In central Montana, where the Missouri River and the Judith River meet, you’ll find some of the roughest range around. This is where the DeMars family runs cattle, and those cattle must match their tough environment.

It’s a Black Angus herd. “We follow EPDs, but we also try to buy bulls with eye appeal,” says Tom DeMars. “We like long bulls that have some leg under them.”

“We try to get our cattle to where they’ll utilize the terrain,” adds Joe DeMars, Tom’s son. “They are taller than the average Angus cow; that helps them with the terrain.”

Bringing those cows through the winter in good condition requires some strategizing. Keeping winter grass is one way the DeMars family does that. Fortunately, their place includes three different ranches, one of which has good farm ground. “Joe seeded it back to grass, alfalfa, clover,” Tom says. “We pasture it in the fall, and we hay it, too. We try not to hit it too hard.”

Using it in the fall and winter just makes sense. “It’s not an option to graze any other time but late fall and early winter—we can’t graze it when there’s a crop there,” Joe explains. There’s also a lot of grass growing around the farm ground; the whole cow herd can go there, except for replacement heifers.

They try not to feed any hay until January. “Maybe the second or third weekend of January, we give them maybe 10 pounds of hay a day,” Joe says. “We don’t want the condition to go down. That also makes the grass last longer; we’re not working the range as hard.”

To increase their grass, they tried a herbicide called Spike on a patch of heavy sagebrush. “We flew it on it in strips,” Tom says. “We felt like if we took it all out, we’d lose the ability to hold snow. It’d surprise you how good the grass is growing in those strips.” That process is helped by the sagebrush itself. “The woody part of the plant holds nitrogen,” Joe says. “As the plant breaks down, it’s releasing nitrogen back into the soil.”

They’ve also tried changing pasture seeding mixes, using various seasonal grass seeds together. “I just combined a bunch of them so I didn’t need to worry about when I’d graze it,” Joe says. “If it gets too tall, I hay it. If the hay is a little rank, I put it through the bale processor.” Joe is a firm believer in the advantages of a bale processor, especially on less-than-ideal forage. “It chops it up, knocks a lot of dust out, mixes the leaves and stems,” he says.

Developing water has also helped them improve their range. “On the Judith River ranch, with the BLM we put in a water saver on land that never had any water near it.” A water saver involves a big rubber sheet on a slight grade with a pipe on one end that runs into a deep pit. It holds 60,000 gallons of water. “We’ve developed springs and collection boxes and dug an artesian well. On the BLM range on the Missouri, they hit a big well. Between me and my neighbors, we’ve got 31 tanks and 30 miles of pipe on it.”

But for all of those efforts, they’ve still had to deal with about seven years of drought. Cow numbers have been cut by 50 to 75 head. Other strategies included putting out lick tubs through the breeding season to supplement the poorer grass. “I felt like that kept the cows cycling very well,” Joe says. “We also used a creep feeder all summer long on the first-calf heifers and old cows. There was a 13 percent change in conception rate.”

In such ways, the DeMars family continues to, as Joe says, “use lemons to make lemonade.”