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Beef/Cattle Extension Program

Rancher Profile: Fulton and Dane Castleberry

by Larry Brence, Fallon/Carter County Extension agent

"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."

Fulton and Dane Castleberry are still ranching on the same land that Fulton's grandfather, Frank Castleberry, bought over 100 years ago. Coming north from Texas on a cattle drive in the late 1800s, Frank bought a relinquishment on a homestead in 1895 just a little more than a mile northwest of Ekalaka. The homestead located on Russell Creek is still the ranch headquarters today.

In 1966, Fulton bought the ranch from his uncle, Bun Castleberry. When Fulton initially bought the ranch, it was just over 7,000 acres of deeded land with about a half-section of lease. The ranch was also in three different, unconnected units. In the early 80s, a neighboring outfit came up for sale, allowing the Castleberrys to not only increase the size of their ranch, but also to connect the previously isolated pieces. In the mid 1980s, Fulton's son Dane joined him on the operation, which is now about 21,000 acres and runs about 425 mother cows. The ranch also supports about 400 head of yearlings through the summer.

Photo: Wilder Butte is part of Fulton and Dane Castleberry's Hereford ranch in southeastern Montana near Ekalaka.


With the purchase of the neighbors' place, a new opportunity presented itself. The wintering operation used to be located on the flat country next to the headquarters. During most winters, cows required about a ton of hay to make it through, but that number approached something closer to two tons during severe winters. The purchased property was more broken with woody draws and hills where the snow typically blows off. Winter requirements for the cowherd now are less than 1/2 ton per head.

Management strategies

The winter range program fit in well with the Castleberry management philosophy. Frank Castleberry believed that cows were there to take care of the rancher, not the other way around. The current generation also holds that belief. Mother cows on the Castleberry outfit are Hereford and must be able to thrive on winter range. For a while, red Angus sires were introduced, but failed to increase the overall marketability like the owners had hoped. In the end, the market was not there to justify the management necessary for a successful crossbreeding program.

To market their straight Hereford calves, the ranch has turned to an avenue where they know the true value of their calves will be realized. Calves are wintered on a maintenance ration, summered on grass as yearlings, and then head to a Nebraska feedlot. In the feedlot, the Hereford yearlings have performed better than the average of others in the same lot. In fact, the Castleberry Herefords have consistently performed in the top 50 percent. The Certified Hereford Beef program has also yielded a new marketing opportunity.

At a time when many ranches have gone to smaller pastures, the Castleberrys have instead stayed with larger pastures, choosing to manage distribution with water developments. More than 17 miles of pipeline have been installed over the last 20 years. Rather than using all the grass available to them, they use their pastures gently, leaving standing forage for an emergency situation. This has paid off twice. The first time was during the late '80s when Carter County was in the grips of an extreme drought. 1987 was dry, and 1988 was worse. Most ranchers were forced to reduce herds by 50 percent or more. By feeding cake to supplement the grass, the Castleberry ranch was able to get through to the spring of '89 without selling a single productive cow.

In 1999, the importance of their range management philosophy was again reinforced. A Halloween night fire burned all of the stored winter grass and came close to destroying the ranch headquarters, as well. Thanks to their grazing strategy, extra grass was available in what is typically the summer pasture. And although some pastures had to be used harder than desired, the Castleberrys were able to manage through it without excessive culling.

In terms of neighboring operations, Fulton and Dane agree that their outfit is much better suited to a winter range operation than many of their neighbors'. Like their neighbors, the Castleberrys have highly productive hayground and recognize the need to rejuvenate it, citing the fact that there is no need to cover any more ground with the haying equipment than necessary.

Today's challenges

The Castleberrys are well aware of the challenges facing today's cattle industry. They recognize that an economically optimum number of mother cows in the area might be something in the neighborhood of 800, but expansion is difficult, even in "less scenic" eastern Montana. One neighboring ranch sold for over $200 per acre to a millionaire from out of state. According to Fulton, "Eastern Montana cattle operations just can't compete against the outside money." The Castleberrys recognize the fact that future expansion may be available only through leasing.

The state of beef and cattle imports is also of concern to the Castleberrys. As long as outside cattle can be produced more cheaply than American cattle, imports will have a competitive advantage.

"It should be based on a fair playing field," according to Fulton. "Production costs need to be consistent, or be adjusted by tariffs from one country to the next."

Fulton and Dane also worry about the future. They see diversification of enterprises as a key to future ranch sustainability. Recreational enterprises such as hunting and ranch vacations are helpful at this point, and with technology, maybe new enterprises will become available.

In fact, the Castleberry Herefords have consistently performed in the top 50 percent.

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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