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Beef/Cattle Extension Program

Rancher Profile: Louie Petrie Cattle Company

Sonny and Nellie Obrecht; Sam, Linda, Tyrel and Sydney Obrecht

By Mike Schuldt, Blaine County Extension agent

"The greatest management challenge is to make the right decisions to hold the genetics that grandpa and dad developed without sacrificing the farm."

Like most Montana producers, managers of the 45,000-acre Louie Petrie Cattle Company near Turner have had to take drastic measures to cope with the drought.

Describe your operation.

This family-owned cow-calf operation is located near Turner, Montana on the Saskatchewan border. The Louie Petrie Cattle Company is operated by Sam and Linda Obrecht in partnership with Sam's parents, Sonny and Nellie Obrecht. The ranch has been owned and operated by this family since 1901 and with Sam's son Tyrel helping out, it is in the fifth generation.

Headquartered in Mutton Hollow of Woody Island Coulee, the ranch began as a large sheep operation and was primarily stocked with sheep until the mid-1950s when Nellie's father took over half of the ranch and stocked it with cattle. The other half was stocked with both sheep and cattle until Sonny and Sam purchased it and brought the ranch back under one ownership.

Currently all of the sheep have been replaced with 850 black Angus cattle on this 45,000-acre ranch. The ranch includes both deeded and BLM leased pasture in conjunction with 220 acres of irrigated hay ground and up to 600 acres of dryland hay depending on the year. Sonny has had the cattle in an intensive A.I. program since the early 1960s, and the yearlings have been bred using synchronization techniques for 20 years. This has led to a herd with consistent premium genetics and has allowed the Obrechts to keep, feed and successfully market replacement heifers to increase their income opportunities.

The BLM has been a good partner in the operation, with the leased land working well into the rest-rotation pasture system. Each of the two BLM units is divided into seven pastures, with six pastures grazed each year and one rested. To optimize grazing potential, each rotation is timed so that the pastures are grazed at a different stage of the growing season each year. Water improvements and improved grass variety seeding have enhanced the grazing value of the deeded pastures .

How does your ranch differ from others in the area?

One of the major differences is the lack of crop aftermath or stubble for fall pasture. The grazing rotation has had to provide for sufficient fall pasture while many local ranchers can take their stock to stubble after weaning to relieve pressure on the pasture land.

What has been your most effective management strategy in recent times?

This area is in the fourth year of one of the worst droughts in history. Currently our moisture is at 44% of normal for the year, and this has caused management to focus on drought survival strategies. In 2001, early weaning took the stress from the short pastures and allowed condition to be replaced on the cows. Other successful strategies include developing additional water sources and moving half the cows off the ranch to leased grass in Nebraska.

What is your biggest challenge?

DROUGHT!! Managing through the short-term drought crisis has forced Sonny and Sam to make decisions that normally wouldn't be considered. The decision to truck a portion of the herd 905 miles away has been difficult. But this strategy is designed to hold the genetics that have been developed through 40 years of A.I. breeding. When weather conditions change, the ranch will still be able to offer the high-quality replacement cattle that they have built a reputation around.

The grass condition on the ranch is critical with short moisture and one of the coldest springs on record. Supplemental feeding was necessary in mid-May, not a common practice for this area. The large dam that collects the irrigation water for the ranch has been dry and unable to supply sufficient livestock water since October 2001. The outlook for 2002 is bleak, even with just 420 pairs left at home.

The greatest management challenge is to make the right decisions to hold the genetics that grandpa and dad developed without "sacrificing the farm." The ranch must remain financially sound so when the drought breaks, the ranch can rebound and resume business as usual. It is very difficult to pay debt on land that is not producing while having to pay for the pasture to replace that production.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to the livestock industry?

One of the greatest challenges that we face is the increasing role that radical environmentalists play in the development of livestock management policy, especially when it relates to public lands grazing. Public policy changes are increasingly more costly for livestock operators. Conservation easements purchased by public agencies are one such policy that in the long run will work against the production agriculture business. Sam feels selling an easement is selling off part of the ranch, reducing the asset value of the property. This decreases the overall health of the ranch business.

Another challenge that all production agriculture businesses face is increasing overhead costs without a proportionate increase in income. Over the years, agriculture as a whole has seen increased efficiency bigger machines, more automated forage harvesting and better feeding systems to make up for this discrepancy. We have efficiently reduced our communities to a skeleton of what they used to be. Ranches no longer need the hired help and the families that come with them, and farms are larger and have displaced the small family farm that sent kids to the Turner school. The challenge is to balance production so that we keep our community healthy. 

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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