Veteran Salute: Byron Bayers raises top notch Hereford cattle after Air Force service

Byron Bayers served two years in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Photo courtesy Byron Bayers

Byron Bayers wanted to learn to fly.

The military man

He joined the Air Force ROTC at the University of Montana with high hopes. But they said his vision wasn’t good enough, and never let him climb into the cockpit.

The 87-year-old rancher tells that he eventually did learn to man a plane and spent 55 years flying them.

With World War II still fresh, the young rancher knew when he turned 18, there was a good chance of being drafted and he figured that by joining the ROTC he could choose his destiny.

“Most of the time the draft was an army deal. You didn’t have much choice.” So Bayers signed up for the Air Force ROTC with dreams of flying.

The Korean War was in full swing by the time Bayers graduated from the UM with a business administration degree.

But Bayers’ assignment would not be on Asian soil. He stayed in his home state and kept watch for enemy aircraft from 1953-1955.

“The main part of my service was at an isolated radar site on the Canadian border. It was part of an early warning system that extended clear across the U.S. and Canada, I think it was close to 4,000 miles long.” Bayers said they were mostly concerned about a Russian invasion.

On the remote mountaintop, Bayers, as the only ranch kid out of about 200 soldiers, found that his agricultural background offered advantages.

“A lot of the kids from big cities couldn’t handle that environment. We were 130 miles from the nearest town.” Bayers said that not many of the men deserted, but they tried every avenue they could think of to be reassigned.

“I got into a lot of work at the base just because I was a ranch kid. We had a big cat and nobody knew how to run it so I had to do that.”

Bayers said that, as an officer, he mentored a lot of youngsters who needed someone to look up to. “I worked with a lot of the young people. I started a basketball program. That was pretty popular. It got them off the base,” he remembers.

Although their radar occasionally spotted enemy aircraft, they were far off and never developed into a problem.

“Part of that was the fact that we had constant surveillance of the northern border. I think aggressors knew they were being monitored,” he said.

With the Korean War ongoing, Bayers was on alert that he could be called to serve overseas at any point, but remained at his Yaak, Montana post for his entire two years in active duty.

After another 16 years in the reserve, his military service was up.

Bayers had married Pauline Oberg in 1953 so she spent the a year with him on the mountaintop, in a small trailer house just off the military base.

When the two years were up, the young couple returned to the Bayers Ranch which they would eventually buy from Byron’s parents and five sisters.

Bayers tells that he went on to raise industry-leading Hereford bulls and also to fly and even sell airplanes. At one point he was so busy selling airplanes that he had to make the hard decision between ranching and marketing planes. Ranching won but he would continue to fly to Hereford Association events, customers’ ranches and more, eventually flying 117 different makes and models of airplanes, logging 10,000 hours flying, and even trading cattle for airplanes at times.

The cattleman

Byron Bayers was inducted into the Hereford Hall of Fame Oct. 27, in Kansas City, Mo., at the American Hereford Association (AHA) Hereford Honorees Reception during the AHA Annual Meeting and Conference.

Established in 1918, Bayers Hereford Ranch is the oldest continuous running Hereford herd in the state of Montana.

Art and Elizabeth Bayers bought Polled Herefords from Henry Kuhlman in Nebraska and began raising registered cattle.

Art, a homestead agent, signed up Elizabeth, who traveled from Illinois with her sister to homestead in Montana. Then he married her, and together they raised 5 girls and a boy – Byron. The girls were Helen, Beatrice, Jeanne, Bertha and Wanda. The couple eventually bought a ranch near Twin Bridges, which is not the original homestead site.

Byron was his dad’s right-hand man and he recalls a time when he was about 12 years old that his dad sent him to Wyoming to buy a bull. A hired man drove.

“I came home with the check but not bull because I didn’t like the bull. Dad was furious but I wasn’t going to buy a bull I didn’t like.”

In the early years the principal herd sires used were Choice Domino, Onward and Prince Diamond.

Art gradually transformed his program from polled to horned Herefords.

One of the Bayers Ranch’s outstanding herd bulls in the ‘40s and ‘50s was Evan Mischief who was the first Nebraska Cornhusker Futurity Champion in 1942 which was a major accomplishment at the time.

After they used Evan Mischief for nine years, the family sold him to Roy Turner, the Governor of Oklahoma.

The first $10,000 bull to sell at auction was sired by Evan Mischief, as was a $50,000 bull that sold in 1972, who was the highest priced bull to sell at auction at that time.

Other outstanding descendants of Even Mischief were RC Dan Mischief 19th, the first Midland Bull Test Champion; Evan Return, Montana Winter Fair Champion; Evan Centurian; Evan Dominator, Evan Innovator, Evan Mischief 88 and Mischief 77 who became foundation sires for several other Hereford herds.

During its history, the ranch produced over 25,000 purebred Herefords with cattle going to buyers from 38 states and the countries of Mexico, Canada, Hungary and Zimbabwe.

At one time, the Bayers Ranches included three locations in the state of Montana, all stocked with registered Herefords. Registrations at their peak totaled about 800, and the herd would include both horned and polled cattle by the later years.

Bayers dispersed the herd in 1990 after a lease and some key employees were lost.

The Hereford lover couldn’t quit, however, and eventually built a herd of about 100 cows back up – polled and horned. Ehlke Herefords of Montana bought this second herd a few years ago.

Bayers has been a member of the Montana Hereford Association and American Hereford Association since 1945. He served as the President of the MHA in 1958, 1960 and 1970.

In the sixties and early seventies, Bayers judged at most every major Hereford show in the U.S and several in Canada, including Denver (carload show 3 times including the first polled carload, sale cattle four times), Chicago International, Fort Worth, Houston, Nebraska State Fair, Oregon State Fair, North Dakota Winter Show, Wyoming State sale, Golden Spike Show, Lethbridge, Alberta, Phoenix Arizona, and numerous Hereford sale shows.

As President elect of the American Hereford Assn., BAyers went to Hungary as a technical advisor to the Hungarian government, who had purchased a large number of Herefords in the United States. Byron saw grandsons of Evan Mischief 88th there.

In 1976 Bayers was elected President of the American Hereford Association and served as the United States co-delegate to the World Hereford Conference in Calgary, Canada. The Montana Hereford Association dedicated its convention in 1976 to Bayers.

Bayers’ travels for meetings, shows and to visit customers was made easier with his pilot’s license. Everyone expected Bayers to fly himself to events, and many ranchers picked his brain about buying aircraft, which led to a side career.

“They wanted to know where they could get one and what I suggested. So I started selling airplanes.”

After selling about 180 planes in three or four years, his business was growing so quickly that he was forced to choose between his cattle and airplanes.

“I kind of decided to drop out of the airplane business but continued to fly in the Hereford business.” He even served as the air ambulance for his sparse region for many years.

Other awards include the University of Montana’s Distinguished Alumni Award and Chevron’s Agricultural Spokesman of the Year, Montana State Fair Pioneer Hall of Fame, Friend of Higher Education Award by the 47th Montana Legislative Session, Montana Hereford Association’s Man of the Year.

Pauline Bayers was named Montana Hereford Woman of the Year in 1992. In 2008 Byron was given the Canadian Ambassador Award from the Canadian Hereford Association.

Bayers was proud of Pauline who obtained her pilot’s license at the age of 50. A gifted musician, Pauline was part of a group of local ranch wives who entertained throughout the state of Montana of many years and she served as director of the local church choir. She was a member of the Butte Symphony for more than 15 years, playing the viola. She also served up to 1,000 people at their annual bull sales each year.

“She was a very special, talented woman.”

Pauline lost a 15-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease on July 3, 2015. On July 4, 2015, she and Byron would have celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.

Rich, Kathy and Jill are Byron and Pauline’s children. Jill has been the editor of Hereford America now for 20 years. Kathy is a Mathematics Professor at Montana State University and Rich is retired from his Agra Chemical Business.

Bayers owns a commercial herd of Herefords today, and a “small” bunch of purebreds.

He focuses on carcass traits, fertility, mothering ability, and pigment which he believes are all important qualities. Temperament is another quality he thinks should be seriously considered by all breeders. “We’ve got a lot of young people, young families working these cattle. We can’t have wrecks.”

Bayers believes that U.S. beef consumption has dropped in the last 20 years and, in order to rejuvenate the cattle industry, he thinks this needs to be remedied.

If asked for advice, Bayers would tell a young cattleman to pay attention to those with experience, and learn from their mistakes. “You can go through ten or 15 years of ranching and there are some things that will really hurt. If you can pass that on to someone and they can guard against that kind of thing whether it is financial, weather, product-related or something else, it will make a big difference to them.”

Editor’s note: Byron Bayers died in 2018.