Working with What You Have

Just north of Judith Gap, MT is the E. L. Peterson Ranch. Since its establishment, the Petersons have been focused on working with what the land has given them, and searching for new opportunities to improve the landscape and their management. When the ranch was purchased in 1951, unfortunately, plenty of leafy spurge came with it. But in this disadvantage, Erling Peterson saw opportunity. He bought some broken-mouthed ewes to try his luck at grazing to control the persistent weed, and it worked. From then on, the E. L. Peterson Ranch continued to take advantage of this unusual forage source, and while leafy spurge still exists on the ranch, the sheep have prevented it from spreading further. Today, the ranch is managed by Erling’s son, Dean, and his wife Trudi, along with their son Ben, who have continued Erling’s legacy of innovative and adaptive management.

I visited the ranch to speak with Trudi and learn about the management strategies they’ve developed throughout the years. During my visit, it became obvious that the Petersons have a true passion for ranching, and a real desire to leave the land better than how they found it. As we sat at the kitchen table, we thumbed through several decades’ worth of range monitoring photos, livestock records, and grazing journals. We traveled out to the pastures in a UTV, where Trudi pointed out places that they had developed new fence or water, planted trees for bird habitat, started spreading manure as fertilizer, planted tall fescue to restore saline areas, and the list goes on. I asked what their grazing management looked like, and the answer I received showcases the innovation and good stewardship happening on the E. L. Peterson Ranch.

Over the years, the operation has expanded to include both cattle and sheep. And with both species of livestock on the ranch, the pastures have been more evenly utilized. For example, either just before or after the sheep are turned out to graze leafy spurge in the spring, the Petersons put their cull cows on the same pasture. Because cattle prefer grass while sheep prefer forbs, both plant types get eaten, preventing either from out-competing the other, which helps maintain species diversity and pasture health.

Another key component of the Petersons’ stewardship is their adaptive grazing strategy, which is based on pasture condition rather than calendar dates. While the Petersons have a general idea of how they’ll rotate livestock throughout the grazing season, they continually adjust their plans based on what the forage looks like. If they planned to start grazing in a particular pasture, but the plants there haven’t reached the proper growth stage, they’ll change course and start in a pasture that is ready, giving the first field an extra week to grow. When deciding if it’s time to move sheep, the Petersons use a “no-bloom” policy: once the tops have been removed from nearly all the leafy spurge (which is one of their sheep’s favorite plants), they rotate to the next pasture.

Trudi, Dean, and Ben also work hard to provide ample recovery time for their landscape. The sheep and cattle rotate through each pasture two or three times during the grazing season, for about five to seven days at a time. And each year, at least one field is left ungrazed after mid-July, to be used for spring turn-out, and the selected pasture changes from year to year. With cattle being moved so frequently, the Petersons discovered that having a cooperative herd was crucial to their operation, which led them to start culling animals based on disposition, regardless of what their calves look like. Trudi cites this change as one of the most important to the operation for the sake of labor, ease of management, and safety. By changing season of use, rotating quickly to keep forage in a vegetative state, building a herd that fits the operation, and adapting based on what the grass is telling them, the Petersons have found a grazing strategy that works for their family, livestock, and land.

After we finished touring the ranch, I ventured to ask if they ever had any “failures”, any new ideas that didn’t pan out. Trudi laughed and said, “Yes, of course.” She mentioned a failed venture in farming canola, which they tried because it was the up-and-coming fad at the time. She also spoke about a period where they backgrounded cattle for other operations, a practice they eventually stopped because it conflicted with their objective to keep only well-mannered cattle on the ranch. The biggest lessons to be learned from the Petersons are that working with the land is more beneficial than trying to fight the land, improvements can always be made, and while not every new idea will work for every ranch, you have to try it in order to find out. The Petersons’ adaptive grazing strategy is an excellent reflection of these principles. Trudi summed up their operation nicely when she said all they’ve really done is learn to work with what they have, and that they’ll strive to continue learning and growing in the future.

If you know someone (including yourself!) who would be a good subject for our stewardship spotlight, contact one of our range technicians so we can help tell their story!