Beef/Cattle Extension Program
Producer Profile: The Open Cross Ranch and The Skaw
the time several generations have lived on the
same place, ranching becomes more than what you
do for a living, it’s who you are."
A phone call to the Open Cross Ranch, just south of
Hall, Montana, will often result in listening to Gayla
Skaw on the answering machine detail the current exploits
of the Skaw Gang (pronounced like cow with an “S”
in front). Lee and Gayla Skaw are the ringleaders for
the Skaw Gang, and depending on the time of year, the
answering machine may indicate that the gang is feeding,
calving, branding, haying, spraying weeds, weaning or
logging, but you can bet they are busy on the ranch.
Gayla is the third generation Anderson to call the Open
Cross Ranch, which was started by her grandfather Charlie
Anderson, her home. In 1895, at the age of 17, Charlie
came to America from Sweden with his father and uncle.
Initially, they were involved in freighting supplies
to the mines in the Philipsburg area. Charlie mined
and had prospect holes in various parts of Granite County.
Agriculture became the family’s life in 1908 when
he started the Open Cross Ranch with a homestead on
the north end of what is now the Big Meadow.
In three years the Open Cross will celebrate its centennial
as a family ranch. Gayla says, “By the time several
generations have lived on the same place, ranching becomes
more than what you do for a living, it’s who you
Over four decades, Charlie purchased adjacent properties
to complete the Open Cross at its current size. Gayla’s
father was born in the homestead house on the ranch,
and Gayla was raised on the ranch. Her husband, Lee,
hales from Ovando, and has enjoyed working in the woods
throughout his life, as well as running the Open Cross.
The family name is Danish in origin, from Schou, meaning
wood or forest. Lee and Gayla have effectively integrated
the timber and livestock on the ranch to put together
a total resource production unit.
Lee and Gayla have two children. David and his wife
Amanda live on the ranch and David works full time for
Parke Logging of Drummond. As Gayla tells it “David
has pitch and diesel fuel in his veins, just like his
dad and his grandfather before him.” He is most
at home at the controls of a piece of equipment, but
he is a good hand on the ranch and helps out when things
get busy. Amanda makes the 120-mile round trip daily
to work as a cosmetologist in Missoula.
Jolene and husband Levi Parsons, live in Drummond,
and hope at some point to pursue their love of the ranching
life. Jolene studied Agricultural Business Technology,
at Dawson Community College and puts in a lot of hours
on the ranch. Levi is most at home in the saddle, but
running equipment in the woods revs his engine too.
Levi and Jolene will be adding the fifth generation
to the gang in the near future.
The Skaw gang embodies the family ranch in Montana,
and they are working together to meet the challenges
of running the Open Cross in the 21st century.
The Open Cross
The Open Cross lies near the center of the Lower Flint
Creek Valley of Granite County. It’s about 5,600
acres of native range, improved grass range, hay meadows
and timber. Elevations on the ranch run from about 4,300
feet to over 7,000 feet on their Forest Service allotment.
The ranch produces enough hay to fill the needs of
winter feed for the cow herd and the “Brumby Bunch”
as Gayla puts it, leaving some for sale. The ranch ran
about 350 mother cows and 50 yearlings under the management
of Gayla’s dad, but Lee and Gayla reduced the
herd to about 275 head. Gayla says, “People forget
that in the old days we had 1,000 lb cows and weaned
450 lb calves. We now run 1,350 lb cows and wean 650
lb. steer calves. The stocking level of the ranch has
to reflect that change.”
Last year Lee and Gayla reduced the herd to about 60
head of cows to capitalize on a favorable bred cow market,
reduce the impact of a possible BSE induced crash in
the livestock market, pay the ranch portion of installing
a cost-share gravity flow pivot irrigation system and
eliminate debt. The herd reduction provided an opportunity
to develop goals for pasture and timber resources, develop
plans to meet those goals and provide finances to implement
changes. The ranch uses the services of MSU/Granite
County Extension Service and the local Department of
Natural Resources and Conservation for technical and
One of the goals for the livestock portion of the ranch
is to build back to about 300 mother cows, using black
and black baldy cows bred to terminal sire Charolais
bulls. Cattle for this ranch need the ability to use
mountain pastures where slopes prevail over level ground.
However, the ranch has the resources to complete herd
breeding in the lower pastures where the terrain is
less challenging. Summer grass and cooler summer temperatures
are the strong point for the ranch, and calves grow
well on the summer range. March calving of the cow herd
yields 600 to 650 lb calves come November. Marketing
has included video sales, and local calf buyers.
In the mean time, the Skaws are leasing pasture to
neighbors, and reducing their herd has provided the
flexibility to graze pastures at levels designed to
meet range resource objectives and provide rest for
two pastures that are part of a range improvement program.
Timber resources have long been a part of the picture
for the Open Cross. However, their role has changed
over time. Gayla’s father, like many other ranchers
of his generation in Granite County, considered trees
somewhat of a nuisance, taking up space and resources
that could be growing grass to feed cattle. From that
point of view, the only good tree was the one that was
loaded on the truck.
Lee and Gayla have implemented a timber management
program that provides income to the ranch and achieves
resource management goals. Each year their timber harvest
has two aims: to generate revenue (by harvesting 15
– 20 truckloads of logs); and to selectively harvest
timber stands, so that the remaining trees increase
in growth and accelerate the generation of future timber
revenue. By opening the canopy of timber stands, additional
sunlight reaches the soil, increasing grass growth for
grazing. In this manner ranch timber resources have
become an integral part of resource management on the
Challenges for the Open Cross
Lee and Gayla have worked the past 25 years on the ranch,
with Lee spending some of nearly every winter working
in the woods, quite often off the ranch. Gayla says
that they haven’t lived “high off the hog,”
but they have always been quite comfortable. Now they
are facing the same challenges that most other Montana
ranchers face at some point – passing the ranch
to the next generation. This will require designing
a ranch plan that generates enough income to support
another family, while providing a retirement income
for Lee and Gayla.
To that end, the family is in the process of evaluating
ranch resources and options to optimize a sustainable
income from them. It will be a combination of livestock
and timber enterprises, but is a difficult undertaking
and requires considerable creativity.
One of the tasks centers on comparing current productivity
and potential productivity for each unit of the ranch.
Then, if a unit is not meeting production potential,
they examine what precisely can be done to bring it
up to potential, and what resources will be required
to achieve that goal. This undertaking is a work in
progress. In the meantime, some family members are going
to have to continue to earn some income from outside
sources. The family definitely supports legislation
in the works to permanently eliminate the death tax
and other measures to make inheritance less a burden
to the next generation.
Another challenge facing the ranch can be summed up
as environmental issues. Noxious weeds are a formidable
challenge not unique to the Open Cross. Weed management
is expensive and time consuming. Spotted knapweed is
of greatest concern for the ranch, and its management
is an annual effort.
The Open Cross is part of the Silver King Weed District
that has successfully secured Noxious Weed Trust Fund
monies to assist in managing noxious weeds on the ranch.
Grant funding has provided an opportunity to make real
headway on managing spotted knapweed on the ranch, and
the desire is to establish healthy rangelands that will
reduce the likelihood of infestation by weedy species.
Additional environmental challenges come in the form
of increased governmental regulations related to water
quality and endangered species. The Open Cross is in
wolf country, and concerns are as high about governmental
regulation as they are about the efficiency of this
While considering money-making options, the Skaw gang
ran into another challenge that will require thought
to address. Ranchers are often encouraged to consider
recreational opportunities for income diversification,
such as cabin rentals, hunting access and horseback
riding. However, those opportunities expose the ranch
to increased liability and the insurance cost is prohibitive.
Any options for income diversity will require careful
consideration before being pursued.
Industry Challenges as Seen by the Skaw Gang
The greatest challenge the Skaws see facing the livestock
industry is instability and complexity of marketing.
The relationship between BSE (or other issues), consumer
confidence, and the price of calves received by ranchers
is very complex. As Gayla says “You never know
what will come up next that will impact calf prices.”
Consumers must remain confident that beef is a safe
and wholesome part of the food supply for the nation.
Related to that instability of markets within the United
States is the impact of international policy and international
marketing. Gayla said that, “COOL is a good thing,
we should be able to identify meat as grown and produced
in the United States.” That is one way to assure
that consumers remain confident of the safety of beef.
NAFTA and trade impacts on livestock producers is huge.
Gayla added, “We grow enough livestock in the
United States to feed the whole country, why are we
importing beef at all?”
Environmental issues are also recognized as important
to the industry as whole, not just the Open Cross. AFO/CAFO
regulations, water quality regulations, endangered species,
water law, noxious weeds, and wildlife numbers are among
issues that the industry needs to address as a whole.
Those issues have the potential to have far reaching
impacts for everyone in the livestock industry.
The following poem penned recently by Gayla pretty
well tells the story of what the Montana ranch and the
western livestock industry faces as we get into the
Times Has Changed
By Gayla Skaw
You sold your cattle.
The heck you say!
Why did ya go an’ do that?
Cattle prices are better than they’ve ever
Well you see, I must be getting’ old cuz
I can say times has changed.
Why I can remember comin’ in to my dad as
a youngster witha bunch of little lavender flowers
in my hand and sayin, “Dad! What are these”?
And he didn’t know cuz acourse we didn’t
recognize spotted knapweed 30 years ago.
And it was only the first!
Add at least 10 more noxious weeds to the list
we spray for regularly now.
Used to be if a cow wanted a drink she went to
the crick and got one.
If she happened to take a crap while she was there,maybe
browse a bit on the willows – nobody cared.
Cut throat were an easy catch in that crick for
a kid like me.(Still are, I might add)
If ya had a problem with a predator – a
lion, wolf, coyote or such,ya dealt with it.
There was no such thing as “Shoot, Shovel
Elk on the ranch were few and far between,rather
than the 2 or 3 hundred head we pasture now, pretty
much year ’round.
Don’t get me wrong. We love to watch them,
but they cost us money.
The weather was about the only thing you couldn’t
really count on for sure.
But if the Midwest got decent weather for a good
corn crop,you knew that calf prices come fall
would be pretty good.
If Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and corn
was in short supply,you knew calf prices would
be off a bit.
At branding time, used to be, you vaccinated for
Maybe red-water if you pastured in some swampy
You dipped ‘em for lice every fall. Had
the vet give the heifers Bangs,if you thought
ya might ever want to ship them out of state.
Now you give them all that plus Bovashield 4,
Pasturella, Somnus, TriVib 5L & Trich,
And ya worry about a whole bunch of other diseasesthat
most of us can’t even say, much less spell!
When I was a kid, cow buyers actually knocked
on the door and made an offer.
Now the rare one that comes won’t say what
They want you to haul to the ring and take whatever
the market will bear on that day.
Or they come out with the video camera to film
The footage will run on satellite TV in two weeks,
along with others from nation wide.
(How would you like to be on the receiving end
of that deal!)
There’s NAFTA, the futures, putts, COOL
and a whole bunch of other things I don’t
Yup! I must be getting’ old cuz times has
Questions & Answers is a joint project between
MSU Extension and the Montana Beef Council. This column
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