montana photographs Holistic Ranching

There’s a great story in the current issue of Montana Quarterly about ranchers in Montana who are raising cattle and managing grassland in new ways.

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On the Twodot Land and Livestock Company south of Harlowton, they’re blessed with the American Fork Creek. Excellent water resources at the ranch allow the ranch managers to graze smaller portions of grassland intensely for short periods of time. In turn, that makes for more healthy grasslands.

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And grass management is key to holistic ranching practices in the J Bar L Ranches of Montana. Stuart Phelps of the Twodot Land and Livestock Company says the blade of a grass plant is like a solar panel and the root like a battery. If the blade is eaten or cut too close to the ground, the plant must use battery power to regrow. If left long enough, the blade will supply power and the plant will thrive better.

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So Phelps and Kathleen McConkey spend their summer growing seasons herding cattle to new grazing patches instead of growing, baling and storing hay. The cattle graze small plots of land intensely for a short time and then are moved, replicating grazing patterns of bison before European settlers arrived.

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A large map takes up most of a wall inside a shack near the rangeland on the Twodot. Stuart Phelps says 70 pastures on the 24,000-acre ranch are each subdivided into 24 sections for grazing, giving an average pasture of just 50 to 150 acres. “Pretty dang small,” Phelps says. But careful planning and innovative thinking, along with a great water source, have made it possible to raise beef cattle on the Twodot without worrying over growing hay.

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Portable electric fencing is used to confine grazing animals to the intended piece of pasture on the Twodot. The cattle are moved to mimic the grazing patterns of the bison that used to run on the range. Ranch hand Anya Gandy uses a rock to hammer in a stake.

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The Twodot is experimenting with adding goats to their herd of cattle. These goats, belonging to Ivan and Chia Thrane, will be mixed in with the cattle at the Twodot once the goats have finished kidding. Goats eat a different mix of grasses and weeds than do cattle, balancing the grazing.

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Bryan Ulring manages J Bar L Ranches. Horses are used at the ranches to work the cattle when possible. Ranchers say the cattle respond better and are easier to control with horses than with the more popular four-wheeler, though J Bar L Ranches do use four-wheelers at times.

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Peggy Dulany owns the J Bar L Ranch in Montana’s Centennial Valley. Dulany bought the ranch in 2000, stricken with the pristine quality of the Centennial Valley in southern Montana. She has run the ranch with a strong environmental sensitivity ever since.

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Stuart Phelps upends a newborn calf for tagging. Calving on the Twodot lasts 45-60 days and is timed to coincide with peak grass abundance in May and June. Phelps says a lot of ranchers calve in February and March when it’s cold. So they need a barn and they need hay. That means they spend their summers planting, irrigating, cutting, baling, and putting up hay. On the Twodot, they don’t need to put up hay, Phelps says. So instead of managing hay, they manage cattle and grassland.

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Kathleen McConkey walks away from a successfully tagged calf.

See these pictures on my website here.

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