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Real Ranch Living: Not Everyone is Selling Out

 
  Photos by Anne Medley.

It’s 2:30 a.m., and Bud Boyce, 75, fumbles in the dim light of the pickup cab for the controls of the mounted spotlight.

Outside, the beam cuts the blackness, illuminating clouds of warm breath and glassy eyes as it pans from left to right, then back again across a herd of more than 250 Angus-Hereford cows, all pregnant and ready to give birth.

The cattle huddle in dark masses. Bud plays the light across them, carefully watching for a cow in labor or a newborn calf.

With no signs of a delivery-in-progress and no new calves since the last check three hours ago, he wheels his pickup back toward the house and lurches down the frozen drive. In three hours, he’ll do it again. Then, ranch hand Mike Horst will take over.

It’s a grueling schedule, part of what makes ranching a lifestyle, not a job.

The 15,000-acre Boyce ranch is isolated, tucked below the southern flanks of the Bears Paw Mountains south of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. It’s 35 miles by gravel road to the small town of Big Sandy. Until recently, Bud used a team of horses to feed his herd. An abandoned log cabin, built nearly a century ago by Bud’s grandfather, stands alongside Clear Creek Road near the Warrick School, which has one teacher and sometimes as few as two students on its kindergarten-through-eighth grade roster.

 
  HARD LABOR:At 75, Bud Boyce, left, still helps with the daily chores on the ranch, but ranch hand Mike Horse, far right, and his son Jordon, center, do most of the heavy lifting.

Yet outside pressures are ever-present for Bud and his wife, Carol. Their ranch routinely attracts multi-million dollar offers. Fresh solicitations pile up in the Boyce mailbox, and agents routinely approach Bud at cattle auctions.

“I don’t know how they know,” Carol says.

“I think they have something on how old you’re getting to be,” Bud responds.

There’s a sense at the Boyce ranch that each day is borrowed from history, that a future of corporate cattle operations, trophy ranches and sky-high land prices waits to sweep their legacy from the landscape.

Still, the work schedule on the ranch follows the same cycle it has for decades. The basic economic rules are the same, too. Round-the-clock checkups keep the number of healthy calves born at around 97 percent. A dead calf is money lost.

The seventh of nine children, Bud grew up ranching, working with his father until he and Carol (the fifth of 12 children from a farming family near the Canadian border) married and bought their own ranch in 1963. Bud says he’s never thought of doing anything else.

“I’m getting to the age where I can’t do things like I used to,” he says, “but I’d be bored stiff if I retired and went to town. I’d go nuts, and I’d probably die.”

Stephen Boyce, Bud’s grandfather, homesteaded in Montana in 1889, the same year Montana became a state. Thirteen years later, after the birth of Bud’s father, Stephen and his brother-in-law began building the log house, but tough times forced Stephen to sell his ranch in 1915. For years, Stephen’s brother-in-law owned all of the land once owned by the Boyce family.

“Dad was about heartbroken when my grandpa lost the place,” Bud says.

In 1968, the in-laws decided to sell, giving Bud and his father the chance to get back Stephen’s lost land. They pooled their resources and began to buy back the ranch in 1970. Four of the other Boyce children have remained nearby, raising cattle on parcels of land sold to them over the years by Bud and Carol. One son became a university professor, another an engineer.

“We sure want to keep it in the family,” Carol says. “If you don’t sell it to your kids or grandkids, they can’t afford to buy it from anyone else.”

Starting in 1988 Bud and Carol sold some of their acreage to their children, and they hope to pass on the rest of it. Yet even with the land in the hands of the family for now, Carol worries about the future.

“You just don’t know if anybody will care as much about it as you do, and they might just see the dollars because the land values have gone up so much, and you could turn it over to them, and they could turn around and sell it for a big profit, and that’d be the end of it.”

The cash talk isn’t theoretical. Several corporate ranches surround the Boyce ranch, operations Carol calls examples of decent resources put to poor use. The main one has an overblown, gaudy house. It all seems like tax write-offs and vanity.

“That part is really sad,” she says, “because it takes a lot of good land out of good production and keeps a lot of young people from getting into ranching.”

Her 16-year-old grandson Ty Raty, who helps his parents run a far bigger cattle operation than Bud’s, and who might stand to take over the family ranch someday, hesitates when asked if he wants to be a rancher.

“No,” he says. “Well, maybe someday. But I want to do some things first.”

The same question put to the sons of Mike, the ranch hand, is more theoretical than practical (the financial difficulties of obtaining land for a ranch seem an insurmountable hurdle). Both boys help out on the ranch, and 12-year-old John Horst enjoys working alongside his father. Yet when it comes to a future in ranching, John says he can’t envision it.

“For some reason, I don’t want to do it. It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t know,” he says.

Maybe that’s because the future has already struck John’s father. Raised on a dairy farm in Michigan, Mike has been around livestock and farm equipment all his life. Mike was forced to sell his shares in his family farm in the 1980s when dropping land values in Michigan left the family unable to borrow the money necessary to operate the place. He bought a dairy farm in Wisconsin until marriage troubles contributed to its sale in the late 1990s. He and his family of four came to this remote spread of grass and low, rugged mountains in November 2006 after working on farms and ranches from Michigan to Wyoming.

With a piece of land, he feels he and his family could make another go of it, but the gap between his financial resources and real estate prices widens by the year.

“You’re looking at the size ranch that Bud’s running here with 300 head of cows, probably three or four million dollars to get into it,” he says. “And that’s just the land. And then you’re looking at your cattle. If you buy 300 head of cattle, you’re looking at a minimum of $300,000, and that’s not any equipment. So you’re probably looking at four or five million dollars to start.”

 
  BETWEEN SHIFTS: When not checking the cows, the Boyce family — Carol, left with 9-month-old Jayce Riggin, and Justin and Bud, center — find ways to reconnect. Kristi Jo Riggin and Bud’s grandson Ty Raty, far right. FAMILY HISTORY: A portrait of Bud’s family hangs inside the Boyce home as a tribute to ranching traditions.

“I would love to have a ranch out in Montana. You never know, that opportunity may come up someday. But as I see it right now, it’d be pretty tough,” he says.

Bud knows it, too.

“I’ve had different young guys working for me, and I just know darn well they’d give their eyeteeth to get a chance to buy a ranch, but I know they won’t accumulate enough, and they won’t be able to do it,” he says.

Discussions about land prices and balance sheets take up the slack in the few idle moments. At 6:30 a.m., the smell of pancakes and bacon fills the kitchen. Carol passes plates of eggs and toast around the table, checking to make sure everyone has had enough to eat. Half an hour later, with the sun still below the horizon, she starts her morning walk up the hill to take a look for herself if any new calves arrived in the night.
After breakfast, Mike and his older son Jordan ride in the pickup with feed cakes to the herd, triggering a cacophony of lowing with their approach. Later, Bud parks the pickup at the base of a tower of hay and loads bales alongside Mike and Jordan.

The business of a ranch seems dim and distant when compared to the tenderness of caring for the cows and calves. In the early afternoon, Bud herds a cow-calf pair down an icy path, through gates and corrals to the warmth of the calving shed. The gaunt calf probably hasn’t nursed since its birth yesterday.

Bud separates mother from calf, leading the cow to a calving chute to steady her head. A rope around a hind leg keeps her from kicking her calf.

“I’m getting too old for this stuff,” he says.

The mother’s teats have clogged, and if the calf doesn’t start nursing soon, it will die. Awkwardly bent over, Bud pulls and grunts, working out the plugs to start the flow of milk. Then he coaxes the calf under the udder and holds it in place as it begins to nurse.

Outside the shed, Mike and young Ty pull up in a white pickup truck. Bud updates them on the latest births, then leaves the rest of the afternoon to them. After a long night of checking cows, he needs sleep.

The sky turns gold in late afternoon, and long shadows stretch across the ranch. Later that night, Mike scans the herd with a spotlight and spies a bright pink mass beneath a cow’s tail: a prolapsed uterus. Mike and Ty herd her to the calving shed. She recovers by morning.

“This is the living right here,” Mike says. “The money’s made off of these calves — getting these calves born and keeping them alive.”

For Mike, this stress will fill the next two months of calving season — seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It’s tiring work, but he can’t imagine any other life.

“I think it’s something you got to be born with,” he says. “It’s either in your blood or it ain’t because you got to like working outside and you got to like putting in the time, and, to me, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.”

anne@newwest.net

For more from the Spring 2008 issue of The New West magazine, and for information on how to subscribe for free visit www.newwest.net/magazine.

About Anne Medley

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5 comments

  1. This is a story that warms my heart. I know people like these and I would like to see our nation doing more to help them keep doing what they are doing. Living myself on a very small ranch where we raise a few cattle and sheep, I truly appreciate the people who do this as a lifestyle. Thanks for the great photos and story.

  2. This was our family life, starting in the middle 1880’s. It is all so familiar. Picking up a calf that a heifer has foolishly dropped by the creek and bringing it into the house to put in the warm bathtub, then vigorously before drying it off and taking it back out to nurse. Usually, a good rub with a burlap bag is enough to get the circulation going on those cold mornings. It wasn’t economically feasible in the middle 1980’s to keep the ranch, but it was heartbreaking to let it go.

  3. Dear Ms. Medley,

    May I have your permission to reprint your story and distribute to one of my classes of 40 kids. I teach in Las Vegas and none of my students have ever been exposed to this aspect of American culture and society.

    Thanks

  4. Hi Pat,

    You’re more than welcome to use the story in your class. Glad it can be of use to you and your students.

    Anne

  5. One point of quibble…
    Ranching is not a lifestyle. It’s a way of life. There is an enormous difference between the two, and I hope you figure it out, Anne.