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The French Family: Facing the challenges of ranching with three generations

A love for the land keeps many generations returning to the ranch to carry on traditions and implement innovations. The French family from Malta has a strong sense of what it means to own a ranch, and today three generations are living and working on the ranch.

Craig and Conni French are the fourth generation on the place, and instrumental to the entire enterprise. Craig’s great grandfather homesteaded in what is now the French Ranch in 1910. Estate planning was already in the works—his great grandfather helped set up each of his two daughters with 100 cows and kept 300 for himself which he sold when he retired. Each of the daughters kept their 100 head and ran them in common in the summertime.

In 1958, Craig’s mother, Corky, the third generation on the place, married Bill French and the two stated leasing the 100-cow outfit when Craig’s grandparents moved to town. Bill and Corky purchased the home place and kept expanding the herd and land to run 1000 head. Meanwhile, in 2002, Craig and Conni, who raised their three children on the ranch close to Craig’s parents, bought their own land 20 miles up the road.

“Like so many ranchers at that time, we started with Herefords, but moved to Black Angus,” Craig explained. “We now raise our own replacement heifers and purchase bulls from breeders like Stevenson Angus and Diamond Dot. Their bulls work well for us.”

The ranch has irrigated hay, which Corky and Bill tackle with gusto every summer. In 2014, their nephew, Wayne and wife, Taylor, moved back to the ranch. “They help with hayig, so it’s great because we have two haying teams in the summer, which is great. We used to hire a custom haying crew to help, but now with Taylor and Wayne helping, we can get it done in good time.”

Because of the large acreage of the French’s – about 50,000 acres with 40 percent being private and 60 percent public, there is need for land and cattle management.

Rangeland Management

When Conni and Craig attended the Ranching for Profit school which covered cell grazing and managing the soil, they returned enthusiastically ready to implement what they learned.

“We certainly were interested in managing the land in a productive way, and going to this school really gave us the push we needed,” Conni noted. “We started it because we had old growth that needed to be grazed and wanted to find a good way to accomplish that. We took 400 replacement heifers and covered 6,000 acres. However, with cell grazing, we set up 12 pastures which would all be rotated through. The longest we had them grazing one of the cells was ten days; the shortest was one day.  The yearlings did very well, and they seldom challenged the electric fence.”

Conni explained the main premise of cell grazing is to harvest the grass, and leave. “The recovery period is key. We have what’s called a brittle environment, which is semi-arid, short prairie grass,” Conni said. “It requires a lot of recovery time. We have Beaver Creek running through the ranch so we found the safe parts of that creek for the cattle to drink from.”

Some time is spent putting in fiberglass poles with solar chargers. “I was told to stay away from steel, but I still use them to in certain areas where more support is needed. I put in two miles of electric fence and only used 20 steel posts. The rest were fiberglass,” Craig noted.

The Frenchs now use cell grazing from March 21 – July 20. “It’s easy to move the cattle,” Craig added. “They become really gentle. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we’ll use four wheelers to move them. Once you get their attention, they follow. They get very accustomed to us.”

The family does much of the cattle work with horses. “We feel it’s less stressful for the cows, although we do sometimes use a four wheeler—and we walk a lot,” Conni said with a smile.

Phillips County Farm Bureau

With the creation of the new Phillips County Farm Bureau in January 2015, the French family decided to become involved in an organization they see as a watchdog on policy.  “We went to the Phillips County Farm Bureau organizational meeting. I wanted to keep myself informed on what was going on at the county, state and national levels, so I thought it would be good to sit on the board of directors. I realize it’s important to be involved,” said Craig. He has learned a lot in the past year and has huge respect for Phillips County Farm Bureau President Tom DePuydt. He is also very impressed with Farm Bureau’s lobbying efforts.

Corky and Bill share old-time tales

Catch Corky and Bill French at their home and it’s likely you’ll hear some good stories and share a lot of laughs. Both grew up in agriculture, as did most people mid-century rural America.

“We didn’t have horse trailers,” Corky remembered. “We rode our horses out to the pastures, did our work and rode them back.  We ran in common with other ranchers at that time. I still remember there were times the mosquitos were so bad if you had to get off and open the gate you better hang onto your horse because the mosquitos were trying to get all of us. We always brought our cows in to the corrals and branded them, then trailed them back out.”

Corky reminisced about the days of loading cattle on the train. “We’d trail cattle to Malta—which took a few days—and loaded them all the railroad cars to Sioux City. That would have been in the 1940s and early 1950s.”

Bill has plenty of good stories to share. The 82-year-old was raised on a 100-acre farm with eight kids in his family in the Milk River Valley.  “Everybody had milk cows, pigs, chickens and sugar beets. Sugar beets were the main cash crop,” Bill said. “It was a good life and I was never hungry.  There were 100 kids in my country school and we played a lot of sports. We actually had electricity. Now people might call it a simple but it wasn’t that simple. You spent most of the time working for food, shelter and clothing.”

Bill admitted he wasn’t raised a cowboy but in his early days harvested a lot of sugar beets by hand and sheared sheep. “I didn’t like school, I was always thinking about farming and ranching. After I got out of high school, I took care of my folks place and my older brother and I worked as the French Brothers. I chased Corky for four years until she caught me!”

Bill takes credit for developing a lot of the property’s current irrigation system. “I’ve learned a lot about irrigating. It’s phenomenal what water will do for this country.”

He has always worked hard.  “I’ve done haying jobs away from the place while Corky took care of the kids. We did fine. We had to work at it, but what the hell’s the matter with that? Forget sitting around. You’ll rust out before you wear out.”

Bill believes it’s important to carry on the business. “It’s a viable business,” Bills stated. “I have better cattle than I ever thought I had, I have better machinery. I want to pass that onto my children and grandchildren. My family has proven they want to carry on.”

Grandson Wayne admits he’s just like Bill, “All I ever wanted to do was farm and ranch, so here I am.”

Bill smiles. “What more can you ask for?”

You can read more about the French family and other Montana farm and ranch profiles and news in the Spring 2016 Edition of the Spokesman Magazine. The Spokesman is a publication for the more than 21,000 Montana Farm Bureau member families in the state. To become a Farm Bureau member, visit www.mfbf.org.