Business sense drives ranch managementWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Upton – Myla Mills’ great grandfather homesteaded the family ranch in Upton on what is now the X Ring Ranch. Recently, she moved back onto the place to transition into management of the operation with her husband.
“We’re proud of the fact that the ranch has been in the family for over 100 years,” states Myla’s husband Justin Mills. “We want to ensure that it continues to get passed down to the next generation and that we establish a method of ranching that is profitable.”
In traditional agriculture, he sees that many families remain in the industry because they enjoy the lifestyle but make sacrifices like working in town to support the operation.
“If we want to continue to see agriculture be a viable entity in the future, as it always should be because it provides the food and fiber for our society, people have to take practical approaches from a business perspective for how they want to run their outfits and operations,” he explains. “It should be more about long-term thinking.”
The X Ring Ranch has traditionally been a cow/calf operation, and Myla and Justin have some of their own pairs on the place. They are also starting to do custom grazing for additional income to help the ranch run and function.
“One of the things we are in the process of doing is turning into a more high-intensity, rotationed grazing system with our whole operation, and there are multiple reasons for that. Number one, we feel it is what will be the most beneficial, helping to keep the land in a very healthy and natural reproductive state,” he says.
Improved pastures should also increase carrying capacity to increase the profitability of the ranch.
“We are transitioning from a very traditional system with cattle in a pasture for 20 or 30 days at a time to more of a rotational, high-intensity grazing where we split pasture up into paddocks and move livestock every five to seven days,” describes Mills.
The couple is also transitioning to a later calving season, starting May 1, to reduce input costs.
“About five years ago, we moved to April 1 calving, and this last year, we moved a little bit later to go back to when our cows need the most nutrients. It’s the same time grass is coming up. It can reduce our input costs and make things work,” Mills notes.
For the livestock they own, the Mills’ goal is to produce cattle that require minimal inputs.
“There isn’t one particular breed we are going to focus over another one, but we want cows to average around that 1,100-pound mark. We want something that is pretty functional and doesn’t require a lot of input costs into in the wintertime,” he comments.
Due to the grasses that grow at the X Ring Ranch, the Mills believe they can adapt their management to minimize additional inputs for their cattle throughout the year.
“Knowing that there are things that we might sacrifice calf weight, the idea is to have very few input costs and reduce to almost zero hay fed in the wintertime,” he continues. “We want to utilize the grass we have.”
The Mills reviewed the numbers as they make changes from season to season.
“In any business, we should always run the numbers. If it doesn’t work on paper, we can’t expect it to work in reality. Our numbers indicate that everything will work out really well,” he says, adding that the gradual changes they’ve made so far are showing positive results.
Mills also mentions that it can be difficult to make big changes, especially when an operation has been run for the same way for many years.
“Whenever we’re bucking tradition or the norm and it was the way we were raised, sometimes we have a hard time convincing ourselves that change is going in the right direction. From a psychological standpoint, in the back of our minds, we’re hoping and praying that this concept we have committed to is going to work,” he explains.
The Mills returned to Myla’s home place with the intention of carrying on the operation for generations to come.
“I firmly believe that we can make a living in agriculture. The traditional methods of the way things have been done in the past may have made it difficult for guys to make a living in agriculture, so to make this work, something has to be different,” he remarks.
After 15 years of living in Montana, the Mills are looking forward to continuing a lasting legacy on the X Ring Ranch.
“This is something we have always wanted to do,” states Mills.