Cattle Journal 2023: Ehlke Herefords, Montana
Mark and Della Ehlke’s passion for cattle led the husband and his wife team to work two full-time jobs in town while they were developing their purebred Hereford herd. But even though they have built a successful business around their animals, Ehlkes are firm believers in animal husbandry, working just as hard for their cattle as the cattle work for them. Now, the first generation ranchers have a renowned reputation for selling quality registered Hereford bulls and elite females.
Located in Townsend, Montana with a varied landscape of valleys and higher elevation pasture near the Big Belt Mountains, the Ehlke family have optimized their land and resources. “We’re fortunate that we have a very good irrigation system, and some upper ground that is actually in an area where, if there’s moisture in the area, we’ll get it. It can also give us quite a bit of snowfall,” Mark Ehlke says. Knowing one’s environment, he says, is key to finding the cattle that thrive in a particular area. Taking it a step further, it is also important to take into account the customer’s wants and needs, too.
Ehlke’s interest in Hereford cattle started at a young age. Mark’s parents owned registered Angus cattle, but he never forgot the docility of their neighbor’s Hereford cattle. Disposition became a priority for Ehlke as he built his own herd. Ehlke married Della in the early 1990s, and around that time, they were approached by Byron Byers to lease a set of cows from him, which they bought five years later. “And the rest is history,” he says.
It was from Byers that Ehlkes learned what to look for in breeding cattle. You can’t look at just one trait, says Ehlke, “You’ve got to look at the whole picture.” Foot structure, udder quality, and the rest of phenotype all comes into play. If the breeder can combine those objective physical traits with a stellar EPD, that is the ideal animal, “but no one has made a perfect one yet,” he says.
One of Ehlke’s mantras is to “focus on the female.” He does this by compounding production history. “We like to stack generations of some highly maternal cattle together that will still give you the performance that you’re looking for, and I think that’s very key when you’re looking down the road at the progeny of these bulls. If you have generations of top flight cows on the bottom side, it takes a little pressure off your breeding decisions because they are going to excel,” says Ehlke.
Efficiency is at the forefront of Ehlke’s mind when it comes to choosing Herefords again and again over the years. The physical aspects have improved tenfold over the past decades, with better pigmentation and udder quality. He still owns some Angus cows, and says, “in our experience on our operation, we’re looking at a 20 percent differential with the amount of feed it takes to keep the same body score, Hereford versus Angus.” However, Ehlke says that the F1 baldy female is “the best ranch cow out there. You put the best attributes of each breed together and you come up with something exceptional.”
Each September, the Ehlkes host the Montana Made Production Sale, an elite female sale featuring their own and jointly-owned cattle. From time to time, a bull may be featured, as well as any progeny that they would like to market. Along with their sale, and open house invites potential buyers to come and see the genetics behind what is being offered. This way, it offers buyers flexibility to see the animals before placing their bid on the online sale.
As for marketing bulls, Ehlkes offer them private-treaty year-round. “I think we’ve sold bulls every month out of the year,” he says. Whereas there used to be a very small window of time for selling bulls, there seems to be a shift in the calving seasons of customers. Some have moved to fall calving, while some are calving earlier. “Everyone is doing what fits their environment,” Ehlke says. “We do guarantee our bulls for one breeding season. But if you have injuries or anything, it’s nice to know you can still buy one that can go to work for people that are in the thick of it.”
Mark and Della own Montana Hydraulics, a machine shop company with locations in Townsend and Helena. When it came to balancing their two businesses with raising their two daughters, Ehlke said they had to “be prepared for a long day.” Luckily, daughters Lacey and Jane’a were willing and able to pitch in with the ranch work, being pretty handy at what they did. “Our neighbors probably thought we were a little goofy. We’d be out changing wheel lines in the dark [after work]. You did what you had to do,” says Ehlke.
Now, both daughters have their own set of cows, and each is “very astute” when it comes to judging cattle, Mark says. Their oldest, Lacey (Jepson), works part time in the machine shop office in administration as well as working on the ranch. Jane’a (Merkel) works full-time at the ranch, and she and her husband just welcomed twin boys, Maverick and McCoy.
Ehlke says it’s a great life to lead, and hopes that despite any differences in national cattle associations, that ranchers would be able to find unity on the biggest issues that face the industry. Ehlke is passionate about his cattle, and especially the Hereford breed, saying, “the Herefords are so efficient and get the job done.” He and his family will keep offering efficient seedstock to the public for years to come.
For more information and for this year’s bull catalog, see ehlkeherefords.com.