Generations stay connected on Idaho’s Pratt Livestock Company
By Melissa Hemken
In the sand hills of southeastern Idaho the Pratt Livestock Company lies between the Snake and Blackfoot Rivers. Since 1904 four generations of Pratt family found their ranch niche, raised children, served in the Blackfoot, Idaho community, and produced good beef. These are the mainstays. Time’s passage morphed everything else, and the fifth generation must find their way in today’s new agriculture.
“Our forefathers scraped level spots between the sand hills,” says Wendy Pratt, a member of the fourth generation, “and started irrigating. And, now, we’re one of the very few places left using [surface water] flood irrigation. Farmers found potatoes grow in sand and it is really good potato ground because the sand falls off leaving no clods. A lot of this sand country is now under pivots for corn and potatoes. We’re one of the old-fashioned places still running a shovel.”
The increased ground water irrigation and drought have depleted the aquifer, causing downstream holders of older water rights to claim harm. The Idaho Department of Water Resources started a voluntary program for ground water pumpers to refrain from irrigating, and is undertaking aquifer recharge projects.
“You can’t pump the aquifer dry and expect to remain as a viable business,” says Mark, Wendy’s husband. “We’ve not gone to sprinklers, and I don’t know if there will be a time we’ll be forced to change for efficiency. Or if the 10 percent we’re putting back into the aquifer through [surface water] flood irrigation is the better thing.”
There are records of aquifer measurements dating from the early 1900s, and the aquifer peaked in the 1950s when the transition from flood irrigation to sprinklers began. The Pratt family formerly surface water flood irrigated the first crop, and sub-irrigation brought water for the remainder of the summer, allowing ditches to be closed in July. Now the Pratts keep their ditches on until the canal closes in October, and shallow wells (20-40 feet) dry up in April. “Ground water is becoming an issue with which we need to deal,” Mark says. “Not sure how intense it will get in my lifetime or whether it will be our kids’ problem.”
With water rights from both the Blackfoot and Snake Rivers, the Pratt family has options. As Mark and Wendy’s adult children — Callie, Anna and Seth — begin to look at the fifth generation’s ranch niche, water availability is a large portion of their consideration for land use in the valley.
Ancestors go back a hundred years
Up in the Blackfoot Mountains, the next generation’s crucible is stockmanship and the knowledge needed to care for cattle while grazing ridges and valleys of the Eastern Idaho Grazing Association. The Pratts trail cattle 45 miles over six days between their ranch headquarters — which includes three of the family’s original homesteads — and mountain grazing. The association is the second largest state land lessee in Idaho. The other half of their acres is deeded with a smattering of U.S. Bureau of Land Management sections. Both Mark and Wendy have ancestors among the inaugural 73 members that established eastern Idaho over 100 years ago.
Management on the now 42-member association has included range riders actively herding cattle away from riparian areas to upland grazing. “It’s productive country. We can summer 1,250 pair on 12,000 acres,” Mark explains. “After five years of learning a whole lot about herding we abandoned the project. Instead we built three division fences for rotational grazing.”
The herding project was partially funded by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant and private foundation support. “Any government program generally wants something to look at,” Wendy says of grant funding. “They don’t want to pay for just labor. They want a water development or a fencing project. That’s the killer; how to pay range riders?”
Two weeks after weaning calves and bringing them off the mountain, the Pratts weighed the calves during vaccination. Calf weights were slightly heavier from herding, but the main benefit was healthy lands. And that doesn’t bring in hard cash to monthly pay the range riders. A shortage of labor is another crux the Pratt family discovered, as few people have the necessary stockmanship, horsemanship, and stock dog knowledge.
“Herding is ancient knowledge across the world,” Wendy says, “and we’re losing it. And today we can combine it with the new technology of electric fencing and cell phones to make it a dream job. The enjoyment of open space while range monitoring, rather than a grunt job you can’t find anyone to do. It could be a new way of improving the water cycle, controlling invasive species, and addressing fire issues. And maybe if we ranchers address those issues with herders, there would be some money to pay them from agencies and conservation organizations.”
Mark nods and adds, “Changing land management expenses to profits for ranchers: a new paradigm for everyone.”
The Pratts are experimenting with Dr. Lee Manske’s theory that 95 percent of new grass is due to tillering — stems produced by plants after initial parent shoot grows from seed — over seed production. “Occasionally a seedling survives,” Mark explains of his monitoring, “but the vast majority of grass reproduces by tillering. It occurs if the top 25 percent of a plant is removed, changing the chemical makeup of the plant from the goal of seed production to tillering.
“With that in mind, the last two years I’ve calculated my best guess of 25-percent plant use and rotated the cattle accordingly. Last year I was completely off because we got 15 inches of rain up on the mountain. And it’s not perfect. That 700-acre pasture has a canyon with a creek at the bottom, and the cattle want to stay down by the creek. We’d be better off to push those cattle up, but we don’t have the manpower.”
Down in the valley the Pratts normally grow alfalfa for its performance in hay production. But alfalfa doesn’t leave plant litter for autumn grazing, and once it freezes the leaves fall off leaving nothing to graze. The Pratts are now growing more grass for pasture grazing to reduce haying costs. To reach their goal of growing grass capable of supporting 200 animal days per acre, soil samples established the soil quality baseline of their irrigated fields. This allows the Pratts to track improvement of micronutrients as they seek to push their 2-3 tons per acre grass production to 5-6 tons.
“I would like to see us continue toward grass production here in the valley,” Mark says, “instead of plowing things up for alfalfa. It’s claimed that grass uses more water than other crops. I think it’s a whole different business when it’s tall and there’s duff to protect the soil.”
Mark also sees where short-duration grazing could benefit wildlife in Idaho’s Wildlife Management Areas, and reduce wildfires. “We see wildlife moving onto the places cattle have already grazed for the freshness of the feed,” Mark says. “This could be a way to open dialog with the [Idaho] Fish and Game about how ranching is part of the solution rather than thought of as just a taker.”
The Pratts not only continue to learn and improve the land they own and manage, but also seek to influence the larger discussion of increasing soil health and carbon sequestration through grazing management. “We want a viable ranch to transition to the fifth generation,” Wendy says of their efforts. “In the next few years we’ll be including the kids and their interests.”
Doing right by the land and animals
Each generation has unique ideas and passions. Within the Pratt third generation, Mark’s father Gary operates a party venue from the barn in which he installed a dance floor and raises Longhorns, and his wife Anita breeds registered Border Collies. Mark and Wendy, the fourth generation, followed their land ethic to be member producers of Country Natural Beef Co-op for the past 14 years.
The Pratts are one of 50 co-op member producers concentrated in 13 states in the northwestern United States. The Country Natural Beef co-op provides over 50,000 head of cattle a year to food service, retail and restaurant partners such as Whole Foods Market, Blue Apron, Sysco and Burgerville. The consumer-driven marketing cooperative focuses on economic and environmental sustainability of ranch families and their land.
“We try hard to do right by the land and animals,” Wendy says. “We want to partner with other like-minded producers, and, hopefully, get paid a little more. We also like the consumer being excited about what we are excited about.”
“When we joined in 2003 we weren’t in a position to sell futures contracts or forward contracting with our calves,” Mark adds. “We were feeding calves to a weight hot a few months ago, then that market had gone away because everybody else had done the same. We thought it was a good idea to get into something where the market remained stable.
“With the co-op there have been shifts, but not big swings. The model is based on the average cost of production. If you’re above average, it doesn’t work. You still have to be cost conscious and you’re not going to top the market, because you’re sharing with everybody. The idea is everybody in the chain can make a living.”
As the Pratts produce Hereford cattle, they also like that the co-op doesn’t dock red hides. “The sale barn takes a dime off,” Mark complains. “For no other reason than they’re the wrong color! That really grates on me.” Within the co-op, the Pratts choose to retain ownership of their cattle all the way to the grocery store and are paid on carcass.
How will the fifth generation — Anna, Callie and Seth — choose to use the family ranchland? Their interests are as varied as the four generations preceding. Anna is the Special Events Coordinator for University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Moscow; Seth works remotely from the family ranch as a Context Network ag consultant; and, in Boise, Callie is a dancer and restorative exercise specialist. They all advocate for the beef industry, are keen on ag education, and enjoy working with cattle, horses and stock dogs. The family already hosts University of Idaho AGR fraternity students during the summer, and see more on-ranch education in the future.
“I’ve always said if we could get Bud Williams, Pat Parelli, and Jack Knox together in one place,” Mark says, “and make a college out of it, you’d have something. And Jim Gerrish, throw him in there. That stockmanship, horsemanship, dog training and grazing knowledge together, wow. There should be a college course on Psychology of Families in Business too. Whether you’re a bakery or a ranch, it really doesn’t matter. The psychology of handling yourself in that dynamic is similar.”
“We’ve been ranching a lot of years,” Wendy says, “and we keep trying different things. Mark and I are the generation all about animal handling, grass, biodiversity, and soil health. Our kids will have different emphasis. We’re surrounded by big industrial agriculture and those places keep changing hands. They’re big money and we just plug along being economically sustainable. It’s an on-going family dialogue of what to do with the ranch. Our kids, Mark’s parents, and us are all determined to do the best job we can.”