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Montana ranchers utilize regenerative ag at Barney Creek Livestock
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Montana ranchers utilize regenerative ag at Barney Creek Livestock

LIVINGSTON, Mont. – Regenerative ag ranching restores the soil, land and grass to the way nature intended it to be, helping ranches to become profitable.

Pete and Meagan Lannan, the fourth generation on Jordan Ranch, operate Barney Creek Livestock and a cow/calf business using regenerative ag.

“We lease and graze the family ranch, and we also regeneratively graze several other leases in the Paradise Valley,” Pete said.

They want the ranch to be there for their two kids, Maloi, 14, and Liam, 12, fifth-generations on the ranch, as well as for the future.

“Grazing regeneratively gives more back to the land than we are taking, which ensures our kids will have a future in agriculture,” he added.

Liam helps around the ranch, and Maloi owns and operates her own market lamb operation, Red Clover Lambs.

“This morning we were up at 4 a.m., picked up the lamb meat at the processor and delivered it to the main chef at Chico Hot Springs,” Pete said, talking on his cellphone as he was out working with the cattle.

The Lannans have a rich history in western Montana, with Pete’s grandparents, Rueben and Mary Ellen Forney, buying the ranch from the Barney Maguire estate in 1900.

Larry and Cathy, Pete’s parents, are the third generation living on the family ranch.

“Pete’s dad, growing up on the family ranch, had seen everything, from when his parents used to deliver cream and milk to town in a horse and buggy to growing all their own food,” Meagan said.  “Then Larry Jordan bought the ranch from his parents, where he ran sheep and cattle at first. He married Cathy, with Larry having three children and Cathy having two. This joined the family to work the land. The family started a dairy when Pete was 9 years old. They were milking cows, and at the same time, Pete’s dad sold real estate and was very successful at it.”

When Pete, the youngest of five and the last “milker,” graduated from high school, the dairy business ended and the family went back to beef cattle.

After high school, Pete followed his dreams of wildland firefighting while he was going to college. He received his degree in chemistry, but turned wildland firefighting into a career.

In fact, wildland firefighting is indirectly how Meagan and Pete met.

For Meagan, raised on a ranch near Thompson Falls, her interest in wildland firefighting led to an apprenticeship program for the federal government after college.

Before she met Pete, Meagan was a member of a BLM hotshot crew in Carson City, Nev., in the summers. In the winter, Meagan would take classes in fighting fires with other wildland firefighters at the academy.

At the academy, Meagan met some of Pete’s employees from Livingston, and she became a close friend of one of the women there.

“My friend kept talking about Pete and how smart he was,” Meagan said.

As fate would have it, her friend ended up marrying one of Pete’s college roommates, who was also in firefighting.

Meagan, who was a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding in Big Sky, took off in her truck after spending all night on an October desert fire, and drove straight north to the wedding in Montana.

“I drove 14 hours with my blue heeler dog to get to Big Sky for the wedding. I arrived tired, but I put my bridesmaid dress on,” she said, with a laugh. “At the reception, who should walk in but the famous Pete, donning a mustache and a big hat. He wasn’t bad to look at, but what sold me was his dance moves. He could really swing.”

The rest was history as they say, except don’t forget about the unique proposal for marriage.

Within a year of dating, Pete proposed to Meagan.

Pete’s engagement proposal was a page out of “an old dude ranch movie,” Meagan said.

“Every time we would go on a horse ride, he would train his horse. (One day) Pete got off his horse and took his lariat off the horn and laid a hoop on the ground,” she explained. “I watched with intrigue as his horse stepped a foot in that loop. Pete gently pulled the rope back, and the horse got down on one knee. Pete looked up and asked me to marry him.”

Pete and Meagan married in 2005, and moved back to Livingston, near the Montana family ranch. They settled into a house in town, had their two kids, before moving back to the ranch.

“We have been back at the ranch about eight years now,” Pete said.

Pete’s dad was not able to keep the cowherd going, due to health issues, so he switched back to raising and selling hay.

“Dad had been running the ranch since the late 1950s and was doing a great job at it,” Pete said.

While Pete was at work at his wildland firefighting job, his dad called him one day.

“Dad told me, ‘If you want to keep this ranch going, you have to figure out a way to do it or I may have to lease it to someone else,’” Pete said.

Pete and Meagan did not want to see that happen to the family ranch, but they knew it was important Pete continue wildland firefighting in the summers. That was their retirement fund, after all.

So they began looking at inputs and the viability of keeping the ranch going. There was the cost of running equipment, fuel, fertilizer, running a pivot, repairs, maintenance, cattle, and seemingly hundreds more.

They knew it could be pretty expensive to operate a ranch in these modern times.

“We didn’t come at it (leasing a ranch) from a regenerative ag or a soil health standpoint. We came at it from an economic standpoint,” Pete said.

Meagan agreed.

“We knew Pete would not be here in the summer, so we had to factor that in. It was just going to be me and the kids here, and I am not comfortable running a tractor,” Meagan said, adding tractors were expensive and she didn’t have the skill to run one by herself.

Pete and Meagan wanted to see if they could run the ranch without haying.

“When it is hay season, it is fire season, so we had to figure out how we could do this without haying,” she said.

The couple wrote it all down – just like they would for any business – and tried to see if they could reduce or eliminate inputs.

“We started looking at how we could do things differently, such as grazing – not that anything my dad was doing was wrong,” he said. “Then I needed to convince my dad that we could try some of it and still put up a little hay.”

Pete’s dad mentioned regenerative ag, so Pete and Meagan started reading about it. They read and read.

Regenerative ag seemed to fit with the idea of low inputs and high benefits.

Those benefits included improved soil health, so better (and more biomass) grass, better water infiltration, more diversity, and healthier cattle – better everything for less cost.

The Lannans started working at regenerative ag, changing, eliminating or adding one thing at a time.

They slowly brought the cows back to the ranch.

“When we had the cows, we started managing differently,” Pete said. “With leasing a ranch, we found that often the money we made was the money we didn’t spend.”

One change they made right away was moving back their calving date to “calving in sync with nature,” which was a warmer time of year.

Now, they could calve with fewer inputs – saving on barn lights, heaters, and extra costs when calves get sick in the cold or nipples freeze.

“Winters often go into May, so we changed our calving date whole-hog and my dad agreed with it, too,” he said.

The cows are calving out on fresh grass.

“We get going on grazing and start moving the cows while they are calving,” Pete said.

With their grazing management, the Lannans move the cattle off of one paddock of grass to another paddock daily. The cows nip the grass – then move.

“When the cows get used to moving everyday, they do it automatically,” Pete said.

The Lannans take the electric fence down behind the cows, and set it up in the next paddock when the cows are there. It takes them about a half hour.

“Last year, we grazed well into January, and we actually held off using some grass we wanted to save,” he said.

They stockpile grass in saved pastures for winter grazing, so there is always available pasture.

“During the summer, we are trying to manage the grass to get it to grow as much as we can. In the winter, we graze the grass,” Pete said.

The grazing management has helped the grasses grow.

While the cows graze, they also spread natural fertilizer – manure and urine – across the pastures or rangeland.

The cow’s constant hoof action works the manure into the soil, feeding the biology and making the soil teem with activity below the ground – and that feeds the grass above ground.

“Our cows work to eat. We don’t just put out hay; they have to work for the grass,” Meagan said.

They have photos taken from where the snow covered the paddock before the cows grazed and after the cows moved into the next paddock. The cows dug through the snow and grazed the grass.

“Our cows drop in body condition a little during winter. They don’t need as great a body condition then and they have fat on their back that they use, too,” Pete said.

The Lannans feed a little hay after winter and closer to calving. During calving, the cows are back on grass.

Their system allows them to use portable water tanks during the summer. In the winter, they use winterized tanks.

For the grass in the pastures, the Lannans are fortunate to have irrigation.

A permanent fence exists between the pivot point and the end of the pivot. The pivot parallels the permanent fence, looking like a donut.

“We set up our temporary fences, and the pivot will walk right over those,” Pete said. 

The first thing Pete saw that showed him these regenerative ag changes were really working on their ranch were the presence of dung beetles in the cow manure pads.

“I saw dung beetles for the first time and that was exciting,” he said.

Meagan pointed out that a soil health specialist told them that dung beetles don’t particularly like pour-ons, and the Lannans had stopped using pour-ons routinely.

“We were looking at inputs that we didn’t need to have and we found we didn’t need to routinely pour our cows,” Pete said. “It is not that we never pour our cows, but we only selectively pour our cows.”

The Lannans had already changed their calving date, and that fall, they poured only those cows that needed it for their health. Both saved on input costs.

Grazing management that improved the soil and the health of the cattle created diversity on the ranch. Grasses that were non-active in the seedbank suddenly pushed up through the soil.

“I was seeing the effects of biodiversity. I kept saying to myself, ‘This is a different grass and that is a different grass – I’ve never seen that before.’ Even forbs started appearing,” he said. “I would call up the NRCS and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s a weed.’”

As it turns out, their cows grazed the weeds along with the grass. As long as the weeds aren’t crowding out the grasses, the cows nip and eat them and are happy and healthy.

“We are trying to work with nature, not against it. We are trying to manage for what we want, and not for what we don’t want,” he said.

For example, Pete pointed out they want better pastures.

“To get better pastures, we manage for that with our grazing, our irrigation and our biological soil amendments,” he said.

One biological soil amendment Pete likes to use is fish hydrolysate, which helps the grass grow and helps rebuild the soil.

“We started using that in mid-summer. It was frustrating at first getting it to work,” he said.

Pete adds the hydrolysate through the pivots with an injector.

Meagan said she has also put molasses on the soil to “wake up the soil biology.”

The couple likes to try different things all the time now to see what works for them – as long as it is cost-efficient.

“When my Dad was young, there weren’t chemicals like we have now. So hearing him talk about what they used instead, including different species, not putting up a lot of hay, and other things, reminds me of what we are doing now,” Pete said. “We are kind of going back in time with our system.”

Because they are a small operation, they have more allowance to do extra things like trying different soil amendments.

Pete would never knock conventional ag, as everyone has different needs, different landscapes, and different operations.

“What works for us may not work for them,” he said.

Meagan started receiving “beeps” on her phone, when Pete saw something that said to him that regenerative ag was working on their ranch.

“I can’t tell you how many times Pete has texted me pictures of new grasses or earthworms he saw or dung beetles late at night or when he is out working,” she said. “All kinds of things happen when the soil biology is active and waking up. Anecdotally, seeing those things was pretty awesome.”

Pete also attended a well-known and well-respected ranch school – Ranching for Profit.

Meagan also works with Western Sustainability Exchange.

“I had the opportunity to connect with other regenerative ranchers across the state of Montana,” she said. “It has allowed us to be part of a regenerative community, and that is great.”

Pete and Meagan share information with other regenerative ranchers. As a group they help each other connect with others to find more on regenerative ag.

Though they operate on irrigated land, Pete said they are enjoying learning about others that operate on dryland rangeland. They share the struggles and the joy of regenerative ag.

Regenerative ag has kept their inputs down and provided benefits to the land, water, grass and cattle.

“We are seeing things on the landscape that are absolutely mind-blowing,” Meagan said. “The more you read, the more you do, the more you see what the possibilities are.”

Pete added, “We don’t know what we don’t know, but we keep on figuring it out.”

The Lannans sell high-quality grass-fed/finished beef online at www.barneycreek.com.

The Prairie Star Weekly Update

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