Beef/Cattle Extension Program
Rancher Profile: Fulton and Dane Castleberry
Larry Brence, Fallon/Carter County Extension agent
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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