of their feedyards, usually in Kansas.
Marxer and his staff continually work to improve their production system and ultimately the bottom line.
"Last year we turned out more than 170 black bulls, but only seven sires were represented. When we figure out what works we simply tweak it and focus on that," Marxer explains.
Recently they begin a terminal cross program designed primarily to increase lean meat yield. The ranch was also interested in improving feedlot performance, mainly average daily gain and conversion. Charolais has temporarily been chosen as the terminal cross, but Marxer says they're still in the developmental stages and other breeds are not being
Thus far, the feedlot performance on these Charolais crosses speaks for itself. Last year some calves gained more than four pounds a day and one group converted 5.02 pounds of feed per pound of gain.
As a way to expand their genetic base without having to tie up so much capital in outright ownership of cows, this year for the first time the Beaverhead will offer some bred heifers for sale. The plan is then to turn around and buy those genetically proven calves back and carry them
through their feeding program.
Though the stocking rate varies from valley to valley and meadow to meadow, the general rule of thumb is about 40 acres to the cow. The Beaverhead, however, generally figures about 31 acres to the cow and Marxer says they graze more of the year than most. Most places graze six to seven months of the year and feed the other five to six months. The grazing season in his area extends from about the first of May until the first of December.
The cattle are trailed the 35-plus miles to their summer range from the end of May through June. Some of the younger pairs are trucked to the south side of the Centennial. The cattle come off most of their federal allotments around the middle of October.
Their winter grazing program is an intensive one. Some of their meadows produce close to two to two-and-a-half tons of forage to the acre. On two meadows encompassing some 1700 acres, 3000 cows are stocked for a period of 110 days with only an additional pound or two a day of protein supplement.
As with most operations, the Beaverhead is looking for ways to cut cost and improve efficiency. Feed, Marxer says, is their biggest expense, therefore a great deal of attention has been paid in recent times to this particular area.
In 1991 Marxer tested his idea of cutting and windrowing their irrigated alfalfa meadows as opposed to baling all of it. The second cutting is swathed after the first hard frost, and two windrows raked together so less ground is covered. Electric fence is used to control the winter grazing, assuring that all the hay is cleaned up.
"Used to be, it took six to eight guys to feed. This is just a different way of storing and feeding hay," Marxer comments, "but it cuts overhead costs tremendously, I figure by more than $20 a ton.
Their alfalfa meadows are all located near the headquarters. At that elevation, there are only about 90 to 95 days of effective growing season.
This year the Beaverhead was recognized as one of the regional recipients of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association stewardship award. Over the years the Beaverhead has taken on several projects which exemplify their role as stewards of the land. The first was initiated in the mid-1970s on their Sage Creek grazing allotment, an 80,000-acre parcel made up of the typical combination of federal, state and deeded land.
Prior to 1975, the area was grazed as one continuous unit with 2000 cows and sheep.
"We didn't have a lack of forage. We had a grazing distribution problem," Marxer notes. "The cows went to all the creeks, and the uplands didn't get grazed until the creeks were grazed out. We spent the early summer keeping the cows thrown down out of the poisonous plants and the late fall keeping them thrown up."
The Matador knew that something different needed to be done, so they approached the BLM about designing a rest rotation grazing system. A host of federal and state agencies as well as private interest groups came together to develop the plan. The coordinated effort, Marxer says, was an idea way ahead of its time.
The project was one of only three federally funded at the time. In the summer of 1975, to improve grazing distribution, they built 35 miles of three-wire suspension fence. In addition, 20-plus miles of gravity flow pipeline were developed. The allotment was split into three units and
each unit was in turn divided in half, making a total of six grazing units.
The main goal of the project, Marxer says, was to minimize erosion and establish more ground cover. Each unit gets two years back to back of rest during the growing season. A long-term indirect objective of such a
project, Marxer notes, is to educate the public.
"One thing we're trying to get across to the mainstream public is that periodic harvest of natural resources is just as important as periodic rest," Marxer says. "Some people think a pasture should always look ungrazed. The cow was designed by God to convert grass into usable protein. We have proof that proper grazing is essential to the health of
the ecosystem. Grazing allows you to maintain a diversity of species and diversity of age classes of those various species."
Marxer is not an advocate of fencing off streams, though there are areas on the Beaverhead where they implement such a practice. In most cases, however, it's to separate an upland from a meadow, not to prevent grazing
of the streamsides.
A five-year graduate study conducted on the ranch looked at the effect of domestic livestock grazing on stream bank and channel shape. The study, Marxer says, showed that geology really determines more about the stream channel, shapes and dynamics than anything done physically on top of the surface.
Because of their good stewardship, ecosystems are thriving. For example, today, in addition to the 2200 pairs that graze the Sage Creek allotment, some 1500 elk winter there as well. Wildlife are taken into consideration when a fencing project is implemented. Fences are constructed in such a way that wildlife can access any area without
causing damage to the fence or to themselves.
Another indication of their good management is health of their streams. Thriving populations of the rare West Slope cutthroat trout can be found in many of those streams. About seven years ago there was a push to get the fish listed on the endangered species list. To counter this,
Marxer took a proactive rather than reactive approach.
Though somewhat apprehensive, he invited the agency onto their land to take inventory in their various streams and creeks. USFWS found 21 or 22 streams in the area with viable, healthy populations of the native trout. Eight of those streams are on the Beaverhead ranch.
"That would make most people nervous, and it does make me nervous to some extent," Marxer admits, "because they could come in and shut down anything we're doing that impacts those streams to protect those species. But instead, I look on it as an opportunity. Those species have survived under our grazing management. Sage Creek is the showplace.
We've simply used a rest rotation grazing program and we have a fish hatchery up there that most don't believe."
One of the most powerful environmental lobbyists in Helena, an expert in fish habitat, visited the ranch this summer while writing a story about stream restoration. He originally wanted to talk about a different project, a physical restoration project which the Beaverhead initiated recently on Bear Creek, but Marxer convinced him to have a look at Sage Creek as well. Marxer, geared with fishing pole and grasshoppers and the powerful lobbyist, who also happened to be an expert fly fisherman, set out on a fishing expedition one afternoon.
"He really didn't think we would find any fish, but much to his surprise we caught fish after fish after fish, all fat, healthy, native West Slope cutthroat. It got his attention," Marxer says.
Following the visit, the lobbyist wrote a very positive article for Montana magazine about his experience at Sage Creek. "We had more of an impact on him than we thought we would," Marxer says. "He wasn't very pro-agriculture before then. Now we have an ally. Now he's interested in helping find someone to work cooperatively on other stream restoration projects."
The other stream bank restoration project that the Beaverhead is involved with is one being done in cooperation with the BLM and USFWS. In an effort to restore the trout habitat, beaver dams are physically being removed.
Though the ranch has a long-standing working relationship with federal and state agencies, Marxer, like other landowners throughout the West, often becomes frustrated with the bureaucratic system. Administrative
paperwork, he says, has hindered natural resource improvement more than any other single factor in the last 10 years.
Other stewardship projects include their own range monitoring system as well as hosting range monitoring workshops at the ranch for interested landowners. Marxer is also conscious of an ever-growing weed infestation and four years ago helped initiate a weed field day in an effort to educate and get others involved.
"Weeds like leafy spurge and knapweed are literally going to take over the West," he remarks. Knapweed is the worst problem. It takes over, and when it gets established nothing else will grow and nothing will eat it. It will do away with habitat for wildlife.
"It's coming in with the hunters," Marxer continues. "It's causing more gates to be closed to prevent vehicular travel to keep from further spreading the weeds."
Marxer and his wife, Sue, also spread their message about good stewardship of the land by hosting World Wide Country Tour groups with Country magazine.
The manager gives credit to the other members of his team for the stewardship award the ranch has received.
"It's all about taking ownership in something that we don't own outright," Marxer says. "If all of our employees didn't take ownership in their work, this ranch wouldn't be as productive as it is and we wouldn't be up for the environmental stewardship award."
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