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Red Bluff Community Field Tour

On August 17th we hosted a field tour with the folks at Red Bluff, the Montana State University Research Ranch right here in Madison County. Field tours are a great opportunity to explore working lands and learn more about local operations.

The tour began with a delicious picnic style lunch. We sat under cottonwoods and learned about the history of Red Bluff from Ranch Foreman, Noah Davis. He explained that Red Bluff used to be a town with a mining legacy. As the gold dried up folks moved to the nearby town of Norris and transitioned to sheep ranching.

Today, Red Bluff is an outdoor lab and classroom for MSU professors and students studying livestock production, range and animal sciences, soils, and geology. It has the dual purpose of education and functioning as a working ranch to maintain an operation that is relevant to the surrounding community. Although this dual goal makes things more complicated, it is essential in order to operate as a good model and make sure their findings are applicable to working ranches.

The ranch is 13,000 acres and runs 200 head of cows and 400 sheep. It has several streams and wells for water, receives an average of 15 to 16 inches of precipitation annually, and has 250 acres of sub irrigated meadows. Most of the rangeland is native grassland, dominated by Bluebunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue.

Noah Davis discussed calving time and how it impacts all the other operations at Red Bluff. Although most operations calve in winter and early spring, at Red Bluff they don’t calve until May. This allows flexibility of where they calve and reduces the amount of labor needed during the calving process. It also allows them to optimize forage and avoid having to buy hay to feed their cattle. The time of year that you calve effects the timing of everything else throughout the year. For example, cows need peak nutrients between calving and breeding, the time when they’re nursing calves. Because of this, calving time dictates when you have to use the best feed to improve nutrient intake. Many ranches don’t have the flexibility to move their calving later, because various pastures have specific times when they can graze it, and calving later disrupts your management cycle. It was interesting to learn about why Red Bluff calves in May, while considering the complexity of that decision and how the timing of everything else has to be restructured to accommodate that change.

The 400 sheep are bread in November to December and lamb in April. They have a sheep herder that lives with them full-time when out on the range and a couple of guard dogs to protect the sheep from wolves and coyotes. The guard dogs sleep around the sheep and chase any threats off. They primarily run Targhee sheep, but also have Rambouilliet, Columbia, and South African Meat Merino sheep. Although the primary purpose is to produce wool and meat, the sheep can also be used to control weeds, specifically grazing leafy spurge before it goes to seed.

The next portion of the tour took place on the border of where a significant fire occurred two years go. About 1,000 acres of the ranch burned, from Bradley Creek Rd all the way to the property boundary along Highway 287. The broadly accepted recommendation is to give a pasture two years of rest after a burn. Dr. Sam Wyffels and graduate student Janessa Kluth used this burn as an opportunity to examine this recommendation and study the impacts of various amounts of rest on the health of the pasture, soil, and cattle. It is important to recognize that not all burns are the same. Depending on intensity, duration, and health of the landscape before the burn, the recovery process can widely vary. The recommendation to allow two years of rest might be appropriate in some scenarios, but they wanted to experiment and learn more. Additionally, this project incorporates soil health by examining the bacterial communities present in the soil. They are able to take soil samples and map the microbial community by identifying the DNA present.

Dr. Tim DelCurto then introduced his research on providing supplemental feed. He’s a beef specialist at MSU and studies optimal use of rangeland forage for beef production in Montana. He offered insights on the quality of forage depending on the time of year, and when it’s necessary to supplement feed based on the needs of the cattle, forage availability, and time of year.

Thank you to Noah Davis and all the folks at Red Bluff for providing a great day in the field. We appreciate everyone who attended and hope to have more tours in the future. Visit, follow us on Instagram (@madison.conservation.district) or email to sign up for our newsletter, where you can hear more about upcoming events and programming at the Madison Conservation District.

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