The Voldseth family has been raising cattle in southwestern Montana for 125 years. Their largest neighbor — boundary wise — is the U.S. National Forest and the family runs about 400 of the 1,500 cow-calf herd on Comb Butte allotments each year.
David Voldseth has been using CRYSTALYX as a fall and winter supplement for about 15 years. During a drought, he experimented with using CRYSTALYX on his private land to hold cattle in an underutilized area that they normally graze lightly in the fall, but where the cattle didn’t want to stay because of the drought. He found putting the low moisture blocks out was enough to keep the cattle in that area.
That experiment prompted him to approach the USFS about using CRYSTALYX on the public allotments in 2002. As drought in Montana entered its seventh year, Voldseth had been forced to reduce his herd to 1,200 pairs and the USFS planned to reduce his grazing season.
The allotment is fairly well watered, with water developments about every half mile. But in that half mile, there can be a lot of variation in how the forage is utilized.
Barrels were placed in an area distant from water where salt had historically been placed. Voldseth says both livestock and wildlife have underused the area. By placing low-moisture blocks in the area, and then hiring a rider to trail cattle to the barrel, the cattle stayed in the area and used more of the forage.
“And I think we’ll find in time that the elk in particular will use those areas more as well because a lot of that coarse rough fescue has been grazed down,” Voldseth says, “and what’s left will be considerably more palatable to the wildlife population.”
Forage isn’t something that can be stored, Voldseth points out. Elk and deer don’t winter in the high ground where the excess forage is left standing. “If your cattle don’t graze it, it gets snowed down. The elk don’t get it. The deer don’t get it. It just goes to waste.”
Voldseth also placed blocks at the head of Deer Creek, a particularly steep part of the allotment that has also been underutilized in the past. He placed two barrels on the west side and two on the east side. “I fully expected them to be full when I went back and they were all empty, which was really surprising to me,” he says.
While he feeds CRYSTALYX for the additional protein and energy it provides during the winter, Voldseth sees increased forage utilization as the key benefit to putting the barrels out on the public lands allotment. He hopes the USFS will agree that the blocks help keep cattle out of the riparian areas and will allow him to run the number of cattle permitted for the entire grazing season.
He’s not sure what the bottom line cost of the experiment on public land will be, but from the standpoint of better forage utilization and improved wildlife habitat, the experiment was worthwhile.
“The object is to use grass that isn’t going to be used otherwise,” Voldseth says.
Successful trial program convinces Montana rancher
Using the CRYSTALYX low-moisture block was nearly as effective for distributing cattle as installing another fence and pipeline.
John Sampsell has used CRYSTALYX on his home ranch south of Stanford, MT, to supplement cows after calving in the spring and in the late fall and winter to utilize areas that haven’t been grazed. But 2002 was the first year he tried to use the low-moisture blocks on his public lands allotment to improve utilization. In his opinion, it worked just as well.
Blocks were placed in one pasture where one source of water is easy to get to and the other is hard. In the past, the cattle have congregated in a 50-acre meadow around the easy source of water. Riders would try to push the cattle out of the area, but the cattle always came back. “It was getting hit pretty hard,” he admits.
Putting CRYSTALYX blocks out kept the cattle in the areas they’d never utilized before. Sampsell says they hardly touched the areas that are usually grazed hard. “It made the cows utilize the end of the pasture that we could never get utilized very well before,” he adds.
In fact, U.S. Forest Service personnel said utilization in the hard hit area was in line with what the allotment’s grazing plan calls for.
Sampsell has run cattle on the Burnt Ridge allotment with his cousins since 1977. He usually runs about 100 cow-calf pairs on the 9,400-acre allotment in central Montana. One pasture has plenty of water with meadows, willows and willow bottoms; the other pasture is steep with only two sources of water. The second pasture has an elevation of about 8,000 feet at the highest point.
Not only did the CRYSTALYX improve utilization on the allotment, it made gathering cattle in the fall easier. Most years, it takes them two or three days to gather all the cattle out of the pasture, and in 2002 they gathered all but a half dozen pairs in the first pass through the pasture. And when they made the second pass, Sampsell said the cows and calves were right by the blocks. “They knew that’s where they had to go and that’s where we found them.” Given the success of the 2002 grazing season, Sampsell is more than willing to put CRYSTALYX low-moisture blocks out again on his allotment but he’ll probably make some adjustments. He’d use more low-moisture blocks and late-day trail the cattle to the barrels so grazing pressure is focused away from the riparian areas, from day one in the new pasture.
CRYSTALYX helps demonstrate environmental stewardship
David Maichel’s family has been ranching in Madison County, Montana, since 1898. As the public has discovered the beauty of the headwaters of the Missouri River, the pressure to change grazing management on the public lands has increased.
“I’m the fifth generation on my place. And it’s getting tougher and tougher to keep it going.” Maichel has about 500 cow-calf pairs on his ranch. He used CRYSTALYX on his ranch during calving a year ago and was impressed with the low-moisture block’s performance. That led him to study how CRYSTALYX had been used to draw and hold cattle in certain areas. This encouraged him to try an experiment on his allotment.
The idea, Maichel says, was to put the CRYSTALYX "where we’ve got the feed but not necessarily the cows.”
The allotment is a prime example of the contentions that can arise from public land use. The U.S. Forest Service has told the permittees that they want cattle on the allotment for both fire and weed control, but the public has requested less use within the riparian areas. “If we overuse the resource, then we will be out of business.”
Ranchers with grazing allotments on steep terrain should give CRYSTALYX a try. “You can always just try it around your own place to start with and in certain areas where you have trouble getting cows to,” Maichel says. “And you can train the cows to the product and once they see you put it out, they’ll be interested in it and come up to it.”