Ten miles southwest of the central Montana town of Winnett lies the Joe C. King and Sons Ranch. The multi-generational cow/calf operation is now owned by Chris and Gari King. On June 10, at the Montana Stockgrowers Association’s (MSGA) annual mid-year meeting in Lewistown, the ranch was awarded the 2021 Environmental Stewardship Award.
For the Kings, ranching and grazing management has been a family affair. The ranch was started in the 1930s and for nearly 80 years it has survived wet years, dry years, and a drought in the early 1960s that was so bad the family was forced to liquidate their herd and build it again.
It was Chris’ father, Joe King, who began to critically examine commonplace grazing practices and question whether or not there was a better way to manage the land.
“When I was a kid, this country was all grazed in common. At least a dozen ranchers would turn out and everyone was just supposed to put out an appropriate number (of cows). It was just season-long grazing and the cattle kind of focused where they wanted to,” Chris said.
In the late 1960s, while grazing in common was being practiced, Joe was reading and learning about rest-rotation and other methods of grazing management. In the early 1970s, he approached the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and inquired if he could apply a rest-rotation grazing plan on his ranch.
The BLM was more than willing to work with Joe and help him fence off his grazing area. Reflecting on that time, Chris says that within a few years of employing a rest-rotation grazing system the family started to see positive results on their rangeland.
For 50 years, the Joe C. King and Sons Ranch saw great success with their rest-rotation grazing management approach, but it seems every generation in the King family has an inquisitive mind, a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to do things better.
“I continue to go to grazing workshops and read, as do my kids who are back on the ranch. We talk about these things a lot and a few years ago we decided to change our system up and do a deferred rotation system,” Chris explained.
To practice a deferred grazing rotation system the King family utilizes six pastures instead of the five they used for a rest-rotation grazing system. Instead of completely resting a pasture for a whole year, the Kings graze all of them, but whatever pasture was grazed first one year is grazed last the next year. This sort of rotation gives each pasture about 17 continuous months of rest. With more pastures in the rotation, cattle are in each pasture for a shorter amount of time and therefore not continually hounding the grass as it is trying to grow.
“To me, overgrazing is not necessarily a matter of too many cows in one spot, but it’s too many bites on the same plant,” Chris said.
Grazing management isn’t the only thing the King family is doing to steward their landscape. They are also working closely with the BLM to develop water sources and better distribute the water so cattle can more effectively utilize the grass.
The next generation of Kings, son Jay and daughter and son-in-law Kylie and Mitch Thompson, are now back home on the operation and along with them comes more progressive conservation ideas that are being tossed around at the dinner table. Chris honestly couldn’t be happier about that. He says there is nothing more gratifying then having kids who want to come back to the ranch.
“The great thing about having the kids come home is they come back with new ideas,” he said.
Jay has inspired the family to use cover crops to help boost the soil on some marginal hay ground and he is also experimenting with ways to slow up water sources often found in coulees in an effort to broaden the oasis of green grass.
Chris admits, he was a little surprised when he found out the family ranch had been nominated and ultimately won the Environmental Stewardship Award. He attests the ranch is not a showplace with fancy fences, manicured lawns or new shiny pickup trucks. Rather, Chris says the operation is not unlike its neighbors – just trying to find a way to manage the land and grass in a sustainable way so the ranch can be successfully passed on to the next generation.
It is with that progressive mindset that Chris, Gari, Jay, Kylie and Mitch continue to work together to steward the land, the cattle, and the lifestyle they love.
“It’s fun to try to do better,” Chris concluded.