click image to zoom After spending a year representing cattle producers as NCBA president, rancher Bill Donald has returned to Montana, shifting his focus away from politics and back to family, cows and calves. He’ll probably always be involved in efforts to benefit the beef industry, but he’s happy to have his boots back on the ground, working the day-to-day chores.
Donald and his family operate Cayuse Livestock Company, a third-generation ranch located east of the Crazy Mountains near Melville, Mont. Donald’s grandfather founded the ranch in 1909, and the family recently celebrated the operation’s centennial year. Donald and his wife work the ranch, along with his sister and her family, and his two sons and their families. During his tenure as NCBA president, Donald spent about 250 days on the road, and he credits his family with keeping ranch operations running smoothly. He jokes that he’s moved from a management position to laborer, as family members have embraced responsibilities for managing the ranch.
Cayuse Livestock Company includes cow-calf and yearling enterprises, running an Angus-based cow herd. Donald says winter winds from the mountains west of the ranch tend to blow the rangeland free of snow, allowing the family to keep their cows on range throughout the year, using protein supplements but little other supplemental feeding. The ranch also includes some dryland farm ground, which the family manages in partnership with a neighbor.
Bill Donald says he enjoyed his year as NCBA president but is happy to be back on the ranch. The family’s Angus cattle, selected for moderate frame size and mature weights around 1,200 to 1,300 pounds, are well adapted to the Montana range environment. Donald says the cows have good capacity for consuming large quantities of lower-quality forage on dormant range and maintain good body condition through the winter.
The cow herd calves during May and June, a schedule Donald says matches the cows’ peak energy demands with peak forage supplies. At about a mile in elevation, the area’s growing season is short and cattle spend a good part of the year grazing dormant forage. One year, snow fell on July 15. “People around here weren’t sure if it was the first snow of the season or the last,” Donald says.
After weaning calves in the fall, they hold them through the winter and following summer and sell them as 800-pound long yearlings in September. Demand for the yearling cattle has been strong, with sales through video auctions and order buyers. Donald believes the yearling system, focused on cheaper gains on forage and shorter finishing periods, will help optimize ranch returns today and into the future as grain prices remain high.