‘Til the Cows Come Home

Over 30 years ago, when I added a flour mill to our Montana Flour & Grains business and started traveling during the winter to attend food shows and visit customers, I reluctantly made the decision to sell our cattle and rent our pastures to the neighbors. At the time, we had no hired help during the winter and my wife was not interested in caring for the cows during the cold winter days while I was traveling. So, for the first time since my grandfather started our farm in 1920, Quinn Farm & Ranch no longer maintained cattle. That was 32 years ago and a year prior to my conversion to organic. Now, as an organic farmer of more than three decades with a better appreciation for the important roles that large animals can play in organic systems, we reintroduced cattle into our organic operation.

Bringing cows back to the farm this summer would not have been possible without Chad, who came to work for us from a large cattle ranch in Geraldine, Montana. He not only had the ability and experience to handle them but he also has a great interest in building a herd of his own. I was very supportive of his interest because I know that cows, and livestock in general, provide a number of valuable components to an organic operation. Perhaps the most obvious is soil fertility with manure. But there’s also weed management with grazing. And we hope to reduce, if not eliminate, volunteer growth as well as reduce tillage which leaves more stubble to lessen erosion and hold moisture.

Rather than start with the huge overhead investment of purchasing a cow herd outright, Chad worked with a couple local ranchers who let us “rent” several pairs (mothers and their calves) to come graze on our farm for the summer on shares, which means we split the profits. Initially we had discussed getting ten pairs from a friend of Chad’s in Geraldine but another opportunity bumped that number to 60 pairs when they arrived in early June.

In between a busy spring planting season, which included a special multi-species cover crop just for the incoming herd, Seth and Chad repaired fencing and built a corral down in a nearby coulee where we used to calve our mother cows early each spring. Since we’re out on the dry open plains of northern Montana, we also had to make arrangements to provide clean drinking water.

What we didn’t, and couldn’t, plan for was the drought. Shortly after the cows arrived in June we saw one last rainfall until the middle of September. Long weeks of record-high heat made the cows irritable and the special multi-species cover crop we’d planted didn’t grow like we’d hoped, though it did provide a few extra weeks of forage before we had to move them. And as any cattle rancher can attest to, fencing makes all the difference. Despite Seth and Chad’s dedicated repair work, there were several instances over the summer where Chad and Seth, and even my son-in-law, Andrew, from The Oil Barn®, had to go cow wrangling. As a result, most of the cows had to be returned earlier than anticipated.

As with any experiment, especially in regards to nature, the first time is rarely a roaring success. We plan to try again next summer with a few new ideas and a lot more prayers for moisture in the interim.