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Published September 23, 2013, 09:42 AM

My 3 sons

Steve Tibbetts is a happy man at Beefland Inc., although its heritage name only begins to describe the scope of the ranch and farm.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

TERRY, Mont. — Steve Tibbetts is a happy man at Beefland Inc., although its heritage name only begins to describe the scope of the ranch and farm.

At age 71, Tibbetts and his wife, Sue, run a diversified operation that starts with beef, but also includes wheat, corn and, increasingly, sugar beets. At their sides — and often stepping ahead of them — are three sons in their 30s.

“They’re the best things we’ve ever produced,” Steve says.

The oldest son is Todd, 39, who went to Montana State University at Bozeman for mechanized agriculture.

He went on for a master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He worked for Vermeer, New Holland and then John Deere before returning home to work on the farm full-time about six years ago.

Cody, 36, went to Harvard and then Harvard Law School. After practicing transactional law for about 10 years in Boston, he returned to the farm in 2010. His wife, Abbey, a Massachusetts native, teaches English.

Brock, 32, has been home with the ranch since about 2005. Brock’s father and brothers credit him with people skills in dealing with customers in the custom work and hauling cattle, his father says. “He and his helpers have a good time,” Steve says.

Steve — who had a serious tangle with a Stage 4 blood cancer in 2012 — seems grateful for all of it. He starts his day, shaking the dice for coffee in the local C-Store. “And then go on the rest of the day and get something done,” he says.

The patriarch seems to relish living in an era that has expanded crop choices and success in his region. He’s particularly grateful and optimistic about crops that are engineered to thrive in drought conditions. “Make sure you remind people that in America we’re good at producing food — good food, and pure food.”

A storied history

Ranching here dates to the 1880s and the original house was built in those years.

It was the famous “free range” country. The original ranchers — Kemptons — ran thousands of horses and cattle, up on “the bench,” or plateau, overlooking the Yellowstone River Valley. The Northern Pacific Railroad owned a checkerboard of land next to the rails.

The Tibbetts’ ancestors have been in the area since 1907. Steve’s grandfather bought a John Deere in 1928 and they’ve been “running the Green Line ever since.” Steve was the oldest of four Tibbetts siblings and began farming full time in 1962.

In 1972, Steve’s father, Roland, and brother, Wes, bought and ran the livestock auction yards in Miles City, Mont. Steve and his younger brother, Ron, stayed in Terry to manage the ranches.

3 irrigation sources

About 90 percent of the Tibbetts’ land is used for grazing. They have some dry-land farming south of the river and then the irrigated land in the river valley.

They farm mostly no-till on their nonirrigated land. They raise some spring wheat — harvesting it with a Shelbourne Reynolds header. The French-made stripper-headers are relatively rare in the region.

The distinctive blue headers save energy by running less material through the machine and leave more stubble to catch snow. They typically ship grain 150 miles to a terminal near the famous Pompeys Pillar National Monument.

On their nonirrigated land, the Tibbetts have been moving into continuous cropping. Most people in the area have summer fallow rotation on nonirrigated land.

The Tibbetts family has been irrigating for half a century. Today, their irrigated land primarily involves about 1,000 acres of corn and about 500 acres of beets. They have two full-circle pivots and then other odds and ends with partial pivots. One pivot system covers 350 acres, but some fields are as few as 10 acres.

They are somewhat unusual in that they get irrigation water from several sources.

The largest source is from the Buffalo Rapids Irrigation District, which is a Bureau of Reclamation project that dates to the 1930s. It draws from the Yellowstone River. Beefland pays taxes of $40 an acre just for the water, irrigation to pivots, which was possible because of better single-phase power technology.

The third source of irrigation water is springs, which flow most heavily in the spring and fill small dams that are released with valves. Some of the dams feed flood fields, but some run sprinklers on lower fields. Some of the water is delivered to supplement a well system. Electricity comes from Montana-Dakota Utilities and some from Tongue River Electric Cooperative.

A cropping ‘backbone’

For the past four years, the Tibbetts have grown beets under irrigation for Sidney Sugars Inc., a subsidiary factory owned by American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn. Cody, the returning lawyer, says their beet expansion was made possible by the advent of Roundup Ready beets. Steve and Cody also credit their neighbor and landlord Raymond Strashiem, for teaching them to raise the crop.

Cody says the family shoots for 30-tons-per-acre beet yields, with 18.5 percent sugar. Of course that’s not always possible. They deliver to a receiving station seven miles away that accumulates about 2,000 acres of beets in the area. The beets then are hauled 90 miles to Sidney — about 50 miles of that on a two-lane road that has heavy oil patch traffic.

The Tibbetts family cut back on beets this year, growing about 550 acres because the price of corn was a bit higher, Cody says.

“We were planning to put more beets in but cut back last spring, based on prices,” Cody says. “Beets are good, and we want to stay into it, but we figured why push your land into too-close rotations if beets are down some.”

In rotation, good silage corn would be 30 tons per acre. They strive for 200-bushel-per-acre grain corn, but sometimes have to be happy with 175, Steve says.

Balancing beet, beef

The Tibbetts’ ranch has always been diversified, but that’s become even more important. The balance isn’t always easy.

“When the guys in the Red River Valley get to think about beets all of the time, we don’t have that luxury at all,” Cody says. “We’ve got to be shipping yearlings while we’re trying to plant beets. We’ve got to be branding when maybe we should be irrigating. The cows are great diversification, but they do make it a challenge that others may not have to deal with.”

For a decade, the Tibbetts family has been adding forage harvesting to its repertoire, traveling 400 to 500 miles for some customers.

“A lot of places probably have a lot more work to do close, but here it’s more spread out,” Cody says.

Their main machine is a John Deere corn silage harvester. Steve’s father and grandfather chopped and ensiled nonirrigated corn in 1945 and 1946, “with a John Deere D and a one-row.”

Last year, corn prices were high and the Tibbetts family sold it easily. This year, they’ll sell the corn to the feeder that custom-finishes their steers.

Cody says his transition back to small town life has been good. His wife, Abbie grew up in Massachusetts but went to college in Missoula, Mont. “I told her Terry was pretty much like Missoula,” he says, joking, adding that Terry has been “very welcoming” and that there’s plenty of young people and plenty to do.

“You know everybody, and everybody expects you to be involved in doing something; you’re not anonymous,” says Cody, who sits on the local Farmers Union board. He says farming and ranching is stressful, but 10 years in a big city law practice made him see the profession differently.

“In a lot of other professions, you’re not producing something, something sort of tangible,” he says. “It’s pretty rewarding. Ultimately you’re your own boss.”

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