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WRITING

Building a herd, and hope

Beginning rancher revitalizes retired CRP to grow her herd and wildlife habitat.

(Originally published for Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, on Western Ag Network)


The old homestead still stands sentinel on the hill.


Weathered, worn and abandoned long ago, Heather Martin has often looked at the relic and wondered just how the brother-sister duo who claimed this parcel more than a century ago thought they could make a living off such a small sliver of sandy soil.


“There’s no well, no running water, and when this reservoir dries up, there’s nothing,” the Phillips County rancher says, nodding to the still pool nestled in the natural basin. “Maybe they got more rain back then, maybe it held more snow – I just don’t know. It had to have been a tough living.”


As decades wore on, making a living on that land didn’t get any easier. It was plowed, then entered into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the 1990s, indicating it was considered marginal cropland, at best. Planted to crested wheatgrass, a non-native but prolific species, it was left to weather the elements like the homestead decades before. The crested wheatgrass took root and covered the bare ground as intended, but wildlife search for tender, native grasses to graze. Dead growth became a barrier to new life.


Still, like many before her, Heather Martin saw opportunity.


“I was trying to grow; we were running out of ground. I was just trying to make it work, this ranching deal,” she says. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve known that since I was eight years old.”

Cattle, like the wildlife before, would likely turn their noses up at the brittle, nutrient-poor overgrown and dead vegetation, and Martin feared it was a tinder box of bad luck waiting for a lightning strike and an uncontrollable blaze.


She knocked down what she could with a swather and baled the worst stands the year she bought it. With a land payment pressing, there was no time for further renovations. The dilapidated fence line was ragged at best – “That first year, I was getting heifers in every day. Every day! But what could I do? I had to use it.”


A previous owner had interspersed some alfalfa seed, and native vegetation began inching its way back in. With the first stand knocked back, she bought 600-pound heifers to develop and sold them at 1,000 pounds.


“It’s a producing little pasture,” she says, sure of its potential to grow the nourishment needed to expand her Red Angus breeding program. It’s the perfect spot for developing heifers or for her A.I. and embryo transfer cattle.


“I love yearlings; I love calving heifers, too. I know a lot of people don’t like to bother with it – it’s hard!—but I like the challenge,” Martin says. “I like that you get to be the one who see her ‘get it’ for the first time. You get to teach them, in a way.”


But the land was ready to teach her the same lesson it doled out to generations of westerners before: dreams, ambition, hard work and know-how doesn’t mean much without water.


“In 2017, I hauled water every day to this pasture. The reservoir dried all the way up. If you’ve ever had to haul water, you know – I’m haying, trying to get everything else done, and it’s up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to haul water, then off to work or to help someone else on their place and back at 11 o’clock at night to fill the trough,” she recalls. “My heart is here – these cows, they’re my heart – but I don’t know. Sometimes you wonder if it makes sense, if it’s really worth it, you know?”


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