Beef/Cattle Extension Program
Producer Profile: Les and Chris Arthun
By Marty Malone, Extension Agent
for Park County
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 www.ringling5.com.
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
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
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.
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 email@example.com