Sarrazin Ranch

By Nate Howard
Enterprise Staff Writer
CLYDE PARK — If he wore a pair of six-shooters, riding horseback among a couple hundred cattle in driving snow, he could be playing a scene in a Western movie. 
But on a recent snowy Friday, Bill Sarrazin and a team of neighbors and family are rounding up cattle in the winter pasture, pushing them to the barnyard corrals where the calves will be loaded into trailers and taken to Wilsall. 
There, as part of an annual tradition, the calves will be sorted,  loaded on semi-trucks and shipped to feedlots across the country where they will be fattened for eventual slaughter.
The tradition is what helps feed Montana’s largest economy — agriculture. Agriculture brings in $2.4 billion dollars to the state, and livestock makes half that figure, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Montana’s cattle industry dates back to 1833, when Bob Campbell brought five cattle to a fur trading rendezvous in the southwest part of the state. Cattle numbers today are at 2.6 million — more than twice Montana’s people population.
Early reports revealed the potential of the land. 
In 1912, Conrad Kohrs, known as “Montana’s Cattle King,” wrote, “When I first reached Montana, the Deer Lodge Valley was one of the most beautiful stretches of bunch grass imaginable. The grass waved like a huge field of grain.”
Sarrazin continues in the footsteps of his father, Jim Sarrazin, 91, who bought the ranch in 1958. 
While many people collect a paycheck every couple weeks, payday comes to ranchers like Sarrazin once a year, and this snowy Friday was that day. 
At 8 a.m., a fleet of pickup trucks hitched with livestock trailers idle on the road in front of the ranch, ready to transport multiple loads of calves to the stockyard in Wilsall, where they will be weighed, sold and shipped to the feedlots. 
The dozen men and sole woman set about the work of sorting the 600-pound calves and half-ton cows, further sorting the heifers from the steers. 
It’s mostly a slow dance, performed without instruction and based on many years of experience among all involved. 
“I couldn’t do it without them,” Bill said, not out of courtesy and politeness but with sincerity, as a fact. 
In other words, he’s right, — he literally couldn’t do it without them and he expressed his gratitude in many ways, including a dinner his wife, Lori Sarrazin, prepared as the wrangling took place. 
Across the country, many farmers and ranchers claim to have to “get big or get out.” Sarrazin proved that false. With about 200 cows, he is relatively small in the ranching business but is making a go of it. He notes that a ranch could start in 1958, as his father did, with 50 cows, a section for grass and about 100 acres for grain. Today, the cost of land makes a ranch start-up improbable.
However, it’s still not easy for Sarrazin. In past years, he worked as a custodian at Shields Valley High School in Clyde Park to earn some extra income. Contrary to popular belief, ranching is not subsidized. 
Meanwhile, the day’s not over. More work to be done this Friday as Sarrazin and his team return to the ranch to vaccinate cows and make pregnancy checks in preparation for spring calves, when the process will start all over again.