ALL IN A DAY’S WORK: Bev Fryer is Montana’s Ranch Woman of the Year
for Tri-State Livestock News
Sights, smells and senses of all seasons make this job a year-round pleasure
It’s January at the Castle Mountain Ranch, and the wind whistles through the veil of snow that has crystalized the mountain slopes and valley sides. The mountain’s vastness looms large in the frigid cold. Boots clank on the wood floors of the barn as the crew prepares their horses to feed cattle. The bright, meticulously painted barn exterior – and corresponding scarlet snow fences and out buildings – are colorful beacons on white, blustery days.
This time of year, Bev Fryer drives the cake truck while her husband Ed Fryer drives a team with the hay wagon. They’ll preg-check the 1,600-some mamas-to-be on the ranch, then trail them up Sheep Creek where the winter hay source is closer for daily horse-powered feedings.
“We’ve been here since 1998; so Ed manages and I just work for him, basically,” Bev watches out over the hay meadow panorama that unfolds outside her living room window. “I’m one of those ‘jack of all trades,’ you know?”
The hay wagon takes top priority in these months, as they watch the cattle to keep them in good condition before calving in the Montana cold.
“You see, Ed was honored as the Teamster of the year,” Bev picks up the plaque from the Montana Draft Teamster Hall of Fame. “So we both had some nice little moments this year,” she smiles.
She bundles up, ties a neckscarf tight, and offers one up for her company.
“That wind bites right through you,” she cautions – a warning the mother, grandmother and chore overseer has likely given thousands of times over her 40 years as Ed’s ranching “right hand man.”
She steps out their side door, trudges across the snow-packed driveway and through another tall, scarlet snow fence into the calving pens. The heifers start in late February, followed by cows in March.
There is no hesitation to name the sweetest music to her ears.
“That’s got to be my favorite sound,” she says. “When you walk into the barn and can hear the calves just going at it. The first newborns nursing at midnight. That’s a good sign. That means baby’s up and mama loves it.”
Trading off night duties with Ed on the heifers, then overseeing the pen rotations on cows take top priority in these early winter months of the year.
“Calving season will find Bev in the middle of the process, from night calving to pulling a calf and making sure it gets its mother’s first milk,” her friend Mary Ann Ballard, from Billings, Mont., wrote in a nomination letter. “She is definitely a ‘hands on’ woman.”
Daughter-in-law Heather Fryer elaborated in a similar letter: “Her job title includes cowboy ‘crewman,’ calving manager, elk hunting manager, housing and lawn maintainer, bookkeeper, secretary and wife. … You name it, she does it.”
STEPPING INTO SPRING
It’s April at the Castle Mountain Ranch, when the air is filled with Bev’s favorite scent: “Wet sagebrush,” she takes a deep breath, as if she could will the sharp, sweet scent to fill the air year-round. “It’s just fresh; refreshing, you know? And of course, there’s plenty of it around here.”
Spring also brings branding season at the White Sulpher Springs ranch, where hot iron smoke then mingles with the sagebrush aroma. The ranch begins to come alive again, slowly creeping out of Montana’s cold grips. Of course, Bev’s been bustling through it all.
“At brandings, she’ll rope, ride, brand with the hot iron and then make her crew lunch. She feeds everyone and everything,” Heather continues. “From pellets to the yearlings, scraps to the barn cats, bottled formula to the bum calves, hay to horses, and three balanced meals, including beef most times, to her husband and family. Annually, she hosts Christmas dinner, shipping parties and a branding BBQ.”
With spring turnout behind them, Bev turns her attention to the home place – spraying weeds, landscape maintenance, touchups on that brilliant red building paint, getting the houses ready for the Ward family – the ranch owners – arrival. She just likes things to look nice, which is the perfect fit for the family who has owned the Castle Mountain Ranch for more than 40 years.
“The big thing on managing these big ranches is just honesty and a good attitude,” Ed says. “There’s no excuses; you take it on, you get it done. That’s where Bev is just really good – accountability, work ethic.”
After 40 years as a ranch management team, he knows his right hand’s best attributes, and counts on her – just like the rest of their family, the ranch crew, and the owners. “She just has a work ethic like you wouldn’t believe – there is nothing that will stall her out. Whatever it takes to keep it going, that’s what she does.”
Soon, spring gives way to early summer months of freedom for Ed and Bev’s five grandchildren. She’s “a magnet to her grandkids,” Heather explains, adding that one granddaughter spends a week each summer at the ranch, “learning to ride horses, sew, cook and everything animal husbandry.” Those are the same life lessons the former 4-H leader and elementary teacher in Bev instilled in their two sons, who are both engaged in professional careers in the beef industry.
“Bev helped nurture her sons’ love of agriculture, and in doing so, created another generation of support [for the industry],” Heather says.
As summer takes over the season, the cattle are spread on grazing parcels throughout the 47,500 acres of range and pasture land – “That’s a lot of fence to take care of, that’s for sure,” Bev laughs – and the long days fade into the horizon at her favorite time of day – sunset.
“When the sun goes down – that view from up on the hill by the wood chuck pasture,” she clicks through photos she’s snapped that barely contain the smudges of warm colors captured in the Montana sky. “We’ve just got so many great vantage points here. Every angle is different, but they’re all beautiful.”
It’s July at the Castle Mountain Ranch, and the hot summer sun bakes down on music festival fans that have swarmed their tiny, usually sleepy town. The Red Ants Pants Music Festival brings thousands to a typically desolate cattle pasture in this little map dot, and Bev can’t help but want to help feed them, too.
“I’m just the grocery buyer,” she smiles. “Ed’s the master coffee maker.” She lists off the other tasks of fellow cattlewomen cooks and supporters at the now annual event. The Meagher County Cattlewomen go through 120 dozen eggs, and run out by 10:30 a.m. each day at their parking lot breakfast tent, she reports proudly. It’s a big fundraiser for the group; Bev looks forward to the 4 a.m. start time each year.
“The Cattlewomen is just an outlet to meet other women and also promote our product, teach children about beef. It’s important to maintain that network with other women,” she says. “In ranching, sometimes you can be a bit isolated. So I just enjoy meeting other women – I’ve met a lot of ranch wives that I’ve looked up to over the years.”
She was involved in the National Beef Cook-off for years, served as a former state cattlewomen president and district director and more. “I just love it,” she shrugs. “It’s fun.”
The ranch rodeos are for fun, too. As a long-time team member of the North Fork Raiders, Bev’s favorite events are the branding and team doctoring. She’ll be found on her favorite steed, Dickens.
“You know, like little Jimmy Dickens?” she laughs. “My big, black Morgan. He’s 16.5 hands tall. That fence over there makes a great little boost into the saddle.”
Of course, she also has her hand in helping organize the local ranch rodeo event in July.
Heather says she’s never met a harder-working woman than Bev. “Years ago, when I first met my future mother-in-law, I had to wonder, ‘Where does all this energy come from?’”
It’s September at the Castle Mountain Ranch.
Bev’s favorite time of year.
“Fall gathering… you just get to see the benefits of the year. Shipping yearlings, the weather’s usually nice here in the fall. It’s just a happy time,” she says. She runs the scales when it’s time to ship directly from the ranch – “less shrink, less stress on the calves,” she says – and then records all the numbers as the ranch’s head bookkeeper and recorder.
“The budgeting we do for ranches we manage – there are a lot of commercially available stuff out there these days,” Ed says. “But one owner we had, years ago, he wanted the entire budget on two pages. So we just decided Bev would invent a system to make that work, and she did. She re-created that system at home, and that’s the format we still use.”
Tracking electronic animal ID and other ranch technology fit in, too – “She’s good at computers and numbers and records, all that. She just does it all,” Ed says.
In October, hunting season opens and Bev’s job description now includes “hunting meet and greet committee.” Reservation-only hunters arrive an hour before sunrise at the meticulously clean ranch office, where they’re welcomed with her typically successful tips for locations. She watches the elk from the picture window in the living room, and enjoys their echoing bugles in the fall. Hunting provides a management tool for the ranch, and Bev provides hospitality for the hunters.
The days are getting shorter now, but Bev’s to-do list remains the same size.
It’s December at the Castle Mountain Ranch, but Ed and Bev aren’t home.
They’re at the Montana Stockgrowers Association Convention in Billings, Mont., enjoying a fine steak dinner at the Saturday evening awards banquet.
“I was just eating my dinner, talking with my friends,” she shrugs. “Taylor Brown – you know Taylor Brown, right? – Well, he was the MC that night, He was talking, talking, talking, going on about this woman. In fact, I thought he was getting a bit windy.” She laughs and shakes her head. “I had no idea what was going on!”
As the voice of the Northern Ag Network and state senator rattles through the lengthy resume of the yet-to-be-named “Ranch Woman of the Year,” Bev notices this woman and she have a few things in common.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s nice. It must be someone from Meagher County!’” She was excited to hear which of her friends would be deservingly named.
“It was a long speech,” Ed says. “And they did it in a way that she never knew it was her until they announced her name. It was pretty funny, the look on her face.”
“It was such a shock – it still is!” she shakes her head again.
The honor was no surprise to her friends and family who nominated her, however.
“Work for Bev is not a job, it’s a way of life,” her brother, Tim Schaff, wrote in his nomination letter. “The ‘Ranch Woman of the Year’ award is a small token of appreciation and recognition to a woman who has made outstanding contributions above and beyond what is considered the ‘norm.’ It is to recognize a woman who has provided the backbone to a ranch operation, family and friends. … Bev Fryer exemplifies all the attributes of the Montana Stockgrowers ‘Ranch Woman of the Year.’”
Bev just goes about wiping down the kitchen counters.
“There are certainly plenty of women out there who do as much and more than I do,” she says. “You just learn by doing, figure it all out as you go along.”
“I don’t think most people realize what all she does,” Ed says. “I think her own family probably learned a little more about what it takes, what she really does, at that awards deal.”
She pulls out the print the Stockgrowers presented her at the convention and admires it.
“It was a very nice thing… I just couldn’t believe the letters people wrote for it,” she says. “We’ve always had good ranch jobs and been surrounded by good people. Like anybody else, we have our good days and our bad days, but we’ve had a good ride.”
She puts the print away and turns her attention back to the grandson who’s playing in a pile of toy tractor accessories on the floor. There are still several hours of daylight and many tasks to accomplish for the Ranch Woman of the Year and the Teamster of the Year. She waves from the door, bidding goodbye with a smile, ready to greet the next year with the same gusto.
After all, it’s the end of one and the start of another good year at the Castle Mountain Ranch. F