Small bench pastures and lots of sorting allow these Montana ranchers to market quality calves.

Tom and Cliff Ruffatto have taken the adage about matching cattle to the environment a step further on their west Montana ranch. These two brothers fit the cattle on their family ranch to the lay of the land.

Located near Stevensville, Ruffatto Cattle Co. runs north and south in a long and narrow fashion along the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains. A series of gently sloping benches give way to the Bitterroot River, which runs to the east and parallels the mountains.

More than a dozen pastures on the ranch are defined more by the topography than anything developed by man. The mixture of native and introduced grasses that blanket the hills and swales support Ruffattos' herd of about 800 crossbred mother cows.

The series of smaller pastures allow the Ruffattos to run their cattle in small, manageable herds - fed, bred and sorted by their breeding and age.

"It's also a great advantage to be able to watch how the cows are doing all the time," says Tom.

Irrigation makes the system possible. The key is a century-old reservoir located nine miles deep in the mountains. Streams and ditches deliver the water to the ranch, where a network of ditches disperses it on the benches from top to bottom, catching and re-catching runoff water in a way that rivals the efficiency of sophisticated sprinkler systems.

The layout of the irrigation system is the result of decades of work by the boys' father, George, who is still active in the management of the ranch.

Sorted For Manageability About half the Ruffattos' mature cows are Angus/Hereford cross cows and are bred to Charolais bulls to produce "terminal" calves for the feeder market. This set of cows is sorted into groups by age - two-, three- and four-year olds and the older cows.

The other half, which are sorted into groups of straight Hereford and straight Angus, are bred to Angus or Hereford bulls, respectively. Replacements are selected from those herds.

Replacement heifers are ranch-developed and treated with care. They are given every opportunity to breed and rebreed. Close attention is paid to feeding an adequate growing ration, and minerals are fed based on liver biopsy analysis, along with hay, forage and soil analysis.

Even the first-calf heifers lead an easier life than on some operations.

"We breed the heifers and first-calf heifers a heat period later than the older cows," Tom explains. "And, we wean the calves from the first-calf heifers a month before we wean the calves from the older cows. In the long run they make better cows because they don't get pulled down at all. In the end, they're bigger and in better shape than if we try to push them too much."

The calves from those young females are fed a commercial grower ration at the ranch and later sold with the rest of the calves.

"They catch up real fast, and at the price of calves today at least, we can afford to put some money into them," Cliff says.

Speaking of money, Bob Miller, an independent cattle buyer operating out of the Sioux Falls, SD, stockyards, has been buying Ruffatto calves for the past three years.

"These people raise some of the best conventional feeder calves you're going to find," he says. "They're well muscled, hardy cattle. They're uniform across the board, and they are predictable." Miller credits the Ruffattos' close breeding management for the performance of the calves.

"George and the boys keep good track of their breeding - they're in control of the cattle from beginning to end," adds Miller. "In this business, predictability is everything. And the calves off that ranch are what they look like they will be. The breeding is very deep. There are no wild calves, yet they don't pamper their cattle either."

The Ruffattos have a rule - if any cow is "handled" twice for any reason during calving, she goes down the road. Meanwhile, however, the Ruffattos maintain a set of old "granny" cows that have been sorted off and held back for breeding. Come spring, they'll serve a useful purpose.

"If we need to graft a calf onto a younger cow, we can pick a calf from the granny bunch," says Tom. "That way the calves fit right in, and we can keep a closed herd and not worry about bringing in any disease problems."

Crossing The Scales With the close attention to management comes the need for information on individual performance. And, the most valuable tool for both herd or individual management is a set of scales, Cliff says.

"The scales make us more money than any piece of equipment on the ranch," he says. "We weigh every animal on the ranch, and some cows will cross the scales quite a few times throughout her life."

Most years, the Ruffattos background a portion of their calves, which are weighed at several points - once when coming in, twice a month when on feed and when they go out.

The Ruffattos are believers in the importance of preconditioning calves. "Vaccinating and worming is money well spent for us - it gives the buyer a leg up and keeps him coming back," says Tom.

"We also wean in small groups and we can come pretty close to knowing which bull is responsible for a particular calf," he adds. "It's almost like hand-breeding."

The Ruffattos say they haven't retained ownership on their calves up to this point, but feel they're well positioned to fit a particular marketing or end-point plan.

"Because of the way we are set up we can do a little more to adjust our production than if we were running in larger groups," concludes Tom. "This gives us a lot of flexibility, and we really owe it to how we've fit management to where we live."