Rarely do you find someone so enthusiastic and articulate about a subject that spending time with them almost wears you out. That's what you'd discover, however, after visiting Kathy and Bob Lee, Judith Gap, MT. They have almost a crusade-like affection for stewardship that's just plain inspiring. But as Bob regularly says of their efforts, "We're just having fun."
As 1996 National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) national stewardship winners, the Lee's practice what they preach. Their approach to stewardship permeates every facet of their 400-cow, 13,500-acre ranch at the base of the Big Snowy Mountains.
In The Beginning When they started building the Robert E. Ranch Company in 1967, the operation consisted of 880 acres of overgrazed, worn out pastures and hayland. Since those days the ranch has grown in size and rangeland responsibility.
"We're very fortunate. We took a raw piece of ground and had a vision to make it more functional," says Bob.
Water development has been the single most important element of the ranching operation. Since taking over, the Lees have built 13 water-storage tanks, mostly gravity fed by underground springs, which help them distribute cattle to make the best use of their grass resource.
By being able to supply fresh water - designed to draw cattle away from riparian areas - the Lees have been able to increase stocking rates and say it's led to higher weaning weights. "Cattle now go to water tanks and don't even go near the creek," Bob says. "We like to supply water in carefully positioned tanks so cattle don't walk off the pounds."
The Lees' Angus cows are now weaning calves 250 lbs. heavier than when they first purchased the ranch. However, implanting and improved genetics play an important role, too.
After developing water sources, the Lees redesigned pastures to make optimal use of rangeland. "Distribution of cattle is the name of the game," Bob says. "It takes 10 dimes to make a dollar and managing each of those 10 dimes toward that end goal of being sustainable and taking care of resources is what it's all about."
The Lees' "10 Dimes In A Dollar"
* Set short- and long-term goals that are achievable.
* Actively measure and monitor all aspects of the ranch.
* Work within environmental limitations rather than against them.
* Establish lowest acceptable standards of the rangeland.
* Use grazing strategies that enhance water and riparian areas.
* Closely monitor wintering costs, striving for lowest cost without sacrificing performance.
* Involve agencies and organizations that provide off-ranch information (NRCS, MSU Extension Service, etc.).
* Work to maintain a solid reputation and produce a quality product.
* Work together with family to ensure both economic and social sustainability on the ranch.
* Strive to ensure the ranch will be passed to the next generation.
Ultimately, the Lees range enhancement program has meant dividing 15 pastures into 24 that are in a constant rotation system. Never are pastures left dormant for an entire year. Nor, are any pastures on their central Montana ranch ever grazed season long. "Some pastures are allowed to go to seed. Then we turn cows in and they stomp the seed into the ground. It's a little thing, but it works," says Bob.
"Eventually, we may split more of our pastures," says Bob. "We're starting to use more high-tensile electric fence. It costs one-fourth of what regular four-wire steel fence costs. Cattle respect it and we're getting along fine." To save money, the Lees use old 111/44-in. fiberglass oil well sucker rods for electric fence posts.
Watch For Weeds The Lees constantly strive to stop weed encroachment. In fact, they're able to keep weeds in check by their non-stop "windshield survey" of rangeland. When weeds are identified, they hand spray. "We also take notes on our range conditions and try to figure out what we can do better. It's hard to know where you're going if you don't know where you've been," Bob says. "We want grass growing, not bare spots. If it's bare, mother nature will put something there that we don't want."
To help monitor their forage base, the Lees regularly photograph areas of the ranch to check grass growth, weeds and riparian areas. That helps them analyze conditions and make better management decisions.
To help them monitor, they pattern their program after the book: Monitoring For Success, produced in cooperation with leading grazing, cattlemen's and conservation associations.
All pastures are inventoried and are in good to excellent condition. Native species, like bluebunch wheatgrass and green needlegrass, are the backbone of their forage base. In addition, they have hayland, mostly orchardgrass and pubescent wheatgrass with alfalfa, that produces about 2 tons/acre dryland. Rainfall averages 18 in./year. Hay ground stays in production 8-9 years and then is tilled and rotated into their 3,000-acre base of wheat and barley.
"We test all our hay in the fall so we know its protein value. That way, we can use different hay stacks at different times of the year," Bob says. "If we just need to maintain a cow, we can do that. If we need to bring her plane of nutrition up a little, we can do that, too."
The 5,600 ft.-elevation ranch is crisscrossed by 4-5 miles of perennial streams, including Neil Creek, Timber Creek, Blake Creek, West Fork Blake Creek and Galloway Creek. Some of the riparian areas along the creeks are used for a short time in the spring when pairs are turned out after calving. After grazing, they're rested and generally are not grazed again that season.
"They're (riparian areas) really the heart of rangeland because they preserve water," says Bob.
Just north of the ranch's buildings, the Lees have beavers to thank for an especially helpful damming project on Blake Creek. During heavy rains the creek would wash straight through the ranch headquarters, Kathy says, causing all kinds of erosion problems.
Now, beavers have developed several small stair-step dams that control the runoff. It also helps the riparian area around the creek serve as a filter to maintain water quality.
The abundant growth of shrubs and trees in riparian areas provide excellent protection for cattle in winter and for young calves in spring. Although Bob says it's hard to put a price tag on their value, it's "just part of good range practice."
Share Ideas The Lees aren't alone in their progressive ideas to develop and manage rangeland. Since participating in the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) program to learn how to extend their grazing season, they've also helped start a grazing group comprised of local ranchers.
"If we have a concern, we get a resource person in," says Kathy of their three-year-old group. "At first we had to ask resource people to come. Now, they're asking us to come in and talk. Other groups are now organizing throughout Montana, too."
Besides the local grazing group, the Lees regularly host grazing tours from across the country. "We like sharing ideas. Kathy and I find a lot of value in that," says Bob.
And share they do. "They're one of our first choices when we need to select an example of producers doing an excellent job of environmental stewardship. They're great because they're willing to tell, even shout, about their accomplishments," says Rae Price, manager of NCBA's spokesperson development.
The Lees are big believers in testing grasses for performance on their own ranch conditions to see if they'll fit into their grazing program. Since spring pasture and fall grazing is something they'd like to improve, they're trying to determine how best to do just that.
In 1996 they set aside 60 acres of grassland to use for test plots. With help from the GLCI range and pasture group and the local FFA chapter, they've planted different grass varieties at different row spacings, seeding rates and interseeding schemes. Bozoisky wildrye, trailhead basin wildrye, altai wildrye and spreader III alfalfa were just four of the varieties tested.
After two years of monitoring, the Lees believe the performance of Bozoisky wildrye will be their best grass choice to extend their grazing season in the fall.
If you're looking for a quality, late fall grass, Bozoisky is North Dakota State University rangeland specialist Kevin Sedivec's choice, too. "It's not the highest producing grass from a tonnage standpoint, but it has by far the best quality of the grasses we've tested," he says.
So next spring, the Lees plan to till 160 wheat acres and seed two 80-acre pastures of Bozoisky wildrye. For best results, Bob plans on seeding with an air drill in 18-20-in. rows. Later, they'll divide those pastures with high-tensile electric wire for additional pasture rotation.