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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."