5L Ranch pushes the limits in Big Sky country – Larry & Lisa Mehlhoff
January 17, 2017
At the end of May, Lisa Mehlhoff had a stroke and was life-flighted to Billings. She had been recovering, but recently suffered another setback. Here is the story of the initial stroke from her Caringbridge site, written by one of her kids.
Hello everyone, as many of you know Mom had a stroke late Sunday morning. She had dropped Dad off at another vehicle and went to help an elderly neighbor couple weed-eat their yard and move water. Dad had returned to the house and was mowing the lawn until around 1. He. Then went to study for church. He got to the church about 2:45. The suburban she was driving was not there. He got that bad feeling something was wrong. He tried calling and texting Mom with no response. People started showing up to church. He had a horrible time playing the organ because all he could think about was Mom. He put his mic on and walked to the front. Just as he did his phone rang it said no caller ID. He said I have to take this and stepped outside. It was an officer and he asked what his wife's name was. Dad said Lisa. He asked if she was on Silver Springs Road and he answered yes. The officer said she has been found laying in an irrigation ditch. Dad hung up and went back in the church and told everyone to pray. He prayed with everyone before he left. He called us kids on the way to the hospital to let us know what he knew.
The neighbors she was helping hadn't seen her in a while and went looking for her and found her lying by the ditch with her feet in the water. When the ambulance got there her temp was 95F. Dad beat the ambulance back to the hospital. But as soon as they got there they did a CT scan. They found out it was a bleeder and said that she needed a life flight.
As soon as Dad heard that he asked to be on the flight. They kept telling him it is up to the pilot. They weighed him and finally the pilot said he could go. If he had weighed one more pound he wouldn’t have been allowed on. Just before they took Mom they let us see her. We really didn't think she would make the flight to Billings. So we were so glad that they were letting Dad go with her. She didn't respond at all at that point in time and she was just shaking from being so cold. After the helicopter took off all of us kids loaded up and headed to Billings not really knowing if she would be alive when we got there. The whole way there we spread the word and asked people to pray. The Lord is amazing and answered so many prayers. She was way better when she got to Billings than when she left Sheridan. The updates will continue on Mom’s progress.
Maybe those seven massive Montana mountain ranges surrounding 5L Ranch headquarters encourage patriarch Larry Mehlhoff's instinctive drive to "push back" at every boundary. Whatever his inspiration, the man admits "We've been a little before our time. I guess I'd rather be cutting edge, maybe sometimes on the bleeding edge…."
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Traversing the boundaries of Red Angus tradition as willingly as he rides a good horse across the Ruby River to begin the climb into the Gravelly Mountain range, Larry is ever anticipating the view from the next high ridge. "More than 15 years ago we brought in some black genetics. That was not popular then in Red Angus, but we saw the gene pool as fenced in, and this allowed us to be outside of it," he says. "In bringing in homozygous blacks we felt we could allow even the breed, and ourselves in particular, to discover something. We have a lot of cattle to work with, and understand it's hard for a small breeder to introduce something like this because of the transition time involved."
Larry's modest "a lot of cattle to work with" translates to the largest herd of Red Angus in the country. Their website reports, "Our average contemporary group size is several times larger than most purebred cow herds in their entirety. We breed and calve out over 600 heifers annually… tremendous selection pressure on our mature cows. In addition to culling slow breeders or undesirable udders, feet, or disposition, the large influx of new genetics forces our cow herd to stay relevant versus genetic trends." That's just their Red Angus mamas – 5L Ranch also raises Black Red-Angus carriers, purebred Charolais, Char-Red and Sim-Angus crossbreeds, so they annually breed nearly 2,000 females, and then pair those cattle out to grass.
"We faced a fair amount of resistance," Larry says about his black genetic experimenting, "and a lot of other difficulties. EPDs from blacks at that time just came in at zero's… you would just average the cow… When we initiated that move, I made a pact we would wait at least ten years before I would move away from it. It was around year six or seven that we started to see a lot of remarkable response, and benefit in our gene pool as well. I think that would be one management decision that's made a big difference."
Difference is good at the 5L Ranch, where adaptability is a huge keyword. "Maybe, like Thomas Edison learned, there's not really anything that doesn't work – we just find a better way to do it. Disappointments at the time can turn into huge successes later so it's important for us to look at every situation with a sense of opportunity. Utilize the time of reflection, and allow ourselves the time to find good in a situation or challenge– like drought," Larry says. "Where we live right now–one of the most resilient and steady countries we've ever been in — drought or feed cost challenges can still be astronomical. When you work your way through that challenged financial aspect, your genetic base becomes a lot more adaptive. A key word to us is adaptability. We are so heavily leased in diverse places our cattle may not even go to the same pasture site twice. That diversity helps create genetics that are adaptable – it has helped us through challenges — many ranchers aren't able to do that."
"I always feel adversity improves adaptability," Larry says. "We sell cattle in diverse places — across the southeast, Alabama, Georgia, up in Maryland, all over – and it is our goal to have cattle which, given a right adaptation protocol, will thrive anywhere. It's done from necessity here . . . we have such a variety of summer country, some east of Great Falls, some around Phillipsburg with lots of timber and wolf and predator challenges; pasture around West Yellowstone, near Lame Deer 350 miles from here, and some cattle came home from Pinedale, Wyoming high country mid-November, barely ahead of a pretty big blizzard there," he says.
"As we find scattered and varied resources to manage our big herd, it just adds to their adaptability. We graze out as much as we can, like some winter pasture south of Dillon on Horse Prairie where no cattle run in the summer. We can utilize those high-lignin dry forages with low input, the cow just needs protein to be able to break that down," he says.
The ranch's name comes from their brand, derived from the first letter in the first names of Mehlhoff family members – Larry's dad Lawrence, mom Lillian, siblings Linda and Lenny and Larry himself. Since he married Lisa Stands in 1983 another 5L generation has grown up, including Laramie, Larisa, Landon, Larinda, and Logan. Eldest son Laramie and youngest son Logan are both single and involved with the ranch, where Laramie enjoys taking the lead in farming, machinery and technology. Middle son Landon is the only one not at the ranch, currently living at Colorado Springs with his wife, Amy, and two children. Larisa and her husband Zack Oldenberger both actively work on the ranch as do Larinda and her husband David Alborn, who now have their first child.
The original Mehlhoff herd transplanted from North Dakota with Lawrence and Lillian, a Red Angus nucleus in a generational Shorthorn and commercial cattle family. The 5L website explains, "In 1977, they purchased a few registered Red Angus and moved to Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, Montana. In 1979, they purchased the Centurion Cattle Co. Red Angus herd from Nebraska. Their son, Larry, purchased some Red Angus females after graduating from high school in 1979 and started his own herd of reds. When Lawrence was forced to sell out in 1985, Larry purchased some of his cattle as well. Since then, Larry has expanded using an extensive A.I. program and retaining most of the heifer calves."
Now headquartered out of Sheridan, Montana in the Ruby River valley, Larry never stops looking for ways to further expand, saying "We're pleased to see our customer base widen. We've tried to do that through various means, like holding two sales. The February and March calves are marketed as yearlings in the spring, then our April and May calves are sold in the fall and our bulls at 18 months meet people's service needs." A popular feature of the fall sale is the 5L "Ranchers' Reserve" Bred Heifer Sale, which this year featured more than 400 commercial bred heifers from 5L bull customers.
"We've learned that, although there's a little crossover, we mostly get a totally different customer base between the two sales," Larry says. "We see those customers looking for different solutions, like how to capture more value from a moderate-sized cow — the Opti-Bull composite from Charolais with Red Angus, with several customers loving the results.
"We are building the Charolais herd but will probably not exceed 200 straight white. Three or four years ago we began anticipating some of our customers' needs in advance enough that we have something to offer," Larry says. That's how the Opti-Bull program came to pass, combining the beneficial breed differences of Red Angus (superior fertility, cow herd longevity, calving ease and superior carcass quality) with economically relevant Charolais traits (feed conversion, post-weaning gain, carcass weight and yield grade.) The website explains, "In selecting Charolais genetics to make Opti-Bulls, 5L seeks high marbling, high maternal sires that also excel in the post-weaning traits Charolais are known for – and mandate they come in a moderate-framed, deep-ribbed package with lots of shape."
"I'm a very challenge-oriented kind of a fella, believing everything we've learned today – even if it didn't turn out the way you wanted it — may allow you to look into another room you've never even seen," Larry says. "Inclusion of ultrasound technology 15–20 years ago for carcass evaluation was another big innovation. We took it very seriously, and were able to maneuver through that hallway, initiating that technology early on."
Another of those "new rooms" Larry's been exploring is through the Airdrie, Alberta company GrowSafe, which operates on the premise, "You can't manage what you can't measure." Their scientists and engineers have developed advanced data acquisition systems for livestock research and practical automation tools for livestock producers to ensure animal health and well-being while maximizing profitability.
"This one is the newest, and is going to be very advantageous – allowing selection pressures to be implemented," Larry says. "It's moving people forward to minimize feed costs and discover how we can most effectively turn forage into beef. I expect it to result in increased carrying capacities for our pastures."
The 5L Red Angus website explains, "Recently we've invested in a GrowSafe system large enough to capture individual intake and calculate feed conversion on every bull marketed at 5L – plus the bulk of our replacement females." Larry calls the major investment with GrowSafe "the beginning of the next frontier" and says, "It's only one year behind us and we haven't made a lot of selection decisions yet. I want to have a pretty good understanding of what we're learning before we do that, but just having the data available is a good place to start. In five years I'm hoping to see improvements on forage-only diet measurements for replacement heifers, with marked differences in efficiency."
All those solidly immovable mountain ranges keep the edge-riding 5L Ranch from tumbling into infinity, but little else remains still. You'd think all the cattle, all the research, all the moving to and from lease grazing would be all the Mehlhoff clan could handle. Not so — they also farm, some 3,000 acres of irrigated ground (much of it leased) in wheat, barley, grass/alfalfa hay mix, as well as a soil-building mix of oats, peas and barley, which they chop to for silage. Beyond that Larry adds, "We also do a fair amount of custom harvesting, forage harvesting, and custom spraying around the region."
The industry is a good fit for this family that looks at a challenge and sees opportunity, pushing the limits and scaling the mountains, whether the physical ones right outside their door or the or the metaphorical ones the industry is perpetually presenting.