Star X Ranch: Tradition, Technology, and Family
August 30, 2013
In 1908, when Ernest C. and Ora Stark arrived in Montana, they brought with them tools Ernest had made in his Minnesota blacksmith shop. His hand-forged items were stamped with a Star-X hallmark, which when read aloud sounds like "Stark's." Five generations later, it's still a viable mark. It's the registered brand of the Star X Ranch, home to Vern "Turk" and Toni Stark, Baker, MT.
Turk is a grandson of Ernest C., the son of Ernest B. "Ernie" and Adeline Stark. Ernie made the journey in utero from Hawley, MN, to what is now Fallon County, MT, near Ollie. He was born in November in the family's dugout, where his parents rigged up a basket above the cook stove to keep him warm. The original homestead is still in the family, although not a part of Turk and Toni's ranch. Ernest C.'s and Ora's second home is contained within the walls of the house where Turk and his sister Doris Thelen were raised. Doris and her husband, Dan, ranch north of Plevna, MT.
"There were seven kids in Dad's family," Turk said. "Dad and one brother tried to hold onto as much of the place as they could. Dad put together his own outfit here where we live. He gathered wild horses and trained and sold them as teams to help pay for the place. It got bigger; they lost some in the 30s."
Ernest C. and Ora came west intent on acquiring land through the Homestead Act. Unloading their possessions from an immigrant car in Beach, ND, they traveled by foot – hauling their belongings in a wagon – and driving a small herd of cattle approximately 30 miles to the site Ernest had selected.
“There were seven kids in Dad’s family. Dad and one brother tried to hold onto as much of the place as they could. Dad put together his own outfit here where we live. He gathered wild horses and trained and sold them as teams to help pay for the place. It got bigger; they lost some in the 30s.”
–Vern “Turk” Stark
"Those early cattle were a milk strain," Turk said. "My grandfather was a preacher, revivalist, and schoolteacher who would be away during the week. The kids provided the labor for the dairy. They also raised calves and used and sold oxen.
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"My dad farmed a bit but didn't like it much. He loved horses and ran straight Herefords. The only ID on a cow was the brand. The markings on those Herefords helped tell one cow from another, but eventually we went to hot-iron number branding."
In 1983, wanting a bigger, more efficient animal, the Starks progressed to Salers. Today, as Turk said, "Black is beautiful. We're raising a Saler-Black Angus cross. We get an occasional red one. They're good moms; they protect their calves from coyotes. That's important where we calve out in the open. We check them, but the calves have got to get up and move. We cull for disposition and mothering ability. If a cow loses a calf because she didn't take care of it, we'll cull her."
Turk and Toni – a registered nurse – credit their son, Judd, daughter, Amanda, and son-in-law Jay Berg for many of the technological advances taking place on the ranch. "Judd was the one who suggested we switch from small squares to big round bales. We've gone from a herd of milk-strain cows to selecting bulls by performance stats, to culling with technological computations," Turk quipped. "Toni and I are evolving to where we can get around on a computer, but our kids are the ones who really know how to use them."
Judd Stark, an environmental engineer, lives in Billings, MT, with his wife, Tawny, and daughter, Kate. He owns Catena Consulting, an environmental consulting service that conducts environmental studies and reviews, handles project permitting and impact mitigation, and does reclamation planning for mines and wind towers. Judd is in charge of the technical paperwork for the ranch and lends a hand with major work projects such as branding. Toni finds it reassuring to be able to call Judd to double check on the status of something at any given time.
Daughter, Amanda Berg, is the NRCS District Conservationist in Hettinger, ND. She maintains the herd records and makes culling decisions. Turk noted that she was instrumental in setting up and documenting their grazing rotations years ago. Their national grassland allotments have the longest-running photo plot history of any allotment.
"We're able to prove that the range is in better condition now than it was before we started our grazing management practices," Turk explained. "The photos are proof of our management. I tell people that we're in the business of raising grass. We use cattle to harvest it."
Amanda's husband, Jay, runs Berg's A.I. Service based in Bowman, ND. The couple has two children, Grady and Ericka, and run cattle with Turk and Tony. Jay is responsible for synchronizing the heifers for breeding, selecting the bulls, and insemination. When there's a lull in his schedule, you'll find him at the ranch, that includes during calving. Heifers calve the last week of February, ahead of the cows that start March 15.
Bulls are with the cows for 30 days, which Turk said cost them some numbers in the beginning. We constantly monitor the bulls and will pull one for anything that might lessen the chance of him settling cows.
In addition to their deeded acres, they run cattle on the Little Missouri Grazing Association headquartered in Amidon, ND. In all, they have 3800 AUMs. "The number of cattle we run varies depending on the forage and the market," Turk explained. "We've got a lot of crested wheat that we couldn't utilize with pairs, so we incorporated yearlings. We sell our steers in the fall and retain our heifers. We'll buy grass cattle between October and December and put them in a local feedlot. Come May 15, they're turned out on the grass. They're sold in August."
Running cattle in two states has its challenges. Turk said, "It's easier to get cattle into Canada than from Montana into North Dakota. Our neighbors are in the same situation. We're not unique."
Neighbors. Turk Stark uses the word frequently but not casually. "None of us would last if not for good neighbors and friends – and you've got to be them too. The older we get, the more we need young neighbors. Sooner or later you're going to need a hand. I don't want to go through life without friends and neighbors."
Keeping those friendships in good repair, Turk makes a concerted effort to return a day's work offered during branding. "From the middle of May through June, we'll go to 16 or 17 brandings. We don't golf or go on cruises. Branding is our golfing. Some people think it's foolish that we're gone that much, but it's a tradition we're committed to holding on to."
The ranch was incorporated when Ernie and Adeline began the transition of turning management over to Turk and Toni. Ernie passed away in 1981. Turk said, "Dad believed, as I do, that the ranch needs to be passed on to the next generation. I don't plan on it being sold in my lifetime, but I also don't want to dictate to our children that they have to take it. I'll step back, but setting in the house or moving to Arizona aren't appealing to me."
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