Beef/Cattle Extension Program
Producer Profile: The Bair Ranch, Martinsdale, Montana
By Sarah Hamblen, County Agent,
"The Bair Ranch provided
significant contributions to the history of ranching
in Montana. Now, coordinating ranch interests
with applied research projects, the Bair Ranch
promises a future of ranching and education for
Montana unlike any other facility in the state."
Charles M. Bair first brought his sheep operation to
Martinsdale, MT in 1913. After losing his leases on
the Crow Reservation in 1910, Bair, a prominent sheep
man and entrepreneur, recognized the potential of the
land along the Musselshell River. Ninety-three years
after his initial investment on the Musselshell, the
ranch continues to support a vibrant livestock operation.
However, the day-today management of the operation has
Charlie Bair amassed a significant fortune through
both his ranching and entrepreneurial endeavors. His
death in 1943 left operations of the ranch in the hands
of his daughters, Marguerite and Alberta. Alberta, known
for her business sense, managed the livestock operation
until her death in 1993. At that time, the Bair Trust,
managed by US Bank in Billings, MT, was charged with
overseeing the operations.
Jim Murphy, who began working for Alberta Bair in
1991, was named ranch manager. In 1998, the Trust formed The Bair Ranch Foundation, an educational
research foundation, with the intent of partnering with universities to conduct applied
research projects on a working ranch. The universities originally involved in research projects
on the Bair Ranch include Montana State University (livestock and range), University of
Montana (timber), and Rocky Mountain College (geology,
ornithology, and ecology). However, the Bair Ranch Foundation
does not prohibit other educational institutions from coming
forward with proposed projects as demonstrated by a
current feeding trial taking place at the University
of Illinois. There was also a cooperative E. Coli research project carried
out in 2005 with the University of Nebraska.
Today, the Bair Ranch consists of about 60,000 acres,
more than 850 head of cattle, and more than 2,000 sheep. The ranch also produces 1,500 acres
of hay per year with 500 acres of center pivot irrigation,
500 acres of flood irrigation and roughly 500 acres
of sub irrigated hay ground.
Like any ranch manager, Murphy is charged with maintaining
a balanced operation. He works with his counter-part
in US Bank to establish ranch budgets and financial
objectives. Currently, his goals are focused on increasing
herd sizes. In addition to increased moisture in the
past year, Murphy applied Spike, a herbicide, to approximately
2,000 acres of sagebrush. The sagebrush reduction and
overall increased grass production resulted in a current
grass surplus. Murphy estimates that the ranch should
support 1,000 head of cattle and approximately 2,400
sheep. By holding back animals, he estimates he will
come close to reaching those herd numbers this year.
However, for Murphy, the complex structure of the ranch
means being open to constant change and new challenges. Because the ranch is structured
as a research foundation, Murphy occasionally has to
compromise his visions for the ranch to accommodate
new projects and perspectives. As an example, Murphy
spent several years building an Angus herd on the Bair
Ranch. This year, research being conducted by Montana
State University resulted in artificially inseminating
the heifers and part of the cowherd to Simmental. Notes
Murphy, “As a semi-cross, Angus/Simmental makes
sense. But it’s hard to do when I’ve wanted
to build exclusively Angus bloodlines in the herd.”
Murphy is joined on the ranch by full-time MSU research
associate Harv VanWagoner. In addition to focusing on
ranch operations, Murphy and VanWagoner must ensure
that the ranch is safe for university students and researchers.
The MSU College of Agriculture calving management class
brings undergraduate students to the ranch each year
to assist in the heifer calving operations. Harv manages the students and provides the educational
components, but a lot of work is completed prior to
their arrival. For instance, the ranch recently erected
state-of-the-art corral systems to minimize injuries when working animals and
calving. Also, Murphy notes that, in addition to productivity, disposition of cows must also
be considered when culling. Because students are helping
to calve, aggressive animals present risks to both the
students and the ranch.
While occasionally challenging, Murphy recognizes the
value of research being conducted on the ranch. A former
agronomist and researcher himself, no one could be better
suited for balancing the everyday demands of the ranch
against the research requests by various universities.
Murphy notes that several successful research projects
on the Bair Ranch continue to benefit producers today.
One of the most notable is the MSU weaning pellet, developed
by John Paterson through research conducted at the Bair
Overall, Murphy is optimistic about the future of
both the ranch and the respective livestock industries.
He views continued population growth as a key driver
in long-term beef demand, and while he recognizes the cyclical nature of the industry,
he is bullish in his long-term outlook for beef prices. Similarly, he anticipates higher sheep
prices going forward as increasing ethnic populations in the United States drive demand for meat
products. He anticipates steady wool prices.
The Bair Ranch provided significant contributions
to the history of ranching in Montana. Now, coordinating
ranch interests with applied research projects, the
Bair Ranch promises a future of ranching and education
for Montana unlike any other facility in the state.
Some of the current projects on the ranch include:
1) evaluation of various electronic ear tags; 2) evaluation of a production software program
to determine profitability of the cowherd; 3) a new
method of removing pine tree encroachment; 4) comparison
of different bull progeny to determine genetic basis
for improved feed conversions; and 5) comparison of
high marbling vs. high yield grading sires on reproduction
and carcass traits.