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Alder, Montana

Keeping old traditions alive: A growing challenge for Montana's ranch families
Story and photo by Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

April 11, 2005

There's plenty of action on the Anderson Ranch near Alder when it's time for branding to get started. Families and friends show up from all over the Ruby Valley to lend a hand.

Sitting tall on his strawberry roan, Andy Peterson builds a loop with his lariat as he eyes a calf hovering over in the corner.

Easing his horse a bit closer, he twirls the rope over his head with a simplicity that comes with a lifetime of practice. The rope jumps out his hand and lands around the back hooves of the startled calf. A hard pull followed by quick dally around the saddle horn finds Peterson dragging another bawling calf to a waiting crew.

Megan Miller and her partner, Amanda Hickman, step up and wrestle the calf to the ground. With a knee on its head, Miller takes hold of a front leg. Hickman grabs a flailing back leg and pulls back hard just as Peterson's brother, Jay, walks up with an electric branding iron.

For a moment, the air is filled with the smell of burning hair. After a quick shot in its hindquarters, the work's done on this particular calf. The young ladies jump back as the calf regains its feet and runs to join the growing group of newly marked calves on the other side of the branding pen.

With a quick smile, Miller and Hickman step up and wait for their next calf.

Every spring, since the days when cattle first came onto the sprawling ranges of southwest Montana, the chore of branding has been a shared endeavor for ranch families. Last week, friends and family showed up at the Anderson Ranch near Alder to lend a hand.

"Everyone trades off helping out," said Ruby Valley rancher Jim Anderson. "It's a great way to keep a community together." It's been a tradition revived on the historic Anderson ranch. For a few years, the family did the chore on their own, pushing the calves through a chute and over a branding table. But there was something missing.

"We just decided to get back into helping each other out," Anderson said. "It's really just a good excuse to have a good time." The chore starts in March and continues through April. The Anderson family breaks their herd into several different batches.

"We don't want to wear out our neighbors," Anderson said.

After all, the neighbors are starting to get spread a bit thin.

All across the state, family ranches are being subdivided or purchased by wealthy out-of-state interests who don't have the same need to make a living from running cows. Anderson has seen it happen in the Ruby Valley.

"Things are definitely changing," he said. "There's a lot more people here now. I can almost count on one hand the old established ranches that are left in the Ruby Valley." Traditional ranch jobs have been replaced by carpenters, builders and landscapers. Absentee landowners, who may spend just a few months in Montana, now own a good share of the larger ranch properties in the area. That change has brought its own opportunities. Some residents now work as ranch managers and there's more pasture to lease for the ranchers who remain.

"Whether it's better or not, I can't say," said Anderson. "It's just definitely different." In Montana, cattle numbers have dropped dramatically since a high of nearly 3.4 million in 1974. According to statistics from the Montana Cattlemen's Association, there are about 2.35 million cattle in the state nowadays.

On average, Montana is losing about 250 ranches a year, according to the association. That's having an impact on the state's economy, they say.

"I shake my head every time I hear an elected official discuss the ways to revitalize rural Montana," said Montana Cattlemen's Association President Dennis McDonald. "We are losing production, losing the ability to create new dollars and that is why we are losing rural Montana." In 2003 the Montana agriculture industry pumped $2.6 billion into Montana's economy. The Montana cattle industry alone generated nearly a billion dollars $954,930,000 for the Montana economy in 2003. However, the dollars are being generated by fewer and fewer Montanans. In January 2005 the Montana Ag Statistic Service reported there were 12,500 cattle operations compared to 22,000 Montana cattle operations in 1965.

"Montana's economy is based on agriculture, particularly the cattle industry. We bring home the bacon, generating the tax base which funds our schools and infrastructure. Our children go to the local schools and we buy from our hometown businesses. The continued decline of Montana cattle producers has a long-term, lasting impact on the basic fiber of Montana," said McDonald.

Longtime ranchers like Jim Hagenbarth of Dillon understand the pressures facing cattlemen today.

"We're losing a lot of them," Hagenbarth said. "There's a lot of pressure out there and these businesses are tough to operate." Hagenbarth points to stacks of boxes inside his office filled with environmental documents, land use plans and paperwork surrounding a variety of agricultural issues as proof of the growing challenge for today's rancher.

"The paperwork that ranchers need to keep up with is just unbelievable," Hagenbarth said. "If they don't keep up with it and something happens that affects their operation, then it's just their own loss." Managing time has become a huge issue for today's rancher. On smaller operations, wives often work outside the ranch. Sometimes ranchers take a second job to help make ends meet. All of that doesn't leave much time to pay attention to all the outside forces changing the face of agriculture, said Hagenbarth.

"What's happening to many ranchers is they don't plan their time well and never get done with anything," he said. "And then when they step back and take a look at their lives, they see that nothing is ever done and that can be very demoralizing." "They're also very vulnerable to anything that comes along and changes their operation," Hagenbarth said.

Changes in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have also hit ranchers. Up to 1990, the agencies put a good deal of their efforts into on the ground kinds of management. Since then pressures from different environmental groups have forced the agencies to allocate more time into analysis and paperwork, Hagenbarth said.

As a result, some public lands that aren't being managed at all, he said.

Add that fact with the loss of generations of experience that disappears every time a longtime ranch family is forced to sell their property and it doesn't bode well for the long term health of the resource, Hagenbarth said.

"In some cases, ranch families have over 100 years of experience under the belt in managing their property," he said. "Their whole life and soul, as well as their blood, sweat and tears, are wrapped up in those places and now their finding some scenarios where they can't make a go of it." McDonald said ranchers aren't asking for a handout. They just need good markets for their products.

"If an elected official asks me how to revitalize rural Montana, I tell them it is very simple: We need a profitable market for our commodities, not a handout," he said. "I ask the elected officials to help us structure our domestic and international market place so we can compete with cheap foreign imports that are displacing our production. I ask the elected officials to work with us to return true open and fair competition to the processing of our raw commodities." "The U.S. agriculture industry is an amazing industry," said McDonald. "We have weathered devastating cycles of drought and crashing markets, but we cannot survive the loss of our producers."

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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