The Meuli family’s ranching roots reach down five generations in Proctor Valley, so when it came time for the Montana Stockgrowers Association to profile Montana cowboys in its new book, the Meulis were well-suited to the theme.
“We’re kind of the last longtime ranch” in the Dayton-Proctor area, Mike Meuli said.
His great-grandfather came to Proctor Valley in 1900, homesteading not far from the present Meuli ranch his grandfather bought in the 1920s.
“This is where my dad grew up,” Meuli said. “This is were I grew up.”
And it’s where Meuli and his wife Nancy’s three children are growing up.
The Stockgrowers Association featured working ranches across Montana in the just-released coffee-table book, “Big Sky Boots: Working Seasons of a Montana Cowboy.”
The book features the photography of Lauren Chase, the association’s multimedia outreach specialist. She spent 18 months traveling to ranches all over the Big Sky State. Her work takes the reader on a journey through a year in the life of Montana’s cowboys, from calving and branding to rounding up and shipping out cattle.
“There seems to be a growing disconnect as people, even here in Montana, are losing touch with what goes on agriculturally on ranches and farms, and where our food comes from,” Meuli said. “This book is meant to help ranch families like ours tell our story, so I am very excited to be involved.”
“Big Sky Boots” is part of a larger project to bring beef eaters closer to the people who raise and care for cattle, according to a Montana Stockgrowers Association press release. The project uses social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to tell the stories of Montana’s ranching families through photo albums, audio slide shows and videos.
The book connects the social media platforms to the printed page.
“Something really unique to our book is that we have included QR codes that people can scan with their smartphones,” Chase said. “They can go to MSGA’s YouTube channel to watch a video of the rancher featured in the book and hear directly from him about his life. In that way we’ve really tried to marry the traditional print media with the social media that seems to be central in so many people’s lives today.”
Meuli owns 1,750 acres and leases another 15,000 acres to accommodate a herd of 470 Angus cows.
The book’s photography features Meuli and his two sons, John Michael, 19, now a freshman at Montana State University, and Matthew, 16. Matthew’s twin sister, Mikayla, likewise is an integral part of the ranch family.
A former part-time ranch hand, Garrison Vrooman, also appears in a few photographs that were taken in the summer of 2011.
“We fill in with part-time labor,” Meuli said. “We’ve never had a full-time hired man, though I could easily keep another full-time person busy.”
The Meulis raise their own hay, and the work is never ending as the seasons unfold at the ranch. Calving runs from February to April; then the cattle are put out to pasture in May and June and herded to forest land for grazing in July through September. The first week in October, the annual roundup began, bringing in the herd for the winter.
Horses still are used for much of the cattle herding, especially in the rougher terrain. But all-terrain vehicles, namely four-wheelers, are quicker in some situations.
“The basics of ranching haven’t changed,” Meuli said.
Haying, calving, branding and herding are age-old activities that remain a big part of ranching.
What has changed is, of course, the use of technology. Electronic identification tags make it possible to keep track of source and age verification and other data that follow a cow until it’s finished and processed into meat. Most of the Meulis’ cattle are weaned at 600 pounds and shipped to feedlots in Nebraska and Iowa for finishing, but the electronic tracking allows a consumer buying a package of steak from Meuli cattle to electronically call up information about the Meuli ranch.
Ultrasound technology is used when selecting which bulls to buy, and also for cows to determine the size of the ribeye, the amount of marbling and backfat.
And there’s a lot more environmental management these days, Meuli said. On the land he leases from Plum Creek Timber Co., he does riparian monitoring twice a year and fences areas to exclude the cattle from getting too close to certain creeks.
“Most ranchers with cattle and land want to do a good job and to be sustainable you have to do a good job,” he said.
“Big Sky Boots” is the first book in a series of five books the stockgrowers association will develop over the next five years. The next book, already in production, will feature the women who are an essential part of today’s ranching families.
To learn more about the project or to order a copy of the book, visit www.mtbeef.org. The books are $75, which includes shipping and handling. The profits from the book will help support the continuation of the association’s “Telling the Story of Montana’s Family Ranchers” project into the future.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.