Veebaray Ranch

8 month cattle ranching apprenticeship in Sidney, Montana

The Ranch

The Veebaray is a scenic 16,000 contiguous acre rangeland cow/calf and stocker operation located between the Missouri River Breaks and the North Dakota badlands.  The terrain is a unique mix of rolling hills, steep breaks, wooded coulees, draws, and rough outcroppings. This varied habitat supports healthy populations of upland gamebirds, mule deer, whitetail deer and pronghorn antelope. Recent bird surveys counted 50 species residing here.  Although not widespread in our part of Montana, even elk and moose can be found on the ranch.  

Passed down through the founder’s family for over 100 years, the ranch is now operated by an onsite manager/mentor and overseen by the Board of Directors.  Our philosophies are strongly influenced by Ranching for Profit, Holistic Management, Bud Williams, Burke Teichert, Jim Gerrish and Johann Zietsman, to name a few.  We work cooperatively with many organizations – Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks;  World Wildlife Fund; The Nature Conservancy; NRCS;  Eastern Montana Regenerative Agriculture;  Western Sustainability Exchange – to improve wildlife habitat, range health, ranch operations and knowledge base.     

We raise cattle, but are really in the solar energy business.  Every acre of the ranch is a solar panel to capture sunlight, soak up rainfall and grow grass.  Planned grazing is the tool to influence energy flow, water cycling, nutrient cycling and community dynamics in our grassland ecosystem.  We graze in ways that positively reinforce this cycle, improving the land for future generations.  Truly symbiotic, healthy soils grow more grass and capture more solar energy for our livestock to convert into valuable products.  

At Veebaray, apprentices work alongside the ranch manager, his family, occasional day help and private contractors to achieve the ranch mission of producing high quality livestock in a sustainable and profitable manner.  Regenerative grazing is critical to reaching that end and much of our current focus is on supporting infrastructure – fence and water – and making these capital expenditures cost effective requires thorough analysis.  Where will fence and water improvements provide the greatest return?  Which improvements should take priority?  What results can we expect?  Apprentices participate in the plan, design and build phases of fence and water systems to gain decision making experience in addition to hands-on skills. 

We avoid using the same part of the ranch in the same season year after year.  For example, we no longer have dedicated ‘sacrifice’ areas that are used in the same season for the same purpose every year.  That approach trends toward declining ecosystem function and is contrary to our mission.  In cooperation with MT FWP, we follow the Gus Hormay pasture rest/rotation system.  This system rotates our pastures through ‘early’, ‘late’ and ‘rest’ grazing periods.  ‘Early’ pastures are grazed during the growing months of May, June and July.  Grazing in ‘late’ pastures occurs after the majority of species have set seed (August-November) and ‘rest’ pastures are not grazed at all for a year.  Every pasture is ‘early’ one year, ‘late’ the next and then completely rested in the 3rd year.  The system is designed to vary the location and timing of animal impact around the ranch.  Our goal is to promote diverse plant communities that are desirable for grazing, resilient to weather challenges and provide wildlife habitat.  In addition to the rest/rotation system, we strive to graze as many days of the year and move animals onto fresh grass as often as possible.  In some parts of the ranch, this means we move animals and poliwire every day.  In other areas where terrain or water resources are limiting factors, we may aim to reduce grazing periods to ten days or less.  We experiment with and employ whichever method (rotating through permanent paddocks;  intensive strip grazing with temporary fences;  herding/instinctive migratory grazing) is best suited to the situation at hand.  Year ‘round managed grazing is a product of planning, adapting to conditions and monitoring the results.  

How many animals do we have/what is our forage demand?  How much grass do we have?  Did we give them too much or too little grass today?  How much grass is available for winter grazing?  What is the average body condition?  What is our rolling precipitation total?    Apprentices help create and implement grazing, supplementation and drought plans gaining experience in one of the most important aspects of ranch operation.  

Many folks that adopt managed grazing eventually find their cows aren’t well adapted to new management conditions.  Some find that their ranch’s resources are better suited to a different class of livestock.  We are undertaking both approaches – genetic selection for cows adapted to this ranch and seasonal stocking for additional income, animal impact and flexibility.  To really make those efforts worthwhile, we also need to budget and market intelligently.  We are influenced by Ranching for Profit techniques, Bud Williams sell/buy marketing and the BOD’s experience in professional finance.  The manager/mentors and several members of the board are RFP and/or sell/buy marketing school graduates.  We meet regularly for strategic planning and business monitoring.  

What was our breeding percentage this year and what impact did management changes have on it?  When does the market suggest we sell our calves?  What class of animal might we buy back?  How will these decisions affect cash flow?  Apprentices are encouraged to participate in business meetings about genetic selection, enterprise mix, budgeting and marketing.  

Our cattle are often enrolled in third party verified programs (Source and Age Verification, Verified Natural Beef, Non Hormone Treated Cattle, GAP) and eligible for grass fed programs to produce a quality product and receive a premium in the marketplace.  As part of our NRCS contract and good animal husbandry, we collect body condition scores every month.  Cattlemax software is used to maintain herd records.  Apprentices participate in record keeping and auditing processes to maintain compliance and accurate herd records.  

We are big fans of low stress animal handling (stockmanship) as taught by Bud Williams, Whit Hibbard, Steve Cote and others.  We also have a budding interest in Instinctive Migratory Grazing that may play a role in the future.  While our animals are generally in good health, there are always individuals that require assistance at calving, special care or treatment for illness.  In those cases, we follow Beef Quality Assurance guidelines, the advice of our veterinarian and sometimes use alternative therapies.   Apprentices gain hands-on experience in proper animal handling and practical ranch veterinary care. 

land of grass ranch conrad lisa

Hear more about The Veebaray on this episode of Regeneration Rising. New Agrarian Program alum Graham Holtrop guest-hosts and interviews his former mentor Jim Spinner (current mentor at The Veebaray). Graham and Jim discuss what they love about ranching, what it takes to be ranch manager, and advice for first-generation ranchers who may pursue ranch management, as opposed to ownership.

The Mentors

Jim & Jess Spinner – Manager, Veebaray Cattle Co.

Jim and Jess began their managed grazing journey in the late 1990s with bison.  First generation ranchers, they leaned heavily on a desire to learn and the knowledge of mentors.  Those mentors are the main reason they are mentors now – to foster the next generation of land stewards.  As their experience (and family) grew, their vision became more intensely focused on soil and pasture response to high density, short duration grazing with cattle and portable electric fencing.  Jim and Jess are Ranching for Profit graduates and continue to seek out new learning opportunities.  They have experience in high rainfall environments (WI), arid rangeland (MT) and center pivot irrigation grazing systems.  For many years, they sold grass fed beef and developed grass efficient genetics.  Jim was a founding board member of the Wisconsin GrassFed Beef Cooperative.  Jess is an experienced educator and a key influence on their teaching style.  Exposed to Bud Williams Stockmanship nearly 20 years ago, and not knowing any other way to handle stock, the entire family is a tremendous help on cattle working days.  Their family motto is “Be kind, proactive and adventurous”.

The Apprentice

What will an apprentice do?

We perform work with whatever tool appropriate to the task – machine, horseback, by hand or on foot – and as governed by individual comfort levels.  In addition to management related opportunities highlighted in bold above, apprentices will also gain practical experience in ranch work:

Stockmanship experience on the ranch (regular pasture moves, gathering large pastures, animal handling events like branding, pregnancy checking,sorting and shipping) and through Quivira sponsored workshops  

Daily tasks –  moving temporary poliwire fences, checking cattle, monitoring grass growth/recovery, permanent fence maintenance, equipment maintenance, assessing animal health/condition/manure consistency, animal husbandry 

Equipment operation (tractor, skidsteer, bale bed, trailers, ATV) – road maintenance, loading/unloading trailers, handling hay bales, mowing, seeding, snow removal, etc

Seasonal tasks – calving, cover crop seeding, branding, bull turnout/removal, fence line weaning, pregnancy checking, shipping, standing forage inventory, winter feeding, building/landscaping/facilities maintenance, rangeland monitoring, bull shopping, building beaver dam analogs, welding 

Community building – when neighbors ask for help, we try to be there.  That may mean branding, preg checking, gathering strays, trailing cattle, shipping, video taping bulls and other applicable tasks.  Much can be learned watching and working at other operations.

Small animals – we also raise pigs and chickens, mostly for our own consumption.  We may try our hand at hair sheep on a small scale in the near future.  Multispecie husbandry is valuable experience and has potential for expansion. 

As apprentice skill and confidence develops, they take on greater responsibility and ownership.

We value ongoing education and encourage apprentices to take advantage of opportunities to expand their knowledge.  In addition to Quivira sponsored programming, past apprentices have attended:  Ranching for Profit workshops, Lost Rivers Grazing Academy, roping/horsemanship clinics, grazing workshops with recognized experts, soil health workshops and ranch tours.  In cooperation with The Nature Conservancy and EMRA, Veebaray has plans to host Beaver Dam Analog workshops.


What skills and traits are required in an apprentice?

    • Valid Driver’s License;  clean background   
    • Honesty, integrity, responsibility
    • Sense of humor;  ability to rebound from hard lessons
    • Enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture
    • Strong work ethic – attention to detail, desire to achieve excellence
    • Motivated – driven to learn and contribute
    • Preference may be given to candidates with previous experience
    • Physical/mental fitness and coordination appropriate to a position involving heaving lifting, hiking, manual labor and tool usage outdoors in all weather conditions and uneven terrain for long hours around large animals and allergens

Nuts & Bolts

Start Date: March/April

Length of Apprenticeship: 8-9 months

Stipend: $1000/month base with opportunity for increases based on experience and/or performance  

General work hours: Typically 40-50 hours/week, 7am-5pm M-F, lunch break and minimal weekend duties.  If we are working far from HQ, it is advisable to pack a lunch.  Seasonal activities often alter the schedule (longer days or more days worked per week), but we maintain work/life balance by adjusting the schedule following periods of extended work.  Occasionally work requires all hands on deck, but there is often flexibility in the schedule to accommodate other days off if needed.  

Housing: “The Condo”.  Older, but comfortable private house located at headquarters approximately ¼ mile from other residences.  Major appliances and basic cooking utensils are provided.  

Laundry: Washer/dryer in apprentice housing

Internet availability: Wi-fi in apprentice housing

Cell Phone: Cell coverage is fair on most of the ranch.  Hill tops tend to have service.  Verizon is the preferred provider. There are places on the ranch with no cell service.

Time off: 1-2 days off per week, depending on seasonal workload.  Apprentice and mentor off times may not always be the same days to allow some personal space and ensure essential duties are covered.

Visitors policy:  Generally, visitors are welcome as long as they act respectfully and don’t interfere with work performance.  Advanced notice is appreciated. 

Food: The ranch provides beef.  Shared meals are regularly offered.

Pets: Working horses or dogs may be allowed.  Let’s discuss it.

Horse use: We like to check fences, check cattle and move cattle horseback, but often use ATVs/UTVs if they are the most practical.  We like to brand horseback, but sometimes use calf tables.  The ranch does not provide horses or gear, so while an interest or experience in using horses is desirable, it is not a guarantee apprentices will be allowed to use our personal horses or gear.  Due to health and safety risks involved, this will be handled on a case by case basis.  

Tobacco and alcohol use:  No smoking or spitting in ranch buildings or vehicles.  Always be cautious of fire danger if smoking. Legal use of alcohol during non-work hours that doesn’t impact work performance is acceptable. 

Guns: Guns are allowed but must be disclosed to ranch managers. 

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 ranch carries Workman’s Compensation to cover injuries incurred on the job. 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.

Ranch vehicles: Apprentice will drive ranch vehicles during work hours.  It is useful to know how to operate a 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, bedding, towels and work gear.  We will provide suggestions upon hire.

Things an apprentice could help figure out:  Our range monitoring program is in its infancy and we would support an apprentice that is willing to undertake its development.  We are open to suggestions and experimenting with additional livestock and ecotourism enterprises.  There may be opportunity to propose and operate a new enterprise which adheres to Veebaray’s strategic vision.  For those with literary flair or interest in photography, there is opportunity to contribute to ranch media.   

Living at Veebaray Company: There are 3 residences on the ranch – condo, manager’s house and a rental house.  Tenants in the rental house are not ranch employees and their privacy is to be respected.  President of the BOD makes regular ranch visits.

Basic amenities (gas, groceries, hardware, bar w/food, cafe, churches) are available within 15 miles of the ranch.  Sidney (30 miles) offers larger chain grocery stores, fitness facilities, movie theater, local beer brewing, tiny airport and limited shopping.  Williston, ND (90 miles) has the nearest Walmart and regional airport.  Billings (290 miles) offers many restaurant options, shopping and regional airport.  It is a long day or overnight excursion to visit Billings and spend any time there.  

Camping and hiking are available on the ranch and outdoor activities are available at Gartside Reservoir (40 miles), Makoshika State Park (70 miles), Theodore Roosevelt National Park (100 miles), Fort Peck Reservoir (120 miles), Black Hills National Forest (330 miles).  These are just a few examples.

Keep in mind that the ranch is located only 2 hours from Glasgow, known as the “most remote place in the lower 48”.  There are more cattle than people in this part of the world and it is BIG country.  It doesn’t matter how often we mention it, visitors are always surprised about how far it is to everything.    

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 by Quivira Coalition, 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.