Our featured landowner for the fall Stewardship Spotlight is the Franko Ranch in Prairie County. Read more about how Rich and Ellen have made range improvements over the years to benefit their cows, their grass bank and meet their production goals.
Rich and Ellen Franko live on Cherry Creek north of Terry. When you drive into the yard the sign above the gate says “Howdy” and that is exactly how you feel at Franko’s—welcomed. They moved from Melrose in western MT about 16 years ago to transition away from an irrigated haying operation, which necessitated them to lease about 40% of their pasture each year, to an operation that is mostly grass based and Mother Nature provides the moisture.
Some of the major changes that they’ve made include purchasing additional land that they were leasing, water development, water storage, BLM fishing and recreational opportunities and a tree planting with FWP to enhance bird habitat.
Water Development & Storage
Balanced utilization is the primary goal of their grazing philosophy/management so that means GRASS is their number one priority on the ranch! Rich explained that balanced utilization is achieved through deferred grazing, water development and storage–“Water development and storage has been key to proper forage utilization.”
Since the climate can vary so much from pasture to pasture the reservoirs have not been a reliable source for water in terms of quantity and/or quality. Ellen summed up this year’s spring runoff as “spotty as heck,” with parts of the creek running and parts dry this spring. Many of the reservoirs were completely dry after last year’s drought so even those that caught water in 2018 were not filled. They have focused on replacing windmills with solar powered pumps. Another water source they have capitalized on is installing winter tanks which have greatly reduced time and labor required to chop ice, a task that either Rich or Ellen miss! Having a variety of water sources guarantees their cows will have water available throughout the year.
Electric Cross Fencing
Another key factor to balanced utilization is the cross fencing that they have done—in many cases they have split a single pasture into three, which also meant tripling the water sources. The cross fencing and water development didn’t happen overnight but they kept developing both simultaneously until they reached their goal of positively impacting selected pastures. Using electric fence has been a key component to their cross fencing success. When they first began cross fencing a single electric wire was used; when they started getting involved with NRCS projects they began using two wires. Both have been equally effective and their cows are electric fence trained.
Managing Stocking Rates
In keeping with their grazing management philosophy they had to sell some cows last year and they chose not to keep any yearling replacements due to drought conditions. When the dust settled they had reduced their AUM’s by 30%. Both agreed that **GRASS** is their most important resource, even it means having to sell some cows; BUT they also needed to maintain their cash flow so this year they will keep some yearlings and buy some cows to replenish the herd. Cow numbers on the Franko Ranch have remained very stable over the years with their conservative attitude towards stocking rate. Other than 2017, they have only had to sell cows once before.
As for the adverse weather conditions experienced in the last 18 months Ellen put everything into perspective, “It’s all relative, we all do the best we can with what we have.” She further explained, “We knew we were going to have to sell some cows when it became apparent in 2017 that we were eating all of our winter grass! If we wouldn’t have sold some cows and yearlings it would have made the situation even worse. Thankfully in 2018 late spring and early summer rains have been more plentiful. “Every year is different and interesting,” Ellen said.
To try and capitalize on spring forage they don’t start calving until April. Rich explained, “We wean a higher percentage of calves than we did in Western Montana. Our calves are not as heavy–but a live calf always weighs more than a dead one.”
They use their improved crested wheat grass pastures to defer spring turnout onto the native range and are very cognizant about critical forage growing season, especially in May and June. Deferred use is critical when plant growth is rapid. Last year’s drought was hard on some crested wheat grass pastures and they also noticed that the drought and hard winter negatively impacted other introduced grasses in their hay fields as well.
Depending on the year, some pastures may be grazed conservatively in the fall or winter to maintain their AUM’s so winter tanks are critical. Depending on the winter the cows might only receive cake and winter range until they are brought home. Some years the cows haven’t come home until Feb before calving; last year they came home Jan 3 with the deep snowfall. Rich and Ellen also realize that some years they will have to feed more hay than others, even with winter grazing.
When you first drive up to the house in addition to the “Howdy” gate greeting you’ll also see an Undaunted Stewardship placard. The Frankos had participated in range monitoring through Undaunted Stewardship but had not monitored for a few years before becoming part of the Montana Rangelands Partnership. They renewed their monitoring efforts in 2016 and this year completed their range monitoring unassisted—ensuring that the annual process will continue after grant funding ceases.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks has also been a successful partner over the years. FWP has also recognized the benefits to wildlife when utilization is improved with cross fencing and additional water sources. Pastures in FWP partnerships utilize rest rotation grazing management. For example, one of the primary goals with the FWP partnership is to promote sharp tail grouse populations so the Clark Reservoir was been fenced to allow trees to grow and flourish for upland game bird habitat. Rich and Ellen also participated in an FWP tree planting in May 2016 and put in 1500 trees!
They feel very fortunate for their good neighbors. When we first moved here 16 years ago we looked around to see what works in this area. We spent a lot of time visiting with our neighbors and asking them a lot of questions. “There is a reason they are still here.”
In keeping with the learning from their fellow ranchers Franko’s also continued the previous owner’s practice of maintaining partnerships. “We wish to work with NRCS, DNRC, BLM and FWP for land betterment.” The various partnerships have been key to getting things done on the ranch, “We like partnerships and without the partnerships some things wouldn’t get done.” They appreciate the no-cost technical assistance that these agencies and MSU Extension provide to achieve their goal of balanced utilization.