FOR THE RECORD: Record-keeping key to Montana ranch’s success
February 17, 2015
They realized they were doing their best when it came to surviving the worst.
"The real 'ah-ha moment' for us was 2012," Jed Evjene said. "You could really look back through these books and know, if we hadn't done this as a team, it would have been a whole different outcome."
The Two Dot, Mont., rancher and manager of the historic American Fork Ranch pulled out a thick record book and opened it on the kitchen table. Each of the 57 section-sized paddocks that sprawl across the ranch has its own numbered and labeled tab in the three-ring binder, indicating its precise location, formation and past and present condition. But these were a couple data points they didn't need to look up to remember.
"In 2012, it never greened up here. It was bad, bad drought," Annie, his wife and partner at the ranch, said.
"But we had enough grass left over from 2011 that we could carry through," Jed added. "If we hadn't cross-fenced, developed that water, made this plan, we would have been selling a lot of cows in 2012."
He thumbed through the binder, studying the range monitoring photos taken throughout the years prior to, during and after the drought.
Recommended Stories For You
"Instead of buying a bunch of hay, we sold just a few and came out OK," he said. "If we wouldn't have been doing what we had been doing, as a team, that summer would have been a disaster."
But it wasn't.
Surviving that summer confirmed the value of efforts towards conservation and stewardship to them, and that was good enough for the Evjenes, the ranch crew and the Stevens family, who have owned the ranch for nearly 70 years.
Being recognized as the 2014 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award winners was just a bonus.
"The American Fork Ranch is an inspirational story of environmental achievement that deserves to be shared widely within the beef cattle industry," Montana State University range management specialist Jeff Mosley wrote in a nomination letter for the award. "The improvements we have witnessed during the past 10+ years are truly remarkable."
It's about water, grass
The Evjene's vision for stewardship began long before they arrived at the American Fork Ranch in 1998. One of their first ranch jobs found them working under Roy Rose, who would become their long time mentor and friend.
"Roy, he made a pretty big impression on us," Jed said. "He made you think, I mean, really, common-sense think about everything you did."
They took note of his ability to manage and lead a team in addition to a ranch.
"He always told us, 'You can have all the cattle in the world, but if you don't have grass and water, you don't have nothing,'" Jed said.
With that in mind, grass and water became the top two priorities at the 25,000-plus acre ranch when they hired on. Analyzing how to better utilize the 23 original grazing pastures – some up to three sections in size with only one water source – was the first stop.
"You can imagine how beat up the area around the tank was," Jed said, not to mention the creek beds and streams.
He grabbed another three-ring binder off the shelf and opened it to the blueprints of the water development projects. They started mapping out miles of cross-fencing and water development in each new pasture. Today, all but four of the 57 pastures have two or more sources of water, proving year-round access for livestock and wildlife. Careful placement of stock tanks in upland pastures draw livestock away from sensitive areas while allowing them to utilize more grassland in traditionally hard-to-reach areas.
During peak grazing season – May through late October – the cattle are split into three groups, each of which is moved every seven days. By now, the frequent movements aren't labor intensive, either – "they know they're going to greener grass," Jed said. In some cases, fence line water systems have been developed to seamlessly move cattle to the next paddock with the flip of a panel as they rotate around the pump field tanks.
One of the ranch cowboys, Ed Vaughan, said the short-term grazing plan gives each pasture a 45-day rest, and the meticulously scheduled and tracked timeline gives the crew a rest, too.
"The major improvement is, the ground just looks better. You can see it. The cows look good, the calves looks good. That's good for them," he said. "Then the pasture management – we always know when things move, where they're going, where they've been. It's a system, it's written down, and we always know where to go and what to do next. That's good for us."
It pays in pounds
District conversationalist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service John Oiestad assisted the American Fork Ranch in obtaining cost-share assistance through their Environmental Quality Incentive Program starting in 2003. He put the numbers to the American Fork team's conservation efforts over the past decade – 15,490 feet of stock water pipeline, 16 tanks, seven spring developments, two wells, 25 miles of fence, 144 acres of weed control and 18,109 acres of grazing systems.
Each of those investments has paid off, the Evjenes said. This is where the husband-wife duo get excited to share the changes the crew has implemented over the years and the black and white numbers they can show for the work. It's all written in the record books.
"Those have made some huge improvements to this place. And with that, we have happy cows," Jed smiled. Annie finished his thought: "And with happy cows, our weaning weights went up, and that's what pays the bills."
Jed nodded in agreement. Since they started tracking production records, cow size has decreased 200 pounds, while weaning weights have increased an average of 200 pounds per calf. That came from some genetic changes right off the bat, and continues to flourish under the right range conditions.
"It's healthy land. Healthy water. Healthy air. Happy animals, happy people," he said. "And all that – well, that increases your profits. That's the bottom line."
Record-keeping keeps it right
"Some might call it a sickness," Annie teased.
Jed smiled a bit sheepishly.
"I don't know how anyone does it without these kinds of records," he shrugged. "We keep records every time we turn the water off and on. Every time we move the cattle. The pastures, those are just like the equipment on the ranch – everything is numbered and inventoried. Each stock well is numbered. It may be cumbersome to some, but it's just my personality," Jed said.
After all, you can't make a plan for where you're going if you don't know where you've been or where you are now, they agreed.
"It's so you know exactly where your time and money went," Jed said. "You may think you have an iron trap memory, but I don't trust mine that much. This is an absolute record."
Like everything else, Jed said, their records come down to running a ranch that is financially viable through good times and bad.
"Everything on this place has a bill, and it has to pay itself. The cows have to pay their way, same with the machinery, land, everything. If it's here, it has to be in production," Jed said.
Their hope is that like the ranch, the production records will outlast their lifetimes.
"When we're gone, the next manager, and the next generation, will walk into this place and know the history of it, exactly what we've been doing, how it's done, why it's worked that way," Jed said. "So we're trying to preserve not just this ranch, but the agriculture way of life in general for the next generations."
It's a people business, too
Despite the shelves full of binders, even Jed can't precisely record in black and white the ranch's greatest accomplishments. But he does know it has less to do with profitability, progress, awards or titles, and a lot more to do with people.
"That's probably our biggest accomplishment here," Jed smiled, pointing at a list of names in one of the record books. "It's getting those kids involved in their own ranch. The fifth generation is coming up here, and they have a vested interest in the ranch, in agriculture now. They're the best ambassadors we could possibly have for this industry."
With cousins and siblings spread across the country in coastal populations, major universities and city centers, the ranch draws a range of multiple generations of the Stevens family to its open spaces and breathtaking views. Now, they're drawn to learning more about the production side of their family's business that's under the Evjene's management, too.
"They're really the ones helping the beef industry out there," Annie said. "They're telling their peers about the real world here, what we do, how they eat."
When the ranch partnered with Montana State University in 2003 to begin its rangeland monitoring program, the Evjenes asked the family for a little help from their "summer crew."
"We named the pastures after each of the kids, and then they were in charge of photographing and tracking it," Jed smiled. His eyes lit up again. "Oh, wait! It's in another book…"
He returned from the bookshelf with the binder he first referenced, filled with pasture IDs and pre- and post-drought rangeland condition photos.
"Talk about team work," he smiled. "Awards like this are nice and all, but this is what it's really about."
He tapped on a photo of an east-coast kid setting up rangeland monitoring equipment, another of a branding crew full of local teenagers, another of an out of state FFA chapter who came for a tour.
"I'm just so excited about the passion we all share for this place," Jed said. "It's just fun to work with people who care as much as you do."