Quigley Ranch Historical haying operation, modern cattle ranch
for Tri-State Livestock News
The Avon, MT, based Quigley Ranch has a long history as a hay and cattle operation that spans 125 years and five generations in the same location with the same family. Progressive thinking and an educational spirit have aided the family in their longtime success, despite the challenges and changes over the years.
Located northwest of Helena, MT, the Avon area gets a lot of winter, despite being just over 5,000 feet in elevation. While winters are tough, the country is also known for its lush, top-quality grass it grows in the summer months. The Quigley family realized the area’s potential long ago, and have stayed and utilized it’s natural resources ever since.
“The history of this ranch begins with my great-great-grandfather, John R. Quigley, who came to Montana in 1865 and opened a store in Virginia City, which was among the first gold mining boom towns. He eventually ended up in Blackfoot City, which is about three miles east of this ranch, and acquired the ground right here where the main headquarters sit today,” explained Brian Quigley of the ranch’s start.
In the beginning the operation was primarily a hay ranch. There were cattle from the beginning as well, but they pastured out in the early days.
“They hayed well over 2,000 acres of wild hay, and ran three hay crews,” explained Brian. “One crew was right at the main ranch putting up the creek bottoms and bench meadows, another crew was in charge of the meadows further out, and the third crew put up what we call our six-mile meadows. Everything was put up with horses too, until just prior to World War II.”
In Brian’s great-grandfather and grandfather’s days, the hay was put into loose stacks all summer, then hauled into the headquarters and baled with a stationary, wood square baler all fall and early winter.
“Then they hauled it to Avon and put it on the railroad. I don’t know where it all went in the early days, but there was sure a demand for it. I know that one place they shipped it to was Butte, where the Anaconda Mines were running hard at that time. I don’t know for sure, but would guess that lots of it went to feed the mules and horses working in the mines around there,” said Quigley of the 1800’s market for grass hay.
Since the early days, the Quigleys have balanced ranching and community involvement. Brian and Heather are both involved locally, and Brian noted that his great-great-grandfather, John R. Quigley I, nominated the first Governor to the State of Montana – Governor Joseph Toole. Brian’s great-grandfather John R Quigley II (J.R.) was a state representative for Powell County.
“There’s an older gentleman whose cousin put up hay for us in the early 1940s. He always said he got a kick out of my great-grandfather because he always wore a suit, even to the hay field. He said he never saw him not wearing a suit,” commented Brian with a chuckle.
Brian’s grandfather Cliff Quigley was among the first to bring a mechanical square baler into the country in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and had quite an operation according to Brian.
“At that time we still mowed hay, but the raking and baling was all done by the same outfit. He designed a six-wheeled rake and put it on the baling tractor, then somehow mounted that to the baler. Of course the baler had a motor on it, and then he added a homemade bale accumulator to the back, which stacked about 12 bales. It took two men per baler – one would drive the tractor, and the other was on the back end, basically bucking bales into the stacker. Then, when it was full, he would dump the stacker,” explained Brian of the innovative mind-set his grandfather had.
Progressive thinking didn’t end with the older generations: Brian’s father Jim Quigley brought the first large round baler to the operation in 1981, at a time when people wouldn’t even look at a round bale because they didn’t know how to handle or feed it.
“My dad was also who transitioned from more of a hay operation to a cattle outfit. My grandfather had cows, as did my great-grandfather, but their primary deal was hay. My dad is who really enjoyed the cows, and started going from haying to grazing more of the place,” noted Brian of the transitions the ranch has made over time.
Today, Brian, his wife Heather, and their three kids lease the operation from his parents. The couple still hays around 1,000 acres of flood irrigated meadows, with the goal of putting up enough to winter their 450 commercial Red Angus cows. Marketing hay is only done on years of excess, and isn’t a primary source of income for the modern-day ranch.
“I do still have a pretty fair sized hay crew each year, and it’s fun to have those young city kids come out. They’re getting harder and harder to find, but I enjoy seeing young kids learn about working and ranching. We’ve had a few come back from time to time, and even some from my dad’s and grandfather’s days that hayed here when they were young. It’s ironic, because they always tell us those were some of the best summers they ever had, and I think that’s true with anything in ag,” noted Brian of one of his favorite parts of hiring young help each summer.
“I wish more people could come and stay and enjoy the lifestyle we live. I don’t know that they would enjoy being out at 3 a.m. in a snowstorm packing sloppy wet calves, but they might appreciate it, and that’s important. You have to take time to stand up for your industry and try to educate people. We won’t beat it into their heads through a fist fight, much as we would like to in some instances. We will have to beat them through education, and if they could experience it firsthand it would go a long way in that educational process,” continued Brian on one possible solution to a major concern facing the agriculture industry today.
He listed predators, and wildlife related issues in general, as another point of contention he faces in his location. While he was relatively unaffected this year, Brian said his brother, who lives on the adjoining ranch, lost 10 head of calves in 2012 and had weaning weights that were 40 pounds lighter than average as a result of the calves being harassed by wolves and bears.
“Then our current governor wants to dump free-roaming bison in on top of the predators in our area. A 40,000 acre piece of private ground about 12 miles south of me has been purchased to put the bison on. We’re trying to educate the public on the importance of keeping livestock on that property, and the positive impacts livestock grazing has on the local tax base, as a means of fire suppression, and in maintaining that land as the winter elk range it currently acts as,” explained Brian.
Going forward, Brian said his primary goal is to survive and stay in business, and have fun doing it, despite the current challenges facing agriculture today.
“You don’t do this for the money. You do it to be with your family, and for the love of animals and the land. If you’re not a good steward of your land, you won’t be in business very long. This is our heritage, and I think a lot of people envy where we’re at and don’t realize that we’re just rich – not in money, and maybe even not in assets, we’re just rich in life,” he concluded.
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