Beef/Cattle Extension Program
Producer Profile: Lord Ranch Company, Philipsburg,
By Dan Lucas, Granite County
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
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
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
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
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