Short History of Montana Ranching
It is said that Montana’s ranching history began in the mid-1850’s with a cattle operation in Deer Lodge Valley started by the Grant Brothers in what was then Montana Territory. The Brothers would drive vibrant oxen to Pocatello, Idaho, trading them for exhausted Oregon cattle.
They would then turn around and drive this new herd of cattle back to Montana to fatten up and sell. This buying and selling strategy increased the number of Montana’s cattle.
But not only did it increase the number of Montana livestock, it created a lucrative business for the Grants.
In order to control the beasts, the Brothers had to establish a specific locality for grazing, calving, and containment. This centralized process of cattle management initiated Montana’s first ranch, comprised of 10 million acres.
Following the Civil War, in the last half of the 1860’s, the number of Texas cattle, though neglected during the War, had increased significantly, outgrowing the ability of Texas’s land to support them.
Consequently, Texas ranchers hired cowboys to lead the cattle north toward new grazing lands. Many passed up Jefferson Territory (now Colorado) because of heavy winter snows in lieu of Montana Territory with its lower snowfall and vibrant, nutrient-rich grasses.
In this way, Montana Territory gained tens of thousands of cattle that prospered on the Territory’s lush, open grasslands.
Montana’s Largest Cattle Drive
During this period, Bozeman’s Nelson Story, having made a fortune in the goldfields around Alder Gulch, Montana, sired an idea. After netting ~$50,000 through gold mining and merchandising, Story determined he’d enter the cattle business.
With two friends, the three headed down to Fort Worth, Texas in early 1866 to buy cattle and ship them to Montana by train.
Montana Ranching history has it that because his cattle were denied transport to Montana by train due to the fear that his cattle had disease, Story drove the over 3000 (some said 600, 1000, or 6000) head of Texas cattle to Montana in 1866.
Following the “bad winter” of 1886-1887, which killed a portion of his 15,000 head of cattle, Nelson Story decided it was time he sold all his Montana cattle.
It’s important to note that during this same post-Civil War period, homesteaders, enticed by free land, followed after the cattlemen, leading to the end of open range grazing in the early 1880’s.
The End of Montana’s Open Range
From the mid-1850’s to the early 1880’s open range cattle ranching flourished. But by the late 1880’s, the invention and increasing use of barbed wire began hampering cattle from wandering the prairie in search of grass, upsetting the cowboy to no end.
With both the invention of barbed wire, to fence-in wandering cattle, and the flood of homesteaders establishing farms, the amount of grazing land for cattle dwindled.
And then, to add injury to insult, the merciless winter of 1886–1887, decimated (killing over 60% of all cattle) the nascent Montana beef industry, leading to the rise of the sheep industry.
Modern Ranching in Montana
Today, managers of Montana ranches have become sophisticated, relying on animal science, field rotation, plant physiology, water conservation, and other expertise to manage cattle.
Ranchers also use state-of-the-art technology like drones, radio tags, microchips, handheld GPS units, and smart phones for tracking their herds.