Reukauf family ranch thrives in arid eastern Montana by going for environmental gains
By Laura Nelson
Montana Environmental Stewardship Program
Persevering in the harsh ranching climate of eastern Montana can build character, that’s for sure, Lon Reukauf jokes. But lessons of the land often run on repeat, so a well-read history book can point to opportunities to learn, grow, conserve and preserve a sustainable future.
Fortunately, the Cherry Creek Ranch in Terry, Montana has a well-read history to help build the future. When Lon Reukauf’s grandparents homesteaded the area along Cherry Creek in 1910, there was a new pioneer home every half-mile along the dusty trail. Families were eager to try their hand at eking out a living with the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. While 160 acres in the vast, dry land of eastern Montana could not sustain a family, this act allowed for 320 acre settlements.
Today, the Reukaufs are one of five original ranches still left on the homesteading land that once held 200 families. Lon married Vicki, his high school sweetheart, after graduating from Montana State University. They returned to Cherry Creek Ranch in 1982, faced with many of the same struggles his grandfather’s family persevered through decades before. Namely, they faced the onset of another lengthy, browbeating drought. Still, Lon and Vicki raised their two children on the ranch while tending to the land and cattle.
They added another page to the Cherry Creek Ranch history book this winter when the Montana Stockgrowers Association honored the Reukaufs with the 2016 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award. The family accepted the award at the Stockgrower’s annual convention in Billings.
“The advantage of good stewardship is, your sustainability and longevity depend fully on it,” Lon says. “You’re much more likely to weather serious disasters like drought, fire and the like if you’ve taken good care of the land.”
The overall objective of the commercial cow-calf ranch is simple, Lon says: “Take good care of the land, plants and animals while making some profit to live on, retire on and pass on to the next generation.” Achieving that goal is a touch more complicated. To do it, the Reukaufs focus on four primary areas of stewardship: build a forage reserve, build a financial reserve, build on cow reproduction and build and preserve a healthy landscape to pass along.
BUILDING A FORAGE RESERVE
“What you do during the drought, once it’s that dry, really isn’t that relevant. It’s what you do before and after that grass is dry and dormant that’s really going to matter,” Lon says. Precipitation is scarce in a good year at the Cherry Creek Ranch, and lengthy drought patterns are normal throughout thousands of years of history.
Strategic grazing allows the Reukaufs to maintain a full bank of forage reserves that will keep the family and their base cattle herd afloat in dry years. The strategy also works to continually invigorate their landscape and encourage diversity in plant growth.
“A big part of the forage reserves is about having an opportunity to pick the market you’re selling into, as opposed to being forced into selling into a market you don’t like,” Lon says.
BUILDING A FINANCIAL RESERVE
Like a forage reserve, a financial reserve is critical to the long term sustainability of the ranch. Adversity is easier to overcome if an emergency fund is built in good years.
“One of the biggest problems with the legacy of farm and ranch families is ensuring the older generation has enough savings in order to step out of the way if and when the next generation comes home, so you’re not both there starving to death,” Lon says. That focus is not only geared to ensuring the ranch can safely transition to the next generation, it’s a key component to maintaining today’s stewardship.
“I can’t think of anything that will make ranchers make worse environmental decisions than buying land at too high of prices, then trying to figure out how to make money off it,” Lon says.
BUILD IN COW REPRODUCTION
Longevity and fertility in the cowherd are the top two production goals at the Cherry Creek Ranch. On the arid eastern Montana landscape, cows must be super-efficient. They’re expected to average at least eight calves in a productive lifetime.
“Cow longevity is our number one cost, if it’s not there,” Lon says. “We want to be mindful of feedlot performance and carcass quality, too, but a super high-production cow just isn’t going to be efficient out here.”
At least 95 percent of cows should breed up and then calve in the first 30 days of the reproductive cycle, which hinges largely on an adequate plan of nutrition during breeding season, made possible by the previous year’s forage reserve and pasture movements timed for this purpose.
BUILD, PRESERVE A HEALTHY LANDSCAPE TO PASS ALONG
“If I could say what his motto was, it would be to leave the land better than he found it. That’s what he’s worked his whole life for,” Vicki says.
That’s quantified by managing the land for increased production and increased plant and animal diversity. “The problem with that goal is, you never know how far you can go with it. So you just keep improving and keep raising the bar,” Lon says. “There’s never really an end in sight.”
ADDRESS ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES
Water quantity and natural water quality pose the largest challenges at the Cherry Creek Ranch.
“Water is so important to us. We could have cattle thirst to death in a matter of a couple days out here,” Lon says. “So we have to have a plan, and we better have a plan B.”
While the ranch has nearly 15 miles of riparian zones, these are small, ephemeral springs that do not provide reliable stock water in the 20 days of the year they run.“The rotational grazing has a lot to do with keeping the vegetation around the reservoirs from becoming nothing but dirt. By having our watershed covered with an adequate amount of litter and vegetation, it greatly decreases the amount of silt that runs into our reservoir,” Lon says.
REST ROTATIONAL GRAZING, WINTER FORAGE USE
The main management objective of the Reukauf’s six-pasture rotation is resting one pasture for 14 months and then using it exclusively the following May. The ranch utilizes winter grazing with the pastures constituting the majority of the cow’s winter diet, supplemented by high protein for part of the winter. As a result, the tree and shrub regeneration in winter pastures has been successful. In general, grazing use levels of herbaceous plants during the dormant season (October-April) can be higher than during the growing season without significantly stressing the plants. It is important to maintain ground cover to decrease the amount of soil exposed to wind and water erosion. This will also capture more snow and retain moisture.
All cattle are placed in one pasture that was rested the year before for the month of May, or used ‘light and late.’ The other five pastures get deferred until after June 1. All livestock are concentrated in a single pasture except in the fall. Four of the six pastures are deferred until late July.
The combination of these tactics allow for adequate surplus root growth, seed production and new seedling establishment. The ranch also has two, three-pasture deferred rotation systems with the goal of using one pasture only from June 15 to Sept. 1. This allows shrubs and trees to receive no hot season use two years out of three to encourage growth. The late used pasture becomes the early grazed pasture the next year.
STRATEGIC WINTER FEEDING BOOSTS DIKE IRRIGATION SYSTEM
Throughout the year, mineral, salt and protein blocks are strategically placed as bait to draw cattle into areas with extra forage and away from sensitive areas. No salt or mineral is placed within one-half a mile of water during winter to allow riparian areas to regenerate, and strategic feeding areas feed into a dike system that grows a small amount of hay.
“Manure is a wonderful thing, as long as you don’t pile it up too high,” Lon says. “The two things we can’t afford to lose here are nutrients and water.” Animals are supplemented on a rotating location schedule, with the goal to maximize the use of nutrients by avoiding runoff into clean water. Meanwhile, runoff is captured in a system of dikes to grow forage. Without the diking system, the ranch would be unable to grow a hay crop. The nutritional content of the manure runoff also eliminates the need for synthetic nitrogen.
“We feed like we would spread fertilizer,” Lon says. The 300 acres of hay production on the ranch adds an estimated $50-75,000 of value to the ranch each year.
EARLY WEANING PAYS IN EFFICIENCY
Decades of market analysis and studying forage availability led Lon to weaning early and selling lighter calves to help his cows be more efficient, and also to increase his bottom line.
“When you wean that cow and calf, you can figure you’re cutting your forage consumption in half. You have a dry mama who’s not lactating and a calf who’s no longer eating. That early weaning is a fast way to decrease forage consumption per cow-calf unit,” Lon says. While it costs about $150 per head to feed the calf for an extra 100 days off the cow, it pays off in cow efficiency, near-perfect conception rates and an increased forage bank.
Selling calves at just below 500 pounds has also increased efficiency at the ranch. While they normally wean at 180 days, drought conditions may call for weaning 100-day old calves.
“For us, the cost of adding pounds after 500 is just not worth it. If you put 50 pounds on, how many more dollars per pound per head do you get? It’s not that much when you pencil the true costs in our environment,” Lon says.
TREE REGENERATION POINTS TO HEALTHY LANDSCAPE
A healthy landscape is a diverse landscape, and the Cherry Creek Ranch is home to a wide variety of grasses, shrubs and trees that offer shelter to domestic and wild animals. Years of tree planting efforts throughout the family’s history created a healthy seedbed for regeneration, and the rotational grazing system is geared toward creating a healthy environment for trees to thrive in.Cottonwoods are slowly making a comeback on the ranch, where Lon started placing a square of woven wire paneling around the seedlings to protect young growth. The BLM successfully borrowed his technique for use on other public land in the area.
“It’s not much, but if we can add even just two trees each year, and they live for 80 years – well, that’s a lot of trees,” Lon says. He protects the regrowth of new shrubs and trees by avoiding grazing on 2/3 of the pastures during their most critical growth – June 20 through August 20 – to give the green ash, buffalo berry, snowberry and other woody species a chance to establish. The change has been hugely noticeable, particular over the past 20 years.
“You can see the diversity of the age of these trees; that shows in the landscape,” Lon says. “My dad was an avid bird watcher, but we also just don’t want to live on a barren landscape.”
ONE TREE AT A TIME
That dedication was drilled home each spring of the family’s early years, filled with “character building” memories from Vicki and the kids.“There aren’t many trees here in Eastern Montana,” Vicki says. “Every spring, Lon would order 200 trees, and the kids and I would be out in the mud, creeks and shelterbelts planting hundreds of those trees with shovels.”
The success rate is small – water is scarce, the environment is harsh – but the effort is worthwhile. Each tree that survives improves wildlife habitat and the ranch’s landscape. Year after year, the same painstaking effort goes into water development, strategic grazing and native rangeland health.“It’s all gradual – there’s no magic shazam to doing things right,” Lon says.
Rather, it’s the discovery of little successes – one new cottonwood, a shade greener stream bed, a fresh patch of native grass, a higher percentage of bred cows – that continues to drive stewardship, conservation and sustainability at the Cherry Creek Ranch.
“I didn’t return here to this place and this lifestyle for money.” Lon says. “I love the land. What’s important to me is taking care of things now so the next generation can make a stable income and enjoy a beautiful, clean, diverse place to call home.”