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By Pam Burke 

Home on the Fort

The annual cattle drive from the Bear Paws to Fort Assinniboine


January 17, 2014

Lindsay Brown

On Jan. 9, Montana State University Northern Agricultural Research Center's cow herd made the annual trek from the Research Center's pasture in the Bear Paw Mountains to Fort Assinniboine.

The herd of about 300 bred cows and heifers travelled the 16-mile route from the Thackeray Research Ranch south of Havre on Bullhook Road, through a portion of Beaver Creek Park, across Beaver Creek Dam and north down Assinniboine Road to pasture at the Research Center.

The cows and heifers are the Angus commercial herd that are part of the maternal efficiency herd, said Darrin Boss, superintendent of the Research Center and head of the animal science division at the Ag Research Center.

The bred cows and heifers will calve in the new barn at the Research Center for the first full calving season.

"We bring them down right around the beginning of their last trimester," said Boss, "(when) we know the nutrient requirements are not just for maintaining the cow and the pregnancy. We're now maintaining the cow and maintaining the fetal growth, so we've got to ramp up the nutrients and ramp up the energy and protein for those cows to get ready for calving."

The cows, fed from May to January on the mixed-grass prairie in the Bear Paw Mountains, are part of a study that monitored their individual feed intake as heifers to get an estimation on their growth and weight gain as heifers, said Boss. This data will be correlated with data on the mature cows to get an idea of their efficiency with factors such as feed, longevity and reproduction.

While out on pasture at the ranch, the cows have also been used in studies on optimizing pasture use.

Among the six Research Center employees who herded the cattle this year were Delyn Jensen, a research assistant 3 who lives on the Thackeray Ranch year-round, and Ethan Quinlin, a Montana State University-Northern student working part-time at the Research Center.

"With MSU-Northern being so close and us being attached to (MSU) Bozeman, we're able to hire these young ladies and gentlemen that are going to school at Northern ... help educate them a little bit," Boss said, adding that "they help us immeasurably with the amount of work we can get done.

"It's such a symbiotic relationship for the students, I hope, and for us," Boss said who said that they hire about 20 Northern students a year to help with the cattle, in the fields, with grounds maintenance and even with some of the research.

The Research Center utilizes a Temple Grandin-designed livestock facility at the fort, and a Bud Williams-designed facility at the Thackeray Ranch, said Andy Matakis, livestock operations manager at the Research Center. The upgrades to the Thackeray Ranch were just completed in October, Matakis said.

Both facilities are designed for low-stress handling of the cattle, Matakis added, and the cattle are used to being handled in the two types of facilities.

To help maintain the low-stress atmosphere for the cattle, Boss said, all the employees are trained in Bud Williams' livestock handling methods which emphasize, for lack of a better term, inspiring the needed response from the cattle through handler placement and movement triggering natural responses, rather than forcing a response.

"We want the cows to do what we want them to, but we want the cow to think she's doing what she wants to do. She's less stressed if she's making the decisions versus forcing her. Slower is faster in a lot of ways," Boss said.

Lindsay Brown

Delyn Jensen, left, a research assistant 3 at Northern Agricultural Research Center, and Ethan Quinlin, a student at Montana State University-Northern drive cattle Jan. 9 from the Bear Paw Mountains to pastures at the Research Center at Fort Assinniboine.

"We know if we handle these cattle with low stress we definitely increase our gains in the feed yard, or our baby calves that are growing or our cows that are lactating. We know our reproduction is increasing, we know with every performance factor we can (measure), if these cattle are calm, our cowboys are calm, everything goes better on a production standpoint," he said.

But no amount of low-stress handling can calm the weather, and Boss said he expected, despite supplementing the herd with some protein, a few thin cows from the long, harsh cold of December.

It was, though, nice to have a break in the weather for the day the cattle were driven to the fort, he said, adding that the cattle are brought down from pasture at around the same time every year, no matter the weather, so the cows can be supplemented when needed for that last trimester of pregnancy.

"We don't always hit the chinooks. I can tell you that," he said.


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