December 01, 2020
Fraggle Rock is an ’80s TV show featuring Jim Henson’s colorful puppets, covering topics like waste, the environment, spirituality and dealing with social conflict. It’s a silly show that resonates with me. The Fraggles family includes a character called Uncle Traveling Matt. Matt, who has a grey Doc Holliday mustache and a pack on his back, he leaves his safe underground community to record his observations about the human’s world (outer space). His backpack is full of measuring tools and notebooks to enthusiastically scribble his thoughts.
In a nutshell, I’ve just described to you one of my favorite ranchers — Roger Indreland. I think it may have been a shock to this well-spoken and educated rancher that he reminded me of a Muppet! It always brings a smile to my face when we don our backpacks and set out to check on our monitoring sites, under the blazing Montana sun. We’ve been doing this since May of 2014.
Roger and Betsy Indreland had doubts when we first met at the Ranching for Profit (RFP) Summer Conference. Roger’s mind has a carefree, child-like quality. The suspense of an unopened parcel, or working out how a toy is put together, can drive him to distraction. This need to understand things deeper left him intrigued enough to confront me to comment: “We couldn’t make that work.” I flippantly commented, “Well, why not?” They were both baffled that I could be so confident (“cocky” is the New Zealand term), so we set to work. Roger and Betsy have curious minds, but they’re not ones to take unnecessary risks. They’ve learned over the years to observe and record changes, before rolling actions out over their 7,000-acre operation. With their daughters Kate and Ann, they built a successful registered Angus stud, via trial and error — results they are happy to share with the neighbors. They’re a family that have earned the respect and admiration of their community, through their contribution to strengthening the Angus breed and their commitment to improving the resilience of ranching families. When Roger talks, people listen.
Betsy is his perfect counterbalance. “She speaks louder with her body,” jokes Roger. With Roger, the visionary, Betsy carries the details in the pockets of her keen mind. He’ll rattle off a sentence, which Betsy completes; “it was cow 5409 that got bit by a rattlesnake last year,” “no, it was 5475.” Roger knows she’s right. They are a powerful, collaborative team, who value their currency of communication.
Much More Plenty
To stand in the rolling pastures here, you get a sense of what gives Montana its “Big Sky” reputation. When the sun starts to rise, the light catches the Absaorkee Beartooth Mountains to the South and the Crazy Mountains to the West. Less than 2 hours to Yellowstone National Park, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d found Nirvana — until the Californian fires smoke out the mountains, and the skies turn Hades orange.
At the beginning of the 19th century, those in the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition were the first Europeans to cross the western part of the United States. They set to survey the geography, plants and animals, as well as to establish trade with the First Nation peoples. Their voyage took them within 12 miles of the Indreland Ranch where Clark noted “Buffalo is getting much more plenty.” This area was once dominated by dense, short prairie grasses. Now the rangeland is dominated by sagebrush with bare ground, cryptogams and diverse native flowering species. With early overgrazing of sheep and cattle, estimates point to a decline in soil carbon between 30-60 percent since Lewis and Clark first sailed by.
Anyone who lives and works on the land appreciates the forces of nature and how small and powerless we really are. The climate here in Big Timber is not easy, with winter bringing whistling winds and dense snow, followed by scorching summer sun. The ranch sits around 4,500 feet in elevation, with 300 to 350 mm (12 to 14”) of annual precipitation. The frost-free window is only 90 to 100 days. The bulk of feed needs to be grown in a short and frantic 30-45 days, to supply enough grass for the coming year.
When Roger was growing up, his father was adamant that fertilizer was expensive and made the ground hard. Of course, after heading off to ag school to study economics, Roger came back with the inflated opinion — that his dad was backwards in his thinking, and that “bigger is better.” With risky spring rainfall, fertilizer numbers didn’t really stack up. Instead, they invested in equipment for farming and haying. A dry year hit early on and with repayments due and no harvest, the early years for the new couple were tough.
During college, Roger had the opportunity to work with one of the icons of the registered Angus business. In a private conversation, the breeder revealed a pivotal insight, his belief “the Angus breed was now beyond its optimum size.” With Betsy’s background in marketing and Roger’s keen observations, they knew going to bat against the big Angus players and wealthy landowners was a risky maneuver, given their promotional budget. The Indrelands were early pioneers in using the genetics from what has now become one of America’s most popular “bigger is better” bulls. In their windswept land and tough nutritional conditions, this decision cost the pair dearly, with 75% of the cows returning infertile. Roger and Betsy have always valued diversity and that year chose to use two different bull genetics. Fortunately, their second-choice bull had much better cow energy value ($EN) and his daughters thrived. Their ultimate realization? These bigger-framed, high-input breeds didn’t have the traits necessary to survive and thrive in an extreme low-input natural system.
These early incidents were catalysts for the duo to look at techniques to reduce inputs and produce a fit-for-purpose herd that can perform in low energy environments, requiring minimal handling or supplemental feeding. For instance, in the harsh 2017-18 winter, before the snows became too deep for them to dig through, their cows were only fed for a total of 3 weeks. “We have a herd of cattle that are low input, extremely durable and very sound,” Roger says. This trouble-free line of cattle that works in sync with nature has attracted a loyal and growing client base interested in resilient, cost-effective and profitable progeny.
Having an indicator for how much input an animal requires to grow and produce milk is a valuable decision-making tool for producers interested in profitability, rather than showy large frames. Cow energy values ($EN) are used by breeders to predict how much a cow’s energy requirements could save you in feed costs. $EN is expressed in dollar savings per cow, so a higher value is better. Not all cultivars or livestock selections are designed for low-input systems. Being able to calculate potential costs would be invaluable in any sector — for wheat, apples, vegetables (…but maybe not horses?). In Montana’s extreme environment, a low, negative $EN means high amounts of supplementary feeding will be required through winter. If you look in breeder catalogues, the average Angus breed has an $EN of minus $4.01. The average for Indreland bulls in a recent year was +$20.57. Now that’s Montana tough.
Until 2006, the ranch was running an approach typical to the area, removing every blade of grass, feeding hay for a large part of the year and then calving in winter to produce larger calves at weaning. Calving in winter is a stressful approach for anyone, with lots of sleepless nights and long days ensuring calf survival and cows are well fed. It’s a common practice, often in the most inhospitable environments, with warm wet calves hitting frozen surfaces at birth. Seeing cows with no ears and tails can be a clue as to the climatic conditions on their birthday.
A Rare Skill
After attending a Ranching For Profit (RFP) school, the pair had a bombshell moment; they had been calving at the exact opposite time for cow nutritional needs. They shifted calving from February to May, to match the spring growth and every man, woman and beast breathed a sigh of relief. This timing is a closer match for when wild antelope and deer are birthing on the range too. After my first visit with the Indrelands, we discussed the concept, that these lands may never have been grazed every year by large herds. Extending this recovery time has been a breakthrough and a return to what Roger believes used to happen before the invention of large round-bailing equipment. For drought resilience “successful old-timers knew they needed to have at least 18 months of feed in front of them,” he says. Drought in Montana is not a someday/one-day concept, yet memories can be truly short in every farming/ranching community.
Grazing is recorded in a notebook and a chart on the wall. They aim to graze different pastures, at different times of the year. Some of the larger pastures create management challenges; these areas are split up with electric fence. Plant species on the range provide diverse pickings. The irrigated grounds and lowland areas consist of smaller pastures where stock can be moved more regularly. The ranch practices the “Bud Williams Stockmanship” approach to low-stress animal handling, creating a relaxed environment for people and animals. Most cattle work is done on foot and with their stock dogs, Lily and Ace. Another consequence of the smaller framed livestock is the safer conditions in the yards. Betsy recalls how in the early days, they couldn’t see over the backs of cows, which made her feel vulnerable in small spaces. The cattle “are responsive to us,” says Roger, “and that is a source of great pride for us too, to be able to go out and maneuver cattle and do just about anything we want, without any huge problems.”
I fancy myself as pretty sensitive when moving stock. However, watching Roger on foot, silently pull a cow and calf from the herd and wind them up a hill through an open gate, all without breaking a sweat, has left me with a new appreciation for the art of moving cattle.
About the Author:
New Zealand born Nicole Masters is an independent agroecologist, systems thinker, author and educator. She has a formal background in ecology, soil science and organizational learning studies in New Zealand. Nicole is recognized as a knowledgeable and dynamic speaker on the topic of soil health.