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.
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.
When his sons decided to return to the ranch, the family leased additional land to shift to the yearling system for their own calves, and to purchase additional stocker cattle to help support the next generation in ranching. Donald says he was enthused to hear of growing interest in ranching among younger people during his time with NCBA and says the current health of the beef industry should encourage participation from younger generations.
The family holds regular meetings to discuss day-to-day operations and long-term business planning for the ranch. Their strategies focus on the ranch’s mission statement, which reads: “Provide a successful, nurturing, multi-generational, family ranch by raising high-quality Angus cattle using sustainable resource stewardship. This requires integrity and a strong communicative team that fosters innovative leadership. As a model ranch we will be an asset to our community and educate others by sharing our unique lifestyle.”
In keeping with the goal to “educate others by sharing our unique lifestyle,” Donald plans to continue his video series titled “Bill on Beef.” The short videos, housed on the Montana Stockgrowers Association’s website, target the general public with messages about all aspects of ranching and beef production. As of mid-February, the site contains 41 videos covering topics from winter feeding and delivering calves to picking out a steak at the retail meat case. Donald recently taped several more videos set in a restaurant, a small, local packing plant and a ranch-supply store.
Donald says he tries to keep the videos light-hearted and fun, and he’s found the project rewarding. The videos have attracted a strong following by offering the public a friendly introduction to the ranching lifestyle. You can view the videos on YouTube or from the Montana Stockgrowers Association at mtbeef.org/bill-on-beef.aspx.
Donald took on the leadership of NCBA during a difficult time, facing a laundry list of contentious legislative issues and a painful rift between NCBA and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. The general perception across the industry is that he performed exceptionally and was the right leader for the times. His ability to break down barriers, unify divergent groups and build consensus helped NCBA achieve key legislative victories and restore a sense of solidarity.
Praise for Bill Donald’s leadership
In early February, Drovers/CattleNetwork.com ran an article titled “Bill Donald: The exit interview,” in which writer Chuck Jolly documented some of Donald’s observations on his recently completed tenure as NCBA president. The article attracted several reader comments which illustrate how many beef producers around the country feel about Donald’s leadership.
Paul from Pennsylvania
I want to say that Bill Donald exceeded my expectations, and it’s very much in order for all of us cattlemen to thank him for his years of service and leadership to our industry. I’d also like to thank his family for allowing Bill to be gone so much during the past year. I really hope non-NCBA members recognize and appreciate the efforts of Bill Donald this past year and better understand the importance of leadership to our livelihoods and just how critical it is to have a unified voice. Thank you, Bill Donald.
Greg from Iowa
I totally agree. Having been a neighbor to the Donald family in Montana, it is easily understood how well Bill stepped up to the tasks put before him. Way to go, Bill!
Jan from Kansas
Congratulations to Bill and the NCBA team...You led us through a most challenging time. Your sense of humor and respect for all cattlemen and women allowed all to have a say and “own” this process and the many accomplishments you championed on our behalf. Pulling together in the same harness is still the way for those of us in agriculture to change the burdensome climate in D.C. You’ve earned a rest! You have left your mark and we thank you.
Jerry from West Virginia
Bill Donald is a born leader who fully understands what it takes to not only survive but thrive in the face of daunting challenges and seemingly insurmountable odds. I concur with Paul — expectations exceeded! Industry benefited and producers have begun to have faith in their investment for the future. Thank you, Bill! Now, enjoy yourself.
Ross from Canada
Refreshing energy and outlook for cattlemen. Thanks!
Carlie from Kansas
Thank you to Bill for all of his hard work and dedication to the industry and cattlemen everywhere!