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Beef/Cattle Extension Program

Producer Profile: Lord Ranch Company, Philipsburg, MT

By Dan Lucas, Granite County Extension Agent

In the 1940’s Howard Lord made the determination that raising cattle on the small family ranch near Shonkin, Montana, south of Fort Benton, was not meeting the needs of the family. The Shonkin place was vulnerable to the vagaries of drought cycles typical to north central Montana, and agricultural production on that place was not sufficient to make a living. He came to the conclusion that good irrigated pasture and hay ground would minimize the impacts of periodic drought conditions, and provide for greater consistency in agricultural production. In 1949, Howard found the answer in southern Granite County, and moved the family to the current location of Lord Ranch Company, south of Philipsburg. He said he traded his cowboy boots for irrigating boots.

Ed and Connie Lord began operating the ranch in 1960, and raised their two children John and
Audrey on the ranch. John now resides in Eureka, Montana and works for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the fish hatchery near Eureka. John has three chin with the oldest honing his skiing skills, and keeping grandpa Ed on his toes on the slopes of Discovery Basin near the ranch.

Audrey teaches school in Edmonds, Washington, and is the computer helper for Connie when she visits the ranch. In 1973 the Lord family formed the Lord Ranch Company, with the original shareholders being Ed, Connie, Howard and Irene Lord (Ed’s mother). Through the years John and Audrey were able to acquire significant shares of stock. Neither John nor Audrey plan on returning to the ranch in the future, which does have an impact on Ed and Connie’s management plans for the ranch. The ranch is currently leased to Mark and Gaylene Jensen, who live on the ranch, and meet the challenges of ranching in the upper Flint Creek Valley.

While irrigation addressed the need for greater consistency in water for grass and hay production, the current ranch is not without challenges for a cattle ranch. Lord Ranch Company was the first operation in the upper Flint Creek Valley to install center pivot irrigation systems, and the systems are gravity fed requiring very little energy to run. Ed says, “Before thvots, all I did was work all day every day to try to flood irrigate the place. The labor was very intensive.” Among challenges, the growing season is short, with an average frostfree season of 30 to 50 days (most years closer to 30 than 50), and some years will find snow on the ground nearly as much of the year as not.

Another challenge to agricultural production is associated with rock in the soil, Granite County is aptly named. The rock dictates that frequent farming of the soil is not a good idea. However, with
nearly half of the 16-18 inch average precipitation falling in the period from April through July, the ranch grows summer feed that would be the envy of many Montana ranches. Currently, the ranch consists of about 2,900 acres of high elevation range ground and irrigated pasture and hay, additional grazing is supplied by leasing a section of State land and a small Forest Service grazing permit.

Lord Ranch Company acquired an additional 1,500 acres in 1975 from the T-3 ranch about three miles down the valley from ranch headquarters. The claim to fame on the lower place is that a portion of the ranch was previously owned by actor and Helena, Montana native Gary Cooper. The lower place was sold in 2000 to consolidate holdings and concentrate management efforts on the headquarters place. This move allowed Ed’s family to purchase his brother17;s and sisters’ and parents portion of the home ranch. Currently Lord Ranch Company is owned by Ed, Connie,
Audrey, John anis (John’s wife). While always maintaining 100-200 cows, Ed built a much different operation more suited to the upper Flint Creek Valley environment. Typically, he bought light calves in the fall, fed them through the winter until grazing was available, and brought the animals up to weight on spring and summer grass. The yearlings easily put on 2 lbs per head per day on summer grass. This enterprise has become more challenging as calf weights have increased. In the past it was possible to find 375-425 lb calves that would fit well into a stocker operation, however as calf weights have increased to the 600 lb range it is more difficult to manage them as grass stockers. The desirable end product is an animal that weighs less than 900 lbs at market time. A calf beginning in the fall or winter at 600 lbs. does not fit this scenario very well.

The ranch’s lessee currently runs about 370-400 mother cows of Angus breeding, and has shifted to a cow-calf operation, and current plans include adopting more intensive grazing techniques under the center pivots to optimize production on the ranch.

Many challenges face the beef industry, but Ed notes many opportunities exist to achieve profitability. One of the greatest opportunities for the beef industry that will indirectly affect Montana ranchers is the utilization of ethanol and food production by-products. The unique ability of cattle to utilize a variety of commodities will work to their advantage. As the nation looks at utilizing corn to produce ethanol, by-products will provide a high quality nutritional source for cattle.

Another opportunity lies in the management of ranches owned by investors. Ranch manager jobs are increasing and opportunities exist to pursue ranching interest without making the large capital investments required to acquire a ranch.

Diversification of revenue sources also provides an opportunity for those in the beef industry. Ed notes that current statistics indicate that only 5% of cattle producers rely solely on cattle to make their living. This trend indicates that many ranchers have taken the opportunity to augment
ranch income with off-ranch revenue sources. Diversification may take the form of leasing hunting rights, other recreational activities or pursuing an off-ranch job. But, non-cattle revenue sources provide an opportunity to pursue ranching. Many opportunities center on meeting the demands of consumers and producing a quality product that they are willing to pay for. Beef producers are currently providing the protein source that consumer like the best. People like to eat beef and consumer demand is strong, the challenge is to maintain or improve that demand. One item that needs to be pursued is marketing of fed beef.

Consumers continue to recognize the quality of grain fed beef over grass fed products. There are many countries in the world that can produce grass-fed beef more efficiently than we can here. Source verification provides another opportunity for the beef industry but will need to be capitalized on early in the process. Consumers are becoming more aware of source verification and perceive that as an important aspect of maintaining food safety. Ed notes that McDonalds and Wal-Mart are moving in the direction of source verification now. However, Ed feels that within 10 years a premium will not be paid for source verified cattle, but a discount will be experienced by those not participating. Source verification will work to the advantage of a good Montana producer, as Montana enjoys a good reputation for producing high quality feeder cattle.

Ed notes that opportunities also exist for those innovative producers pursuing improvements in genetics, nutrition, management, and marketing. The goal needs to center on producing a consistent, predictable high quality product for the consumer. However, making improvements in genetics to address carcass qualities cannot be achieved at the expense of production qualities. Each cow in a herd must have a healthy calf every twelve months. Making improvements must be accomplished in an economically feasible manner.

Possibly the greatest opportunities exist for those with creative tendencies. Ed states that “There are opportunities for those that choose not to do things the way they have always been done, but find new ways to produce a quality product for less money.” Exactly how that is achieved will be different for different producers, but the creative will be rewarded.

Human nature seems to make us extraordinarily sensitive to negative aspects of the beef industry. There are many challenges facing cattle producers, but as mentioned above opportunities are there for the innovative producer. Ed notes some impediments to the beef industry, but there are ways to address them.

Ed notes that national trends in public land administration indicate that public land grazing is now in decline, and will probably continue in that vain in the future. Ranches that are heavily dependent upon public land resources will face an increasing challenge in the future.

A challenge unique to the beef industry lies in the interests of hobby ranchers. Ed makes the observation that “Nobody raises hogs or chickens for fun, but a lot of people like to have a few cows around for fun”. This phenomenon can be seen in the average herd size for the United States. Current statistics show that the average U.S. herd numbers about 41 head. Figures also indicate that the minimum cow herd size to generate a living for a family is somewhere between 300 and 350 head. Combining these facts means that a producer relying solely on cattle to make a living has to compete with a large number of producers that do not.

Another competitive challenge to the beef industry lies in the pork and poultry industries; the other two major protein sources for the American public. Both of these industries are strongly vertically integrated. To illustrate, Ed recalls the story “Two beef producers get together and the first topic of discussion is the price of calves, two hog producers get together and they first talk about how to produce a hog for a penny per pound less”. A totally different mind set for each discussion.

Some forms of vertical integration or cooperation ill evolve in the beef industry whether we like it or not. Land values, particularly in western Montana, are becoming a significant impediment to the beef industry. Recreational land values are increasing at such a rate that it is no longer possible for a young couple to purchase a ranch and pay for it in a lifetime with cattle production. Land acquisition is becoming limited to those that have enough capital to make a large land investment.

Ed closed by saying “I am not necessarily in favor of all the things we talked about, but they are observations of how I see things in the beef industry”. Opportunities abound for those that are observant, and act appropriately andely on those observations.

View Text-only Version Text-only Updated: 08/29/2006
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