The Montana Ranch Adventure
May 11, 2017
Third generation rancher, William Kougl, and his wife Justine, are determined to succeed in the sometimes challenging business of production agriculture. Like so many young producers getting established in the cattle industry, the Kougls have spent the last decade diversifying, expanding, moving, transitioning, rebuilding and innovating in order to find a path for prosperity.
The Kougl Ranch is nestled in the gorgeous Wolf Mountains near Lodge Grass, Mont., and after some trial and error, as well as some unexpected hardships, William and Justine have finally planted firm roots in the forest of the wild Montana frontier. Their passion for agriculture and their love of family motivates them to weather any storm, and they manage to do it with grace and smiles on their faces.
"We met at South Dakota State University where I was studying economics and business, and William was studying range management," said Justine Kougl. "We got married in 2008 and moved to William's parents' ranch near Timber Lake, S.D. We started working to expand the existing registered Angus cow-calf business and building the bull program to support a second family."
Joining Albert and Deleen Kougl, the young married couple looked for ways to improve upon the family business. Both Deleen and Justine worked off the ranch for added revenue streams, but diversifying was the next step in adding to their ranching portfolio.
“We are very fortunate to live on this ranch and be in a leadership role where we now own it and can make the necessary improvements for it to grow. We couldn’t have done it without Deleen and Albert, and we are very grateful. They consider the loan to us a savings account for a portion of their retirement, and we finally closed on the ranch loan in February 2017. In the past couple of years, we’ve added RV hookups, camping and trail riding as added income.” Justine Kougl
"We worked with a Albert and a neighbor to acquire two quarters of land, and we built a home two miles away from the ranch," said Kougl. "That same year, we bought South Devon bulls to breed our commercial cows to, and we also invested in sheep. These decisions turned out really well for us with a good return in a short span of time."
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While expanding their ranching enterprise, the Kougls began expanding their family, as well. Nora was born in 2011 during an April blizzard.
"In perfect ranching fashion, we were not only expecting our first baby to be born, but we were also busy lambing and calving out 100 bred heifers in April," said Kougl. "I was still working for Farm Service Agency at that time, too, so there was a lot happening all at once."
By the time their second son Cody was born in November 2012, the Kougls had dispersed the sheep herd and were starting to dream of a life a little further west.
"While I was on maternity leave with Cody, we decided to travel to Montana to look at a few ranches," said Kougl. "William had always talked about wanting to ranch in the mountains of Montana, so we called up a realtor and looked at several ranches in the area. At that point in our lives, I was 28 and William was 31, and the realtor probably thought we were crazy looking at these multi-million dollar ranches."
During this time, the Kougls had been running their entire cowherd on tribal land near Timber Lake. They had discussed farming to diversify their operation further, but William wasn't one to sit in the tractor for days on end. They were looking for their next step and felt like a big leap of faith could pay off huge in the long run.
"It was the downturn of the cattle market. We were in a drought, and things were just ugly in the livestock business," said Kougl. "We were looking to do something different to benefit the operation and better support our family. At this point, our land was pretty much paid off, and we thought we might be able to use the Timber Lake ranch as collateral for something in Montana."
After getting approved for a $2.5 million loan and realizing it wouldn't even touch the $6 million ranches they had fallen in love with in Montana, they put those dreams on the back burner, but a twist of fate brought the idea back to the forefront very quickly.
"We lost our pasture lease for 2013," said Kougl. "This was devastating news because that was our entire summer pasture, plus where we put up all of our winter hay. Our heads were spinning as we tried to figure out what our next step was. We were fairly landlocked in Timber Lake, so we decided to rent out our pastures to area farmers to be used for crops and we started looking out west once again."
William and Albert had their eyes on a ranch near Lodge Grass. It was higher up in the mountains with plenty of moisture and ample grass to run cattle on it.
"They were pretty sold on the place, but Deleen and I weren't so sure," she said. "We both had our jobs; we had just built a new house; and we had two kids! This would be a huge change from the family ranch William's grandfather Alfred had established near Timber Lake."
After a road trip to visit the place, Deleen and Justine quickly realized why their spouses had fallen in love with the place.
"It was gorgeous, and production levels made it really lucrative to run cattle here," she said. "We couldn't run cattle here year-round because of the snowfall, so we decided to try contracting yearlings on the place. We persuaded the banker with our business plan and secured the place. It was extremely difficult without a huge downpayment, so we collateralized both ranches in order to get the ranch."
In 2013, the young Kougl family officially moved to the ranch out west, and Justine started her blog, The Montana Ranch Adventure, to keep family and friends back home — seven hours away — updated on their big move.
"It was difficult to explain to our family that we wanted to leave the family ranch and try something on our own so far away," she said. "My in-laws planned to join us and retire in Montana when Deleen was ready to quit her job in the medical field, so at this point, we were on our own out there — no support system, no friends and family, just the newbies in the mountains. We had a lot to learn in that first year. The mountains are much different than the plains of South Dakota!"
Justine says their marriage became stronger then ever having to rely on solely on each other to run the ranch, take care of the kids and work together on their goals. She found employment with a non-profit organization, The Keya Foundation, which allowed her to work from home and be with the kids, as well as bring in extra cash flow while they made this huge investment in production agriculture.
Things were going well on the new ranch, but in the winter of 2014, the unthinkable happened.
"In February 2014, our 1970s modular home that we had moved into on the ranch burned down," she said. "We managed to get ourselves, our kids and the dog out of the house before the flames took the whole thing. It burned fast and hard, and by the time the fire trucks got there, the entire house was gone."
Despite losing all of their personal belongings, they were thankful to be alive. The fire department managed to save a small bunkhouse that sat next to the trailer house, and the family of four moved in to start anew once again.
"It was basically a one-room bunkhouse with a bathroom; William and Albert quickly put together a small kitchenette while the kids and I stayed in Bismarck with my parents for a few weeks," said Justine. "Living in the bunkhouse was a great bonding experience, but we needed space for our growing family."
By then, they had sold the new home in Timber Lake, and the insurance on the old trailer house didn't add up to much, so the Kougls decided to build their own log cabin on the ranch, with the help of friends and family.
"We took 9-10 months to shop for sales; everything in my house was on clearance or found at a rummage sale or thrift shop," she said. "We did what we had to do to make things work. The house is still under construction, but we were able to move in by January 2015, and the odds and ends projects are saved for quiet winter days. The cattle and the ranch come first and take priority for us."
Running yearlings turned out to be a smart business decision for the Kougls, but they wanted to further diversify, so they added short-term bred cows to the mix.
"We have the yearlings and the grannies," she said. "We also plan to add private treaty horse sales to the business because unlike back home where we can use four-wheelers, we pretty much exclusively use horses up here in the mountains."
By the summer of 2014, Albert and Deleen had moved out to the ranch and were living in the bunkhouse. Everything was running smoothly, with grandparents around to help with the kids, and the ranching business really starting to take off. The elder couple sold the Timber Lake place in 2015. Then fate struck again with another unexpected twist.
"I had a really healthy pregnancy in 2015, and our daughter Quinn was born that November," said Kougl. "Our whole world was rocked when she was born and couldn't breathe. She surprised us all with having Treacher Collins (TC) syndrome."
TC syndrome is a congenital disorder characterized by facial deformities, typically involving the ears, eyes, cheekbones, and jawbone. Quinn spent six weeks in the NICU in Denver and doctors told them she would need a feeding tube, breathing tube and hearing aids, as well as multiple surgeries throughout her life.
"After Quinn was born, the ranch kind of began transitioning in a lot of ways with hard decisions to be made," said Kougl. "We weren't on the loan for the Montana ranch, but we were on the deed, and in December 2016, Albert and Deleen offered to sell us the place and officially retire from ranching. Much of the note had already been paid down from the sale of the ranch in South Dakota, and to get the loan, we maxed out what we could with the land in Montana and the two quarters of land William and I owned still in Timber Lake and bought out the rest."
Officially retired, Albert told William all he hoped for was that his son could succeed in this business. With the sale of the ranch, he offered the young Kougl family a no-interest loan to help with the addition of the short-term cows to the business while Albert and Deleen tour the country.
"Farm transitioning is so tough, and it can be messy, and it often happens too late," said Kougl. "We are very fortunate to live on this ranch and be in a leadership role where we now own it and can make the necessary improvements for it to grow. We couldn't have done it without Deleen and Albert, and we are very grateful. They consider the loan to us a savings account for a portion of their retirement, and we finally closed on the ranch loan in February 2017. In the past couple of years, we've added RV hookups, camping and trail riding as added income."
Kougl said agri-tourism has been an added revenue stream, and they know if times really get tough, they can consider logging, as well. Ultimately, her advice for other young couples is communicate with the older generation, get advice from an estate planner and accountant, be willing to make financial sacrifices, live within your means and face hardships by staying positive together.
In agriculture, there will always be curveballs," she said. "A storm like the Atlas blizzard or the fires in Colorado, you never know what unexpected hurdles you'll have to jump. We've had a lot of struggles over the years, but we've learned to have a positive attitude and find happiness where ever we are in the moment. Ranching isn't easy, but it's a wonderful life, and it's our passion. We continue to push ourselves as a couple to see what we can accomplish together. I encourage young producers to take risks and make adjustments as needed. Find something your passionate about and just go for it."