October 4, 2023

The Mannix Ranch, Helmville, hosted a tour June 20-21 of their ranch and discussion of ranch practices as regional winners of the Montana Stockgrowers “Raise the Steaks” Environmental Stewardship Regional Award (ESAP) awarded for the 2022 nationwide contest.

A system of values changing over time is part of the flow that the Mannix family spoke about as they shared their evolution as ranchers seeking resilient ways of tending the land and livestock they manage.

“What seems right today might be proven wrong down the road,” said David Mannix. “And that doesn’t keep us from going forward, it just helps us stay humble.”

A diverse regenerative business model on the Mannix Brothers Ranch has allowed some of the next generation to return to the ranch and develop a beef marketing business from the calves’ births to the steak on the table.

Land management practices include forestry, pasture and weed management with an eye towards land and plant health using multiple partners who help facilitate projects and bring additional knowledge.

“The Raising the Steaks Tour gathers an intimate group of thoughtful, creative individuals who want to put their boots on the ground,” said Lon Reukauf, a Montana Stockgrowers representative and 2016 ESAP winner. “We want to facilitate diverse informative discussions highlighting current issues and solutions to challenges ranchers and conservationists face when managing private and public lands for the future.”

Beginning with a welcome by Randy Mannix at the Newman Raymond ranch house, participants loaded into buses. The first stop was at a fish ladder for the native cutthroat trout fishery that was inadvertently established by Mannix’s grandfather Newman Raymond in the 1950s.

Raymond built ponds for irrigation water collection from Frazier Creek and was given a conservation award.

“Over time it was realized that the ponds isolated fish populations and that was thought a bad thing because fish couldn’t come up from the river and spawn naturally,” Randy said. “Grandpa was told he could keep the ponds but don’t do it again.”

Today the isolated ponds have allowed a pure strain of native cutthroat trout to thrive, free from predation by introduced trout species from the Blackfoot River. The fish travel upstream to the headwaters of Frazier Creek to spawn.

The ponds are connected via a fish ladder installed in 2013 with help from Trout Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. A culvert was also redesigned and a bridge put in to replace another culvert to aid in fish movement.

“We try to make these changes simple for landowners and help with the permitting and funding processes,” said Ryen Neudecker from Trout Unlimited. “We’re looking for projects that make it a win-win to help native fish and landowners. These projects demonstrate that agriculture and conservation can coexist.”

Another improvement to the fish population is a fish screen upstream to keep trout in the creek from entering the irrigation ditch where they would get washed into the hay field and perish.

“Since we put the fish screen in I have seen zero fish in the irrigation ditch,” Randy said. “It’s a relief that that’s not happening.”

During a tour stop Randy showed how healthy thinning of the forest allows for improved fire mitigation. He said cutting some trees also improved pasture for the cattle and wildlife and provided marketable loads of posts and poles and firewood delivered locally.

“Something I learned in the Forest Stewardship Program through Montana State University Extension was other values that the forest brings,” Randy said as he gestured to a large standing larch snag. “Birds are our first line of defense against insect infestation, and this snag is a bird apartment house. It’s important to create habitat for cavity nesting birds so they are here to eat the bud worm and pine beetles.”

A tour stop in the foothills above the Helmville Valley showcased ranch management techniques with the help of partner organizations and conservation easements through US Fish and Wildlife Services. Spotted knapweed, a noxious invasive weed has been managed using sheep from the Sieban Ranch in Cascade, Montana. Conifer trees spreading into meadows and open hillsides are being managed through conifer encroachment partnerships with Natural Resource and Conservation Society (NRCS).

“The Mannix Ranch has been a laboratory for many graduate research projects,” said Dan Lucas, MSU Extension Western Region department head. “The extension service has been able to gather a lot of information on the Mannix Ranch that has been applied across Montana.”

“Over the multi-year knapweed management plan, they have seen the seedbank used up after 14 years and a drop in plant populations,” Lucas said.

“I brought three FFA students on the tour so they could see progressive examples of agriculture first hand,” said Bill Lombardi, FFA advisor for Powell County High School. “I think it’s important for youth to see examples of good agri-business.”

“It was new to see how the Mannix Ranch has applied conservation efforts in different ways,” said Finn Graveley, 16, from Avon. “The practices to improve soil health through grazing and weed management using sheep instead of just chemicals was interesting.”

About 80 young cows galloped through a newly opened electric fence gate as Bryan Mannix talked about their intensive rotational grazing system on fields irrigated by pivots. Since 2016, the complex balance of adequate cattle growth, soil health and pasture management has coalesced into water savings.

The family credited increased soil moisture capacity and improved soil health shown by increased earthworm and dung beetle populations by using both intensive grazing and having higher hay production on the same ground in a season.

“We have to be really careful with what we do, we have to engage with Mother Nature and we have to think about soil health and forest health,” David said. “And we have to engage socially with our families, our community, our customers. What we do here, managing this land affects people, much broader than just our family and just our community. So that’s the challenge and the art of it, and we’ll never be done learning.”

Tour meals were provided by Old Salt Co-op and featured all Montana-grown ingredients. The tour was attended by representatives from the organizations Mannixes have partnered with to manage their ranch, Montana Stockgrowers representatives, educators, neighbors and media representatives from around the state.

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