FORT PECK – A Ranch Hand Short
By Kelly Conde with Photos & Multimedia by Sally Finneran
Powered by its lowest gear, the old, blue flatbed pickup truck slowly rolls through the pasture. Inside its cab sits Lenny, a furry black and white cattle dog. He is alone, observing the scene ahead of him.
On the flatbed, balanced atop hay bales stacked in a pyramid, a short, lithe, Native American cowboy is tearing, bare handed, into a bale and tossing the dry chunks off the back to the herd of cows, which trail behind.
Glancing ahead, the cowboy, Dave Madison, notices a cottonwood tree in the truck’s path. He descends, stepping from bale to bale, jumps to the ground and runs to the driver’s side door. He stands with one foot in the truck and turns the wheel with his right hand to avoid the tree, his left holding onto the outer edge of the door frame.
With the truck’s path momentarily free of cottonwoods, Madison re-climbs the stack and continues to feed the cows, making an occasional, short, loud, “Hah” as he tosses a particularly heavy block of hay to the herd.
This is not his ideal way to feed the cows. Normally, someone, other than Lenny the dog, would be in the truck, steering it around the trees. Normally someone would be there, just in case the haystack toppled and Madison were to get caught underneath. But the Fort Peck tribal ranch is short on help, and there are only so many hours in a day for its ranch manager.
So, while two of his ranch hands work together to feed other herds, Madison puts his truck in the lowest gear, gives it some gas and works alone.
On the reservation, where unemployment is more than 50 percent, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Help Wanted” scenarios are rare. Yet, outfits like the tribal ranch and other privately owned ranches are seeing vacant job slots go unfilled with increasing regularity.
The number of ranches owned by Sioux and Assiniboine tribal members has increased from 100 to 167 in the last 10 years, but the proportion of people willing to work on those ranches has not. Dave Madison is one of many ranchers on the Fort Peck Reservation struggling to find committed ranch hands. Madison said there are very few young enrolled members who have the skills or the impetus to do the job.
The current unemployment rate on the Fort Peck Reservation is 53.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“There’s just not enough native people into farming and ranching,” Madison said. “They just like the eight-to-five job and ranching ain’t really an eight-to-five job.”
Managing the tribal ranch requires long, hard hours, especially in the spring. With a herd of 700 cattle, around 600 of which, on this late March day, are on the verge of calving, Madison rises long before the sun and sets long after it. Every piece of the 2,000-acre ranch and 32,500 acres of grazing land is his responsibility. Every member of the herd is under his watch.
“There’s a small window of time in the spring. If you ain’t got it done then, you ain’t going to get it done,” Madison said.
Driving back to the barn, the big truck overwhelms Madison. He has long black hair and wears a red bandana around his neck. When talking of his lack of help, Madison’s eyes grow wide, his callused hands leave the steering wheel and turn upward, empty.
“If I could find one or two guys that would work full time. Ain’t too many guys around anymore,” he said. He speaks in fragmented sentences and long pauses. His accent is a combination of the soft eastern Montana drawl and the sharp twang of a competitive roper. “They like their weekends off.”
Right now, Madison has three part-time ranch hands, two of whom are white. Because the ranch is owned by the tribe and is meant to benefit its members, Madison would prefer to hire Sioux or Assiniboine workers. One or two natives who will live on the property and work as hard as he does. Madison insists that is the only way to be successful at ranching.
“To do it right, you have to live the life,” he said.
Living the ranching life is not what many youth on the Fort Peck Reservation want. So they come, they work, they hate the hours or the labor or both and they leave. Madison said, including the extra help needed in the spring and summer, he has gone through somewhere between 80 and 90 ranch hands since he started managing in 2004.
Still, Madison and his wife Deb have been successful in managing the ranch. When Madison was hired eight years ago, the ranch was in almost $1 million of debt.
“It was on its last leg,” Madison said.
The Madisons already had their own ranch, an expanse of rolling yellow hills dotted with 150 black cows and cut by a small stream 30 miles north of the tribal ranch. Right now their daughter, Karli Madison, runs that ranch. Dave Madison took the tribal ranch manager job simply to see if he could do it.
“I took it just because it was kind of a challenge to run a ranch this size,” he said. “It was struggling and I just wanted to see if I could make a difference I guess.”
On top of the huge debt, Deb Madison recalls the ranch itself was in shambles. Fences were crumbling, the herd was uncontrollable, and, though it was only March, there was no hay to feed the cows.
“It was pretty unbelievable, actually really unbelievable,” Deb said.
They started with the physical maintenance. Rebuilding the fences. Mowing the lawns. Buying more hay. Then they moved to the financial maintenance. Wading through land leased and unused, land used and un-leased, unpaid payrolls, employees unneeded.
“It was running pretty wild. Like money was no object. When I took over we changed the format a little bit,” Madison said.
Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure was on the board that managed the ranch when Madison was hired.
“Pretty much all it was, was a money pit,” Azure said. “For years they would just throw money into it.”
The Fort Peck tribes originally purchased the ranch in 1993 as a business venture. Officials hoped it would provide jobs for enrolled members and revenue for the tribe. But the ranch tanked, due to a combination of a string of ineffectual ranch managers and both a tribal council and management board, interested more in using the ranch for personal reasons than to develop a successful venture.
Azure recalls the board, Fort Peck Inc., approving personal use of the equipment, and giving away hay to friends and family as well as general overspending and mismanagement.
When the board hired Madison, it adapted a new management direction. It fired its CEO and solidified its original goal to make the ranch profitable by separating itself from the tribal council.
“This is a business,” Azure said. “We have to bring it out of the hole. I did not allow our tribal government to interfere with our business at hand.”
Azure believes that prohibiting the tribal council’s involvement in the business side of the ranch allowed the ranch to finally flourish.
“It started out wrong from the beginning because politics were playing in it,” Azure said. “Took us a long time to straighten it out but I think we finally got it on track.”
Another way the ranch separated itself from the tribal council was by taking out loans from a bank rather than using the tribal government as their financer as they had in the past.
“I think the biggest thing is we’ve treated it like our own. We’ve paid really close attention to the bottom line,” Deb Madison said.
Azure concedes reshaping the Fort Peck Inc. board was not the only factor in turning the ranch around.
“I can congratulate Deb and Dave for doing that. They’ve stuck by it for all these years and they’ve created one heck of a herd,” Azure said.
It took more than rebuilding fences and finances to make the ranch profitable. It took a deep understanding and love for cattle. When the Madisons started at the ranch, the cows were wild. They would shy away from horses and humans. Loading and unloading them from the trucks was nearly impossible.
So they worked day by day, on horseback and on foot with the herd.
“This cowboy part, there’s an art to handling cattle,” Madison said. “And once the cows have been handled in the same way consistently, once they get knowing what you want them to do, it makes you feel like you’re a cow whisperer.”
Now, when Madison walks through the middle of the herd, the cows don’t run away, they calmly part for him. And for the last two years in a row, the tribal ranch made a profit. Last year saw a profit of $120,000. It only took Madison eight years to reshape it into a successful business.
Late March and early April is calving season on the ranch. The older cows, those that gave birth before, are left in the outer pasture by the river. The novice mothers, usually two years old and referred to as heifers, need to be watched.
“They just don’t stretch in the back as big as them old cows so they need some help,” Madison said. “So you got to keep them separate so you can keep a close eye on them.”
Calving season is important because this is how the ranch makes its money. The calves are born in the spring, stay with their mothers throughout the summer and are sold in November for $1,000 each, the price for this year. Making sure both the heifer and its baby make it through the birthing process alive is essential to the business.
This spring, if all goes well, Madison is predicting at least 600 healthy calves when all the birthing is done.
Behind an old log cabin, Native ranch hand Niki Smoker sits on a log stump, cigarette in hand, binoculars around her neck. She is scanning the large, muddy corral, looking for signs of a cow in labor. During calving season, this is Smoker’s primary job: to sit all day and watch the heifers.
Smoker is almost as enthusiastic about the cows as Madison. From her perch on the log, she points to where she “pulled” her first calf.
“She was bellowing like crazy, made me cry,” Smoker said.
She points again to where she pulled her second and third calf. Each spot holds the drama of the experience — the moaning heifer, the tiny and slimy hooves. The calf’s face, is like that of a grey, wet doll, not yet alive, not yet aware. And then the release and the first breath.
As Smoker recounts the births, Madison gazes at the herd from a neighboring stump. But soon he is fidgeting. Stillness is not his strong suit. Even during a break, he would rather be moving. Madison picks up a rope lying in the grass and starts twirling it over his head. His other passion in life, besides ranching, is roping. The only time Madison leaves the ranch is to attend roping competitions.
He demonstrates different roping techniques: the ocean wave and the butterfly. Every time he tosses the rope, his enthusiasm grows. Soon he is in the corral attempting to rope the hind legs of the heifers.
“Quit irritating the heifers. We’ll have a dozen babies tonight,” Smoker says.
Smoker loves being a ranch hand. And she loves working for the Madisons.
“They are good to me, I like spending time with them. I’d rather work for them than anybody else, including myself,” Smoker said.
Technically, Smoker does work for herself. She owns a bar and grill called the Horseshoe Bar 10 minutes down the road from the ranch. The bar stands alone on the corner of two empty roads. It is the only food and drink establishment for miles and if Smoker were to keep it open regularly, she could have a successful business. But her business hours are few and unpredictable. She would rather be out with the cows.
Smoker is one of the few on the reservation who chooses ranching, particularly Madison’s brand of ranching, as a lifestyle rather than a job. Smoker is a rare find on the reservation. Many ranches throughout Fort Peck have difficulty filling ranch hand positions.
Enrolled member Tom Flynn has a ranch 20 minutes north of the tribal ranch. He owns 300 head of cattle and works completely alone.
“I used to tag them all, but I’m getting too old for that,” Flynn said, leaning against the chipped wooden fence that holds his heifers.
Like the Madisons, Flynn wants to hire a good ranch hand. And like the Madisons, he is making due without. His cows go untagged, and his days are always full.
“We say we don’t have jobs, we don’t have jobs. Most people don’t want to work,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot of potential for a lot of jobs in the (agriculture) industry. People just don’t want to do it.”
Flynn, who is round in the face and red from hours in the sun, grew up ranching. His father owned the largest ranch on the reservation at the time. Other than a short stint working oil and construction, ranching has been Flynn’s life.
“If I didn’t do it, I’d probably be locked in the clinker somewhere,” Flynn said.
His ranch is more modest than his father’s was. Yet, as he speaks of how his cows are fed only all natural green grass and hay and how some of them were recently sold in Japan, his pride for his herd shines.
To him, ranching has always provided job security, which is rare on the reservation. And though he won’t reveal any specifics, Flynn admits that he does at least break even.
Flynn has a 23-year-old son whom he hopes will one day take over the ranch. For the time being, however, Thomas Flynn Jr. is not interested in ranching.
“I wanted to just go out and get a job. Just do something else for a little while,” Tom said.
Tom works at the Ace Hardware in Wolf Point, Mont. He has the same round face as his father’s. He speaks timidly, as if everything he says is being graded. Tom has many friends who gave up ranching for other things. He is not surprised that ranchers such as Dave Madison and his father are having a hard time finding workers.
“There’s not a lot of people who have kids that are my age that are into farming and ranching,” Tom said.
Instead, kids his age are going to college or finding jobs in town. He said the long hours and repetition of ranching is too hard and boring to be appealing.
“It’s because kids grow up and they want to be in town more I guess,” Tom said. “They don’t really want to sit out in the field all day.”
Good paying jobs are hard to find in the two biggest towns on the reservation, Poplar and Wolf Point. Kids who grew up on a ranch, however, have an advantage over others in finding those jobs, Tom said.
“That’s a big thing around here,” he said. “Finding someone who knows how to operate equipment and stuff. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I got my job over at Ace.”
With the jobs in town being filled by kids who grew up on ranches, the only employees available to work for Flynn or Madison are people unaccustomed to the harsh rhythms of ranching and with no skills to get the job done.
Madison hopes that when he finally finds his young native ranch hand, he can train him to take over as ranch manager. Madison knows that one day he will want to go back to his own small, quiet operation.
That day was threatening to come sooner than he planned when, in April, the tribe decided that it was time for the ranch to expand.
“We are trying to increase the herd,” said Tribal Chairman Azure. “We want to try and double it.”
To Dave Madison, doubling the herd would be impossible at this point.
“They were just trying to go too fast,” Madison said. “It’s hard to jump into it with both feet not knowing where the bottom is.”
Madison and Deb are planning an expansion. They would like to increase the herd from 700 to 1,000 and they would like to do it over five years. The council, however, is a bit more ambitious.
“We just want to get it bigger, we want to market it into Europe,” Azure said, “We got some of the best beef there is. I’d like to see it in Washington DC.”
Madison made it known that he did not agree with that plan. What came next was an onslaught of criticisms and rumors. People criticized his management of the ranch, the fact that he had two white employees, and they said Deb did all the work while Madison just sat around.
“I was ready to quit,” Madison said. “It was a lot of damn thankless nights.”
Part of the problem is Madison is not very receptive to suggestions. Madison dismisses some of the plans proposed by the tribal council and others as outrageous.
“They are just a pie in the sky. They ain’t got no substance to them. They are just somebody’s random thoughts drinking coffee,” Madison said. “I’m not sure what they want. You want a nice ranch? Or do you want to take all the money off of it and let it go to hell?”
Madison said none of them really understand the amount of work it takes to manage the ranch, and how much more work it would take to expand.
“They don’t know how good I treat this ranch, I mean I just love doing it,” he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t put up with so much B.S.”
Chairman Azure made it clear that he appreciates what Madison has done for the ranch. He also made it clear that, as long as Madison keeps up the good work, the tribe wants to keep him as the ranch manager.
“He’s proved himself very well,” Azure said. “As long as he doesn’t get any flack from the council. As long as we let him do what he’s supposed to do.”
And that’s all that Madison wants: to be left alone to do his job. To him, the worst part about managing the tribal ranch is dealing with the attention it receives. He would rather work through his days observed and analyzed only by the cows.
Madison is antsy through dinner. He noticed one calf with no mother while he was out with the herd earlier in the day. He wants to get out and feed it before it got too dark.
With the sun drifting red upon the pasture, Madison captures the calf. He pulls a bottle of formula from the truck and shoves it in the calf’s mouth. At first the calf resists, but within seconds, he is eagerly suckling.
“This calf has no mama,” Madison said. “It’ll have to be my baby.”