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Beef/Cattle Extension Program

Producer Profile: The Open Cross Ranch and The Skaw Gang

"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 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.

The Gang
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 are.”

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 financial assistance.

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 Open Cross.

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 reintroduced

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 21st century.


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 been
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 and Shut-up”.
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 black-leg.
Maybe red-water if you pastured in some swampy ground.
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 he’ll pay.
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 pregnant cows.
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 understand.
Yup! I must be getting’ old cuz times has changed!

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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