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Beef/Cattle Extension Program

Producer Profile: Les and Chris Arthun

By Marty Malone, Extension Agent for Park County

"The ranch consists of irrigated and dryland property. It is well balanced and produces all the hay necessary for the cow herd plus grain for a cash crop."

The Arthun Ranch in northern Park County is home to 550 black cows and also produces grain and hay to balance the operation. Les is the third generation to run cattle in this part of Montana. In 1904, Louie Arthun homesteaded on Sixteen Mile Creek near Ringling, which was named for the Ringling Brothers, who built a spur to White Sulphur Springs from the Milwaukee Railroad to provide transportation for their rodeo stock. Ringling is also famous for a Jimmy Buffett song, J.T.’s Bar and the Ringling Five.

Les is a founding member of the Ringling Five, a group of singing ranchers of which the owner of Nordie’s Store in downtown Wilsall said, “They still can’t carry a tune, but at least they are consistent.”Les graduated from MSU with a degree in Animal Science in 1977. The Ringling Five started while Les and several other young men from the area were attending college. While singing for fun, the group became known as the Ringling Boys and later became the Ringling Five. They now appear at 30-40 concerts during the year singing and entertaining crowds throughout the Northwest. Les is on the road for nearly two months every year, and Chris and the rest of family care for the ranch in his absence. The concert dates often happen during haying and calving season. The Ringling Five now has three music CDs and a recently released DVD. Everyone in the cow business or who has an appreciation for homegrown music should have a copy. Their website is

Les and Chris love to ranch. Les’s dad, Carl, taught Les to work hard and be a good steward of the land. According to Chris, “Les’s dedication to ranching was evident in the fact that it took him two years to ask me for a date after getting my phone number from my mother.” Chris said she just figured that he was busy ranching. When asked if they were ever interested in selling the ranch, Chris emphatically stated that they are not interested in selling land despite the high prices being offered for land in Park County.

Leif, the oldest of the next generation, is following in Les’s footsteps. Leif is a senior at MSU in animal science and a member of the MSU track team. Courtney is a sophomore at Rocky Mountain College majoring in exercise science, while Brock is majoring in football at Shields Valley High School. Leif is anxious to return to the ranch.

The headquarters of the Arthun Ranch is on the exact site of Shields, Montana. The town of Shields was, at that time, the end of the rail line. Ranch property extends from Wilsall north for 18 miles. When asked why the ranch is that long, Les replied that his dad purchased land when and where the price was right. He turned down the offer to purchase adjoining property, and instead purchased property near the northern border of Park County for 75% less.

The ranch consists of irrigated and dryland property. It is well balanced and produces all the hay necessary for the cow herd plus grain for a cash crop. Carl saw the need for irrigation and was very instrumental in establishing the Shields River Canal and Cottonwood Reservoir to ensure a stable water supply. The first pivot sprinkler in the Shields Valley was purchased by the ranch in 1979—the same year that Les told his Dad he wanted to be a part of the ranch. While attending MSU, Les had been on several ranch tours where ranchers were making the best use of the water and labor available. Since that time, additional pivots and wheellines have been placed on the property to expand the irrigated acres and reduce labor costs.

Cooperative marketing and buying
The extended Arthun Family has always marketed their calves as one lot. According to Les, buyers are very interested in purchasing large lots of quality calves that are raised in the same area. Late calves are put into the yearling herd. One of the more interesting aspects of cooperation is purchasing land together. The second generation purchased several large ranches together and then divided them later after the sale. One ranch that was purchased was originally owned by Will and Sally Jordon, a couple that has two Montana towns named after them: Wilsall and Jordon.

Challenges to the ranch
Calving and concentration of livestock are major challenges for the ranch. All of the cows are calved at the headquarters. Vaccination is a high priority. They haul pairs away from the calving area as soon as possible to prevent disease from spreading. Les would like to have more land near the headquarters to allow cattle room to spread out in late winter after calving.

People pressure is another major concern. With the ranch spread out like it is, cattle spend a fair number of days being herded up and down Highway 89. Les says he has seen his share of road rage, even on the sparsely traveled road between Wilsall and Ringling. A loaded gravel truck went through the herd, injuring several cows and killing one. Another time, a motorist in a foreign sports car thought he was tougher than the cowboys, till he stepped out of the car.

Challenges to the industry
Les says that a rancher faces challenges every day with weather, fluctuations in the markets, environmental and wildlife concerns and increased land values—which are helpful if you sell, but detrimental if you own land and watch taxes increase. Weather is a take-what-you-get-and-do-the-best-with-it matter of fact.

Markets are somewhat more manageable, but dealing with them on an individual basis is overwhelming, says Les. That is where being involved in agricultural organizations and those organizations’ cooperation are of extreme importance. He also said finding a niche for marketing products we already have or developing other opportunities of income with resources that are available with be a challenge.

Environmental concerns have become more of a focus in the last several years, influenced largely by media attention. The Arthun Ranch has tried to be as proactive as possible by implementing off-stream watering, fencing off stream banks, cross fencing for range management, monitoring the ranch, and guarded use of fertilizer and chemical application.

In most cases, ranchers have been good stewards of the land and managers of wildlife by leaving excess grass for those animals to eat. That’s one of the reasons why large waves of people are moving to Montana. Out of state people buying into Montana increase land value, which increase our asset value, said Les, but hinder or even halt our ability as production-based agriculture to expand through buying for leasing. He said this will be a major hurdle for family operations and their future success.

Les added that managing around wolves and other predators will be a major challenge for agriculturalists in the future. Other wildlife such as deer and elk increase the exposure to several diseases that can devastate a cow heard.Less concluded, as much as some of us complain about our situation in agriculture in the United States, one does not have to look very far to realize how blessed we are to be in this business in this place.

Beef: Questions & Answers is a joint project between MSU Extension and the Montana Beef Council. This column informs producers about current consumer education, promotion and research projects funded through the $1 per head checkoff. For more information, contact the Montana Beef Council at (406) 442-5111 or at

View Text-only Version Text-only Updated: 08/14/2009
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