Dan Doornbos grew up in the Ruby Valley—Laurin specifically. After graduating from Sheridan High School, he attended Montana State University (MSU), then married his wife Janet and went back to school to get his masters.
Janet also grew up in the Ruby Valley. Her grandparents started the Sauerbier Ranch near Alder around the turn of the century and her parents took over ownership and operation of the 10,000-acre ranch.
The young family moved to Havre and for 18 years where Dan worked as an MSU associate professor specializing in beef cattle research. Then, in 1994, Dan and Janet made the decision to return to the Ruby Valley to take over management of Janet’s family’s ranch.
The Ruby Valley Conservation District named Dan the winner of the 2014 Stewardship Award for the conservation work he has implemented at the ranch in the 20 years since he took the reins. On the other side of the county, the Madison Conservation District recognized the Bar K Ranch, which has been owned by the Kelly family since 1958. Luke Todd manages the ranch for current owner Andrew Kelly with the help of Lloyd Mann.
Luke, Lloyd and Dan share one thing in common—they are passionate about conserving the land they manage to make it is sustainable, because as Lloyd says, “sustainability is being able to make a living on a piece of ground.”
At the Bar K, Luke and Lloyd have implemented an intensive grazing program, bale grazing and gravity feed irrigation system.
“We don’t want anything to do with conventional farming,” Luke said. “We don’t ever want to till up and reseed—it’s too expensive.”
Lloyd said the abridged way to explain intensive grazing is that it is the idea of putting cattle on a piece of ground for a limited amount of time and moving them quickly to let the grass regrow. Lloyd and Luke primarily just graze each subdivided plot of the ranch once a year and allow the grass to regrow.
“You don’t want to leave animals on an area for longer than seven days,” Lloyd said. “Nutrients start to go down after that.”
The amount of time they leave cattle in an area varies depending on the size of the herd and the type of grass—also the time of the year. Since spring is wetter, grass regenerates quicker than it does later in the summer.
Luke knew the ranch would have to change grazing practices with its 250 head of cattle to be profitable. Aside from intensive grazing, he implemented a well with a mile and a half of pipeline and three water holding tanks just last year—though it was an expensive project, Luke said it will pay for itself within five years.
“We went from one day of grazing to 45,” Luke said, explaining how the Bar K is better utilizing its rangeland to sustain the herd at the ranch.
Both Luke and Lloyd are humble about the Bar K being recognized by the conservation district because they feel many ranchers are getting interested in sustainable practices like intensive grazing. They were also quick to point out the Valley Garden Ranch has been effectively using intensive grazing for a long time.
“Tilling and seeding can take a full year for grass to regrow,” Luke said. “With a cow, it takes six months and it doesn’t cost a darn thing.”
“A cow is a great tool if you’re willing to use it,” Lloyd added. “But you can’t manage cattle and ground from 2,000 miles away.”
At the Sauerbier Ranch, Dan has implemented many of the same tools Luke and Lloyd are using at the Bar K.
It is his personal opinion that “if you aren’t going forward, you’re most likely going backward,” and he applies that sentiment to the development of his ranch.
The majority of Dan’s 10,000 acres is rangeland and he has recently completed a fencing project and the implementation of a grazing schedule to turn his large pastures into smaller ones to better utilize the range.
“It helps us avoid things like overgrazing creek bottoms,” Dan explained.
Dan keeps his land healthy and watered with an intricate system of underground pipelines and a 10,000-gallon water holding tank. Some parts of the system are even pumped with energy obtained from solar panels.
Dan worked closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which he acknowledges made the implementation of the irrigation system possible. For Dan, conservation all goes back to economics.
“If we can improve our range and our hay production and things like that, it directly turns around as an economic benefit,” he said.
His sentiment was echoed by Luke and Lloyd.
“We knew we had to change,” Luke explained. “We had to adapt our grazing practices in order to sustain the ranch.”