A Land of Grass Ranch

8 month cattle ranching apprenticeship in Conrad, Montana

The Ranch

The ranch raises cattle and sheep in north-central Montana and sell grassfed beef and lamb, plus wool products, online and at farmers’ markets. You can get a sense of life at the Graham Ranch if you visit www.a-land-of-grass-ranch.com.

This ranch started as a sheep ranch in the 1880s. My husband and I were the first people outside the Graham family to own and operate it. The heritage of the ranch is fundamental to how I operate today.  When we bought the Graham Ranch, Steve and I wrote a mission statement that guides our management every day. Our mission is to raise livestock in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner and to teach others about how and why we do it this way. We started with cattle because both of us had experience with cattle. We added sheep because the Grahams raised sheep and we wanted to honor the heritage of the ranch. We — now I — direct market grassfed beef and lamb, plus wool products, for several reasons. First, I can’t stand being a price-taker so the commodity market drives me crazy. Second, direct marketing offers a chance to educate people who are not directly involved in agriculture. Third, the income from direct marketing is far more stable and predictable so my business is stronger. But income will be short-lived if the land deteriorates. A long-term vision is the only way to protect and improve land health. Cattle and sheep are tools to protect and improve the land. Their impacts — good and bad — don’t show up in a season or a year.

I watch the land and the wildlife to signal where my management is helping and where I need to change my thinking and my actions. My management evolves constantly. Right now, I am in the process of dividing pastures again, reducing my need to feed hay, developing new products and improving my marketing plan. Also, I know something is wrong with the soil in my alfalfa field so I’m using my detective skills to figure out what it is. The Ranch Year really begins in March with calving. May is lambing season. June and July are infrastructure projects. I contract hay harvestors so I don’t have to spend all summer driving hay equipment, but I haul the hay off the fields. Each Saturday from June to September of a non-Covid year is spent at the Great Falls farmers market.  I wean the lambs in September or October and wean the calves in October or November. I deliver large quantities of beef in October and November.  I haul steers and/or lambs to two different processors every month except March and April. December through March, I focus on strategic planning for the entire business — although, frankly, that is on my mind most days. Also, during the winter, I try to write more often. Every Wednesday, all year long, is Radio Day, which means I panic about what I will say every Tuesday. 

When I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted to ranch. People told me I would never be able to buy a ranch, that the only way to live on a ranch was to marry a rancher. I didn’t want to be a ranch wife; I wanted to ranch. So I quit telling people about my dream. I earned a degree in agri-business, but still had no experience on the ground. Through fortunate circumstances, I found ways to learn the practical skills I needed. Those circumstances are not widely available to most people, though. I would like to do my part to develop a strong future for agriculture by providing an opportunity for another person to learn the same way I learned. Also, agriculture is dominated by a male-centered culture. I’d like to build knowledge and skills in competent females. 

This ranch is one giant science experiment. I love to watch how my actions impact the land and water over time. When we bought the ranch in 2006, a small herd of cattle had grazed year-around and a small flock of sheep had decimated the Home Pasture. Gradually, I have improved the grazing management as I divided pastures and installed water systems. Also, I see a lot of improvement where I feed hay in the winter. In this area, salinity can be a problem. I have reduced saline seeps significantly by grazing and feeding to improve grass growth. I’m working to reduce cheatgrass by increasing soil fertility. It’s rewarding to see these improvements, but I always see room for more. I recently read Nicole Masters’ book so I am in the process of implementing her advice. I believe every location is different and has different limiting factors so I am experimenting with various management practices to improve the soil on the ranch within my limitations. 

land of grass ranch conrad lisa
A land of grass ranch

The Mentors

Lisa Schmidt

I grew up in western Oregon, in a town too big to be small and too small to be big. When I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted to raise cattle on my own ranch. My first year of college was at Northwestern University, where I majored in journalism, but soon I realized anyone could learn to write. I transferred to Oregon State University. I earned a bachelor’s degree in agri-business with a minor in animal science. I still didn’t know how to saddle a horse or how much hay to feed a cow. I held an internship with Doc and Connie Hatfield in Brothers, Oregon. They were developing Oregon Country Beef at the time. Then I moved to the Utah-Nevada border where I worked on a ranch for seven years, learning to ride a horse and feed a cow, among other things. I earned $35 a day when I worked, plus room and board. I knew I would never be able to buy a ranch by saving $35 a day so I earned my master’s degree in range management from Utah State University. I moved to Montana in 1996 to work at the Madison-Jefferson County Extension Agent. My then-husband and I bought a small irrigated farm there and raised cattle. In 2000, I became editor of the Montana Farmer-Stockman magazine. I started freelance writing magazine articles in 2004. Steve and I bought the Graham Ranch in 2006. He died in October, 2017. My son, Will, is at USAF pilot school now. My 14-year-old daughter, Abby, helps me run the ranch. I write a weekly column about ranch life and I have a weekly radio program that airs from Winnemucca, Nevada, to Miles City, Montana and Calgary every Saturday.  I’m a bit of a policy geek so local, state and federal policy is a common conversational topic around here. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Apprentice

What will an apprentice do?

 

 

 

What skills and traits are required in an apprentice?

 

 
    • Valid Driver’s License
    • Open minded with a willingness to learn and not afraid to share ideas
    •  Sense of Humor is a must
    • Experience with horses

Nuts & Bolts

 

Start Date: April/May through November

Length of Apprenticeship: 8

Stipend: $800/month

General work hours: Typical work week is 7:30am to 4:30pm Monday through Friday, half day Saturday, Sundays off after the morning cattle move.  However, there are seasonal responsibilities (calving, AI breeding, haymaking, cattle working days) that can and will alter that schedule.  We try to be flexible as long as the work gets done when it needs to be done.  We have talked about a rotation schedule for weekends off, but have not officially implemented anything as of yet.

Housing: Grandma’s House was built in 1906 and remodeled every time the Graham’s had money, — probably twice. It has two bedrooms, a large kitchen and a tiny bathroom. The furnace is propane. Water comes from a spring on the hill, the same spring that feeds my house above and the barn below. The house is furnished. It has no internet service.  It does not have a TV. 

Laundry: An apprentice would need to use my washer and dryer in my house. Grandma’s House does not have a washer and dryer.

Internet availability:   Internet is not available in Grandma’s house. We are working on figuring something out to make sure the apprentice has access to internet for online meetings etc.

Cell Phone: Not great, but if you stand near the south window in Grandma’s house you can get it.

Time off: An apprentice should expect to have time off on Saturday afternoons once we return to the ranch from the farmers market (sometimes, we do errands so we usually get home about 3 p.m.) and all day each Sunday.

Visitors policy: I would like to meet each visitor when they arrive. Generally, visitors are welcome as long as they stay safe, don’t endanger the livestock and act respectfully. 

Food: I expect to provide a quarter of beef for the apprentice and periodic meals. I expect to provide lunch on most days. 

Pets: Cats are not allowed in the house. Dogs must be housetrained and well-behaved. If a dog can’t be controlled, it needs to leave the ranch. If a dog chases the sheep, I’ll shoot it. I had to shoot my own dog once after he chased the sheep. It was so horrible that I have absolutely no sympathy for someone else’s dog that chases livestock.

Horse use: I work my livestock on horseback. None of my horses are gentle enough for a novice rider. If an apprentice has little or no horseback experience, I am reluctant to offer riding opportunities.

Tobacco and alcohol use:  No smoking but other tobacco use is ok. Drink on your own time as long as it doesn’t interfere with your day. If drinking alcohol impairs your judgement or causes an unsafe work environment, that is grounds for dismissal. 

Guns: As a former hunter safety instructor, safety is paramount. I expect everyone who comes to the ranch to know all of the safety rules and use firearms responsibly.

Health insurance: The ranching lifestyle has inherent dangers. While personal health insurance is not required to participate in the apprenticeship program, it is strongly encouraged. The farm carries Workman’s Compensation to cover injuries incurred on the job. But if the apprentice is injured on his or her day off, gets sick, or has or develops chronic conditions like allergies, these types of issues should be covered by personal health insurance.

COVID-19 policy:

Ranch vehicles: Apprentice will drive ranch vehicles during work hours. All vehicles are manual transmission.

Personal vehicle: While apprentices will not be asked to use a personal vehicle for work purposes, the apprentice will need the flexibility of his or her own vehicle on their days off in order to run personal errands such as purchasing groceries and for travel.

Additional items an apprentice should bring: The apprentice should bring any personal items and work gear. Grandma’s House has sheets, towels, pots and pans, plates, cups, silverware, a coffee pot and a radio.

Things an apprentice could help figure out: Online marketing is the next unknown challenge for me. I would love to have help with this. I don’t mean social media marketing, which seems to be the buzzing trend. I mean I need help with effective online marketing and overcoming distribution barriers. Also, I would like help developing a written procedures manual. I think written procedures would clarify so many duties and activities for myself and any future employees.

Living at Land of Grass Ranch: The Conrad area has all kinds of cool things to do. I spend my recreational time in the mountains, just south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The nearest trailhead also has a great reservoir for fishing and many creeks and streams are nearby, too. Rodeos are held every weekend in the area during a normal year. Great Falls is an hour away and is a commercial hub so most amenities are available — shopping, movies, ice skating (what else do other, normal people do?). Conrad has a cool little movie theatre and has a thriving arts community/performances when people can get together. City officials hope to have a splash park up and running by summertime. Conrad also has a small farmers market in a park every Tuesday. Conrad has a grocery store, several gas stations, churches and bars, a couple of thrift stores, two fantastic coffeeshops and a couple of greasy spoon restaurants. Two drugstores have offbeat gifts and candy. Two gun shops seem to thrive. A shooting sports center offers indoor precision shooting and outdoor trap shooting.

 

Quivira Coalition Activities: This apprenticeship is offered through Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program. The full cohort of apprentices on regenerative ranches and farms across the west will attend an April orientation, participate in supplemental education provided in partnership with Holistic Management International, and attend the annual Quivira Conference, hosted with Holistic Management International and the American Grassfed Association, in November. Apprentices are also required to write several reports during their apprenticeship; these reports will go through the NAP Coordinator at Quivira, and be posted on the Quivira website.

 

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