David Weis is one UM employee who will never take a sick day. He wakes up in the morning, checks his emails and rides his four-wheeler down his snow-covered driveway to tend to UM’s cattle herd.
Weis has managed and lived on UM’s Bandy Ranch near Ovando, roughly 40 miles northeast of Missoula, since 2003. In May 2019, Weis bought 25 Red and Black Angus heifers from the neighboring ranch and cattle sales in Missoula and Butte, creating what is now UM’s herd. Over the course of the academic year, Weis loaded up and drove 20 heifers to Ronan to be slaughtered, processed and then served at the Food Zoo.
Weis said he likes the Red Angus breed the best. They look cleaner, more colorful on a backdrop of green pasture than their Black Angus cousins. The country landscape isn’t as appealing now, of course. The nights dip to 10 below and the days rarely get above freezing at the Bandy Ranch. The snow falls heavy and solid over the hay fields and pastures, too deep to interest wintering elk herds or deer. There aren’t many song birds, either. Canada geese are the last to migrate south for the winter and the first to touch down at the Bandy Ranch in the spring. But that won’t be for a while.
Weis said spring comes a month late at the Bandy Ranch, but he’s got mouths to feed, five to be exact. Weis will look after the remaining five heifers until March, when he’s scheduled to make another trip to the processor in Ronan. Weis is a one-man show — managing the 3,436 acre ranch year-round by himself. But, whether there are five or 500 cows on the ranch, someone has to be there, he said.
“Keeping one person on a small budget is a challenge,” he said.“But without someone up here, it’s hard to do anything.”
This academic year was the first time UM Dining has served Bandy beef, but the ranch has been a working cattle operation since it was deeded to the University.
In his will, Ed Bandy Jr. left the ranch to the Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station (MFCES) at UM for agricultural, timberland and rangeland research and management in his will after he died in 1989, according to the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation website.
In 2018, Bandy hosted UM students for a two-week long program in sustainable ranch management. Wildlife biology professors and students have installed game cameras around the ranch, catching photos of grizzlies, mountain lions and elk. Forestry students have also led restoration efforts along the creeks and forests in Bandy.
MFCES is funded by the Montana Board of Regents’ annual budget. It provides funding and leads conservation efforts for students at the agency’s two properties: Bandy Ranch and Lubrecht Experimental Forest.
The Anaconda Copper Mining Company gifted Lubrecht to UM in 1937.
At 21,000 acres, Lubrecht is much older and much larger than the Bandy Ranch property. There are bunkhouses, classrooms and headquarters to host students at Lubrecht. For students participating in Bandy programs, a table and chairs are set up in the barn. Christopher Keyes, associate director of MFCES, said it’s tough to get students to drive an hour off campus for class, and even trickier to fund the Bandy Ranch.
“We have all the expenses of running a ranch,” Keyes said. “But we don’t have a whole lot of land to generate the revenue for it.”
Bandy came under UM ownership with all the features of a working ranch: a ranch house, shop and lean-to garages for equipment storage. It wasn’t designed to host students, let alone provide a place for students to stay. Keyes said there are aspirations to construct a classroom building at Bandy in the future. But without a plan for what the building would cost and where the money would flow from the timeline looks uncertain.
The College of Forestry campaigns for both Lubrecht and the Bandy Ranch on the Campaign Montana website. The ranch’s funding campaign tells prospective donors, “Your gift helps us invest in the next herd of cattle, upgrade facilities, hire a program coordinator and provide internship stipends to facilitate student working and learning on the property.” But the campaign doesn’t give any clear direction for the ranch.
The MSU Extension service and Montana Natural Resources Youth camp challenge students to charter the future of the ranch in a land use game. In the game, the student teams “inherited a 3,800 acre ranch... based upon the University of Montana operated Bandy Ranch.” It is up to the the teams to “save the ranch for the future of the state known as the ‘Last Best Place.’” The winning team is measured by ranch profitability and conservation ethic.
Weis said there was discussion of selling the ranch five years ago when funding at the University was tight, but the idea never came to fruition. Still, he wonders about the future of the ranch. He said that without a good “reading spot” or classroom, the Bandy is just a ranch nine months out of the year.
“There’s gotta be something better than this one-man operation and a neighbors’ lease to get students up here,” Weis said.
UM has granted grazing leases to neighboring ranches to feed and run cattle since it was left to the University. UM and Montana State University students participated in shared ranching courses at Bandy in the early years of the MFCES ownership. But between the two universities, the cattle budget ran out and the universities sold the herd to the neighboring Two Creek Ranch.
The grazing lease with Two Creek is a major source of income for the Bandy Ranch. It allows the W.A. Franke College of Forestry to host out-of-the-classroom programs for students. In order to run ranching programs for students, the MFCES needed a herd of its own. Weis said the Bandy had to modify its lease with Two Creek to allocate grazing land for the small UM herd.
The Bandy Ranch is set to continue to raise UM cattle. UM Dining plans to buy another 25 to 30 cattle to raise at Bandy this May. Keyes said the University paid between $20,000 and $30,000 for the 25 heifers last year.
Currently, all Bandy beef is processed into ground beef for the Food Zoo, but Interim Director of UM Dining Byron Drake said Bandy steaks and roasts could be served at specialty events in the future. Drake loves serving UM beef on campus. He said buying from and serving the University is a sustainable “closed loop” of production and consumption on campus.
As for Weis, there’s one remaining cow and calf pair in the 2019 herd. Weis said he will start weaning the calf this spring. But until then, Weis and his dog Nickel parole the empty ranch in Weis’ pickup, waiting for his busy life to kick back up when the snow and ice thaw.
Weis likes the winter, but he doesn’t like doing nothing. It’s all logging and paperwork. A part of him misses the early mornings and scorching afternoons of fixing fences and moving irrigation pipes in the summer. But he will have to wait until his year starts in March, he said.