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Craig and Conni French ranch together outside of Malta, Mont. The couple was recently awarded the 2020 Montana Leopold Conservation Award. Photo by Isaac Miller.

Twenty miles south of the Hi-Line community of Malta, Mont., lies C Lazy J Livestock, Inc., the home of Craig and Conni French, generational Montana ranchers and the winners of the 2020 Montana Leopold Conservation Award.

This prestigious award is given in honor of renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold, and it is meant to recognize private landowners who are dedicated to managing wildlife and water all while preserving the integrity of their working lands.

Craig and Conni have a ranching background not unlike most producers in Montana. Craig’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side homesteaded around the Malta area in 1910. Craig and Conni moved back to the operation in 1991 and worked the land for over 25 years until, just three years ago, they decided to focus on their own property.

“I’ve always considered Conni and me a functional unit and we could make a living no matter where we went. We decided to try and prove that about three years ago,” Craig said.

Even though the couple started an adventure on their own, they took a bit of family history with them. Their brand, the C Lazy J, was originally owned and used by Craig’s great-grandmother, who homesteaded in the Malta country as a widow with two small children. It is safe to say tradition, tenacity and appreciation for the land run in their blood.

Running a cow/calf and custom grazing operation, the Frenches have always been stewards of the land by implementing management practices that promoted healthy grazing lands. At an NRCS work day about seven years ago, a speaker discussed grazing practices and how easy it can be to overgraze and undergraze a field at the exact same time. Craig and Conni listened intently and left the workshop determined they could do better.

“That is when we really started thinking harder about what we are doing and diving in more closely to reading some books, watching videos and attending seminars,” Conni explained.

Since that light bulb moment, the Frenches have been dedicated students of conservation. They have educated themselves in any way possible. They attended a Ranching for Profit School and later joined the Executive Link Program. Conni says that program really gave them the confidence to think outside the box.

First off, the Frenches began using temporary electric fence on their operation, which Craig says has allowed them to utilize forages they never had before.

“You see instant benefits there because suddenly you are using your whole place,” he added.

Next, the couple saw a need to install a solar pump to help provide stock water. Going along with that, Craig and Conni began to learn about protecting riparian areas as they provide crucial habitat for predatory insects, the kind that eat and help control the flies that bother cattle during the summer months.

“We don’t let our cattle have complete access to our reservoirs and creek bottoms so we can save some of that habitat. We have also gone away from using any kind of pour-on on our cattle because when you use it you are not only killing the bad bugs, but you are killing the good ones and that all correlates back,” Craig stated.

The Frenches hold high respect for Allan Savory, a renowned ecologist who promotes holistic management. It is never about just one management decision or change being the deciding factor, rather it is about all the pieces and aspects coming together to make a positive difference.

Craig and Conni are also very cognizant of soil health. In fact, they admit it is something they are constantly thinking about. Being a steward of the land means just that – taking care of the soil foundation on which the entire ranch is built.

Of course, in any agriculture operation, it all boils down to the bottom line. Although ranching has never been about the money to Craig and Conni, by changing their management style they have been able to see some favorable economics.

“This year, on somewhat of a drought year, we are running about one animal unit per 22 acres. If we were conventionally managing, it would be more like 1:40 or 1:50,” Craig said.

Since the Frenches only graze cattle and no longer put up any of their own hay, the extra cattle they are able to run more than pays for the hay they have to purchase to sustain their herd over the winter.

Boiled down, Craig says, the better the land, the better the finances.

Although very deserving, Craig and Conni are very humbled by this award. They never set out trying to prove a point, the couple just wanted to be kind to the land and learn to better co-habitat with all its creatures. As a couple, one of Craig and Conni’s favorite things is being able to ride out through their cattle and spot deer who are unfazed by their presences.

To Craig and Conni, the greatest measure of success is marked with a positive attitude and a heart filled with gratitude. The Frenches want to thank everyone who has helped them get to where they are today, but most of all, they are thankful to the land, the livestock and wildlife that have allowed them to live the life they cherish.