Virtually every state in the Union produces cattle. Most produce sheep as well. Why is it that no other state carries quite the mystique that Montana so easily holds? My visit to the working ranches of Sweet Grass County gave me some hints. Nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley, with the Crazy Mountains to the north and the Beartooth Range to the south, the place feels like a story unto itself.

The western fringes of the Great Plains were white with spring snow as the plane descended into Billings airport. From there it was a ninety-mile drive up the eastern shoulders of the Rockies to Sweet Grass County and the town of Big Timber. The county is home to Montana Bunkhouses, and I was returning after an initial visit last summer. This group of cattle and sheep operations offers authentic ranch experiences to visitors who want to be guests, not tourists.



Ranch Music


Note: Wait for slide shows to appear, 1 photo every 10 seconds.

I didn't feel like a tourist at the Sanders Ranch. Heck, I felt more like a groupie. Lynn Sanders plays electric guitar and croons like Ray Price. (What, you don't know that name?) Lynn's wife Julie plays a mean piano. Steve and Sheryl Richert and Terry and Wyoma Terland came from their ranches. Their friend Tom brought his electric bass, and Tom's wife Deb took a turn on the keyboard. After a delicious dinner of soups, bread and dessert — all homemade — we enjoyed a performance by the musicians. I found it entertaining just to hear that these people could spend their day deciding which animals to send to market and their evening choosing the appropriate key in which to play "Sioux City Sue."


All black bears aren't
as tame as this "stuffed" one.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the storytelling. I've never encountered a badger, but I'm told that besides being destructive nuisances on a ranch, they're extremely feisty critters. "And they can count, too!" said rancher Rick Jarrett, recalling the time he unsuccessfully emptied a revolver at a retreating badger only to have it turn around after the sixth shot was fired and come after him. Lynn Sanders told us of the time he saw a badger in the middle of the road and went after it with the only weapon he had — a claw hammer. "I wouldn't have tried that," laughed Rick. "I'm not that good a carpenter!"

Here's one you won't hear in the city: Steve Richert recalled the time his son Josh and several other kids had treed a bear in the yard and had gone and fetched knives to tuck into their belts like a pack of would-be Davy Crocketts. We howled at Steve's description of practical, down-home parental discipline dispensed through an open window to a bunch of kids milling about under a tree: "Leave that bear alone!"

There were plenty of others: the day Rick almost bought a farm implement by accident at the auction, the County's road-paving techniques, and Terry's use of propane bombs to get prairie dogs out of his pastures. I'd go back to Yellowstone Country for the stories alone.


Ranchers
and
Dudes



It had been a fairly mild winter, and the ranchers needed to protect their stock early against ticks and other pests. At Crazy Mountain Cattle Company, where Rick Jarrett and Karen Searle raise cattle and sheep, we started with their nine ranch horses. Rick sprayed them with an insect repellent and then vaccinated them for such ailments as "strangles" and West Nile Virus. Most of the animals took it well, but two were rather spooked by the spray bottle. Sometimes it's hard to predict what will scare a horse.

Karen's daughter Saundra gave a demonstration in horse training with a young colt named Sparky. With Saundra standing in front of him, he obeyed her commands impressively, often responding to subtle body language as she moved him around the arena. When she climbed onto his back, his heightened emotional state affected his focus and he became more rebellious, at one point bucking her off. She bravely got back on, as a trainer must do, and made sure the session ended on a positive note. Saundra paid with a few bruises, but Sparky will make a great ranch horse.

They sure grow up quickly, don't they? At LC Cattle Company, I helped herd about fifty of Leo Cremer's yearling heifers into a narrow chute for vaccinations prior to their first breeding. As usual, Leo's neighbor and good friend Ken Laubach lent a hand. Both ranchers produce Red Angus cattle for the high-end beef market, which has been fairly good lately due to the cutoff of cheaper Canadian imports after the Mad Cow Disease discovery. Most meat processors oppose the idea of country-of-origin labeling because the increased consumer awareness might force the processors to buy more-expensive American animals. Several Yellowstone Country ranchers are looking for a processor that will package and label their beef and lamb as Montana products, hoping the aforementioned mystique will give them a stable market for their high-quality American meats among upscale restaurants and grocers.

Ranch Chores
Never Change



I heard more stories as Ken and Leo and I changed a water pump on Leo's tractor. We first had to drain the antifreeze, and Leo recalled the time Ken drenched him with the green liquid by opening up the system before Leo was ready. Both men's tractors are well maintained, and they look much younger than their age — the tractors, that is. Is it from the hard work or the frequent antifreeze flushes? (I'm still talking about the tractors.)



Spring lambing was underway at Crazy Mountain Cattle Company. The ewes must be watched closely for signs of birthing problems, and the lambs' first days of life are surprisingly tenuous. Sometimes a mother simply doesn't recognize her lamb, and sometimes a lamb won't suckle, even though its life depends on that first meal. Newborn lambs are delicate things, small lumps of fuzz and bones. If they don't get fed quickly, they simply fade and die, especially on a cold spring night in Montana. Most ewes have twins and produce enough milk for both. If not, or if a mother has triplets, one lamb is "grafted" to another ewe whose lamb didn't survive.


It's Lambing Season
In The Sweet G
rass


In the parlance of the stockman, a "bum" is an orphaned or grafted lamb. "Jugging the bums" refers to enclosing each bum in a small pen, or "jug," with its new mother for a day to ensure that they bond and the lamb sucks. If a surrogate mother isn't immediately available for a bum, it is bottle-fed a mixture of milk powder and warm water. If it won't take a bottle, it can be force-fed through a tube. "I'll tube them once if they're not sucking," explains Rick, "but it can kill their instinct to suck later." Karen's daughter and Rick's grandchildren all help with the feeding and learn quickly about nurturing helpless animals. Sometimes it seems as if the poor lambs don't care whether they survive, and it's a lot of work to ensure that they do.


Calving was underway at many of the ranches. It tended to involve less work than lambing but more danger. At the Laubach Ranch, Ken and I patrolled his property on the "mule," a vehicle like a gas-powered golf cart with a flat bed for hauling equipment. Two calves were born without difficulty while I was there, and Ken had only to check the sex of the calves and tag their ears. At CMCC, Rick and I drove to the far end of his pasture to tag a newborn calf and had a bit more excitement.


Cowboys and broncs
are born to "Buck.

Rule Number One for safety around animals is: Never get between a mother and her young. Rule Number Two is: When tagging calves, you have to break Rule Number One. (As a kid on a farm, I myself broke Rule Number One and then broke the world's record for long-jump into the back of a pickup.) After Rick took a swift kick in the stomach from a mother cow while tagging her calf, I rummaged through his truck and then spent the next minute keeping the cow at leg's length with a big piece of lumber while Rick finished his work. Later, at LC Cattle Company, Ken and I served as bodyguards for Leo as he tagged one calf after another during a baby boom on his hillside pastures.

Rodeo clowns have it tougher, of course. After chores on Sunday I rode into Billings with Ken and Donna Laubach to see the NBR bull riding competition. The clowns are in the arena to distract the bulls after their riders have fallen or jumped off, giving the cowboys time to get out of harm's way. Rule Number Three should be: Never try to ride any animal that wants to kill you.


Chinese Ring-necked
Pheasant.

Cattle aren't the only wild animals here: we saw ducks, Canada Geese, pompous rooster pheasants, courting sandhill cranes, redtail hawks, and lots of deer. It was exciting for me, but the ranchers are used to it. Most people who see deer outside their kitchen windows would say, "Ooh, look!" Julie Sanders sees them and says, "Great — there go my tulips."



Some old-fashioned ranch experiences are no longer readily available. At the Laubach Ranch, while celebrating Donna's birthday with cake and coffee, we heard more tales. When Rick Jarrett was a young boy, he would go on long annual cattle drives to high pastures with his family, back when there was more contiguous rangeland available to ranchers. The older cattle became familiar with the trip and remembered the route. Rick and his siblings were told that they could simply follow the herd if they didn't know the way. Rick said he wasn't too sanguine about letting a cow do the navigating, but heck, even cattle have memories.

I love this: the state of my birth has a bear on its very flag, but I've never even seen one in the wild. In Montana, on the other hand, bear sightings are sufficiently routine that if you can keep your kids from treeing the poor critters, you can use them for practical jokes. Once when Ken Laubach and the Cremers were checking the stock at LC Cattle, a bear came down to drink from the trough. Ken decided to surprise Lois Cremer by herding it toward her, but she moved off downhill before the bear got there, spoiling the fun. Should I ever get married, I'll have to try that one on my wife when we're out in the woods. Boy, will she laugh!


A mother and daughter had driven across the country to stay at one of the ranches, and they were having a grand time. Like most city dwellers, they had to learn the language of ranching. One term, however, tripped me up as well. Rick began speaking of wild weather and somehow segued into talk about jumping a fence. Huh? The guests exchanged confused glances as if we had missed something. It turned out that what had jumped the fence was a "whether" — a neutered billy goat. I guess if they'd done that to me, I'd fly the coop too.


The Ranch Hounds

Regarding actual weather, the ranchers were marveling at the warm spell that arrived a day after I did. Remember the lambs? A pair of twins had been born in the night but not fed by their mother, and one had died as a result. The other owed its survival to the mild temperature, but even so, it was barely alive. Rick decided to tube the poor thing with some milk and see what happened — and the lamb seemed literally to come back to life before our eyes. Half an hour after the force-feeding, the lamb was holding up its head and bleating softly. He might make it.

Even before the weather turned warm, the Great Pyrenees sheepdogs — Cheyenne, Yukon, and Zsa Zsa — could be seen lounging on the open ground among the sheep. When the rest of us were bundled up, these furry guardians were alert for predators but oblivious to the chill. Wolves are a growing threat to livestock here and can kill these dogs, but it appeared they wouldn't get any of Rick and Karen's sheep without a fight.


I
was leaving that morning, so I didn't get to monitor the reviving lamb's progress. Tomorrow was auction day in Billings, so we hitched the large stock trailer to the pickup and loaded up nine culled cattle; Rick would deliver the animals to the stockyard and me to the airport. A couple from England had planned to have their wedding at the ranch that weekend, but I missed it because they had to reschedule for later in the year. Still, my visit to Sweet Grass County was unforgettable.

In the city a pickup truck, with its raised or lowered suspension and thousand-dollar custom wheels, is a status symbol. Around here a pickup, with dirt along the sides and tools in the back, is a piece of equipment. A typical ranch has several trucks, like a stable of horses — some older and some younger. Rick showed us his older ranch truck, with its slightly twisted rear box reinforced by welded steel strips. The unfortunate vehicle had been parked underneath a tall tree when a limb broke loose during a storm, but with a bit of repair, it was still in faithful service. The two cow dogs, Bernie and Rascal, seemed as attached to the trucks as Rick was. Wherever we went, one or both of them rode along.

Speaking of trucks, here's another good story. One windy day Ken and Leo were driving home from Big Timber when, a mile or so out of town, Ken's flatbed ran out of gas. (Ever seen the inside of a work truck? Gauges are hard to read when they're covered with dust.) The men got an idea: after getting the truck turned around, they opened both doors and sailed the thing to the nearest gas station. Leo said they made fifteen miles per hour, too. Now that's wild weather.


MONTANA BUNKHOUSES

Working Ranch Vacations
696 North Yellowstone Road
Big Timber, MT 59011
(406) 932-6719

www.montanabunkhouses.com

Karen@montanabunkhouses.com

Ranchers are pretty resourceful people. When most of us would say, "It's time to buy a new (you name it)," a rancher usually says, "It's time to build a new (you name it)." Rick showed us around his shop building, with its machine tools, heavy-duty engine hoist, and homemade heater. You name it, and it seems he's either built or fixed it. He explained that thirty years ago you could sell ten culled cows and buy a new pickup with the proceeds, but nowadays you'd need to sell a whole semi-truck full. The ranchers of Sweet Grass County would probably build their own trucks if they had to.

Bears. Wolves. Howling winds. Long cattle drives. I needn't wonder whence comes Montana's mystique. The environment is not often gentle or forgiving, and the winds of fortune often seek to blow them off their lands, but the ranchers of Yellowstone Country have deep roots here. They have built not just a viable existence, but a truly rich life. Perhaps Rick is a better carpenter than he realizes.

Feature and all photos by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Editor. Read Rob's account "Riding For The Brand in Yellowstone Country." and The Jetsetters Magazine Feature: "The Smokies Dude Ranch Outpost."



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Guide to both the well-known and little-known waters in central and eastern Montana. Full descriptions of the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Red Rock, Madison, Gallatin, Jefferson, Yellowstone, Clarks Fork of Yellowstone, Stillwater, Boulder, Missouri, Marias and more. 288 pages.



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