Lisa Schmidt and Steve Hutton raise natural, grass-fed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.
They have two children; Will, 12, and Abby, 4.
Life at the Graham Ranch
By Lisa Schmidt
I’m struggling to write about what we do at the Graham Ranch, why we do it that way and how we got here.
I’m afraid my words could be misconstrued as bragging or boastful. Readers who know my husband, Steve, and me recognize that we have strong opinions about how we like to raise cattle and sheep, but that we also have a long list of improvements we need to make. Just like most ranchers, we tend to keep that list to ourselves, but we know it is there and it keeps us humble.
So I’m going to try to paint a picture through rose-colored glasses and, if you want to see the whole picture, you are welcome to contact me or come visit. Steve will tell you “the rest of the story.”
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
Steve and I purchased the Graham Ranch from the third generation of this intelligent, far-sighted family in 2006. The Grahams came from Scotland in the late 1800’s and filed water rights on this ranch in 1889. The ranch boundaries zig-zag through a basin because the Grahams claimed almost all of the springs in the area. They knew water was key to successful livestock production. They took care of the grass, too.
Steve and I feel like we owe it to this land and to those who came before us to give our very best effort every day, without fail. Those people worked so hard and this land provides so much that we can’t do less than our best. We only hope it is enough.
The Grahams raised sheep here, several thousand at one time. They trailed the sheep to summer pasture on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and then about 40 miles back to the ranch for the winter. Although both of us had much more experience with cattle, Steve and I decided we needed to honor that sheepherding heritage by continuing with sheep. It turns out, I learned to like sheep. Steve hasn’t. He calves. I lamb. Sometimes a division of labor is the best solution.
The Broken Road
Steve grew up with cattle and horses, along with a menagerie of other farm animals, in the mountains of Virginia. He knows what good cattle look like, knows how to feed them, and knows how to work them.
By the time I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to raise cattle. I was at a disadvantage because my family lived in Oregon’s coast range, where we raised timber, not livestock. That slowed me down, but didn’t stop me. I went to work for a Utah cattle rancher after I graduated from Oregon State University and that’s where I found out that I didn’t know ANYTHING about livestock production. Seven years later, I could usually stay on a horse, knew how much hay to throw to a cow, could pull a backward calf and throw a rope if I needed to.
Eventually, Steve made it to Pondera County as the extension agent and I lived in Madison County, near Whitehall, Mont. My son, Will, and I raised natural, grass-fed beef on 100 irrigated acres there. Steve will tell you that I threw a heel loop on him and double-dallied to be sure I really had him caught, but really it was the other way around. Either way, we’re both glad the long and winding, broken road led us to each other.
We raise natural, grass-fed beef and lamb. We don’t use hormones or antibiotics on our animals and we feed them grass, hay and straw. Other people raise livestock differently and you will never hear us criticize their methods. Steve and I think the livestock industry has room for a variety of practices and markets, and each ranch has different circumstances so each rancher produces food for our world a bit differently. We’re all in this together.
A lot of people are curious about grass-fed beef. Lots of opinions float around -- some people say grass-fed tastes different (It does. We think it tastes better), some people like the big nutritional bang that grass-fed offers, some people appreciate knowing where their meat comes from, and some people prefer the flavor of grain-fed beef.
So many people wanted to sample our beef and lamb before buying a large quantity that we found ourselves in the concession business. If you go to any of the area rodeos or the Alive@5 events in Great Falls, you are likely to see our concession trailer, with our A Land of Grass sign behind a couple of charcoal grills. Please stop by and say hello.
Steve and I ranch because we love the land. We want to treat our land right so it is productive for us. We think the way to keep land healthy is to use it to grow plants and then use those plants so the land can continue to grow more. We like to think in cycles and systems: The sun shines on seeds and the rain falls. The seeds sprout and grow. An animal eats the plant, uses a part of that energy to grow and a part of it to process the plant. Unused nutrients pop out the back end and mix with the soil to help new seeds sprout.
We like Angus cattle, Targhee sheep, foundation Quarter Horses and John Deere equipment. We think everyone should thank our veterans and our religious beliefs are strong and private.
Rocky Mountain High
We traded good-paying jobs for a chance to live as we please, with only ourselves to make our decisions. Neither of us regrets that trade. We don’t have a lot of extra cash to spend on stuff we really don’t need. Instead, we have experiences to make our lives rich. Both of us like to work hard enough to fall asleep at night. Both of us like the fresh air in our faces and both of us agree that we take care of our kids and our livestock before we take care of anything else.
We’ve been out in blizzards, wind storms and biting cold. Both of us have frost-bitten body parts. We’ve hauled wheelbarrow loads of dead newborn lambs that froze in a spring blizzard.
And we’ve been out with the first sprigs of new green grass. We’ve pulled a calf that wasn’t coming out right and then stood back to watch it shake its wet head and stagger to its feet. We’ve felt the sunshine warm us as we leaned against tall golden straw bales. We’ve had orphan lambs chase us across the pasture, catching up with us so they can be first to slurp the bucket of warm milk from Helga, our milk cow. We’ve ridden reliable horses across Headquarters, Badger, and a few other Rocky Mountain passes. We’ve watched the fog lift from Big River Meadows and felt the frost roll in at Gates Park.
This is life at the Graham Ranch.