HAMILTON – On the first stormy night since calving began in early February, Cody Lee said he didn’t get much sleep. At 28 years old, he’s taken over the family ranch that’s nestled at the base of Ward Mountain south of Hamilton and possesses a long-time Bitterroot legacy.
His father, Darrell Lee, bought the “Never Sweat Ranch” a few years before Cody was born and many of the historic outbuildings are still intact, including a solidly-built, octagon-shaped wooden grainery that is now only home to a tree that reaches up to the sky where a roof once was.
Cody said an old road to Darby west of the Bitterroot River used to go through their front pasture and was a stopping point for travelers during the Marcus Daly era. He said legend has it that in the 1950s, the owner of the ranch kept the place looking nice even though he appeared to work little. So as a joke, someone posted a hand-painted sign along the road in the pasture that read, “Never Sweat Ranch.“
“The name stuck,” said Cody with a laugh although it doesn’t reflect his work ethic nor the hours he logs during calving and haying seasons.
He and Joe Bohlander, a neighbor from down the road, are about the same age and run the ranch together. Four years ago Cody came back from college and a job working in the lumber industry and has been committed to the ranch’s success.
“I’ll give it a few more years and if things go right which I hope they do,” he said, “then I’ll stick it out and keep the ranch managed in the family.“
This year was poised to be the best yet for their Angus herd, but tragedy struck a significant portion of their bred cows.
“It should have been the best but might be our worst because one-third of our herd grazed on lupine and their calves are coming out dead or deformed. I’ve been really curious to know if other ranches are having the same problems,” he said.
Cody consulted with local veterinarians and learned that if pregnant cows feed on fields infested with lupine specifically between 40 to 70 days gestation, then their calves are at risk for death or deformation. The USDA has dubbed it “Lupine-induced Crooked Calf Syndrome” which results in skeletal malformations including a twisted spine, neck and one or both forelimbs.
Last year’s wet spring provided the perfect conditions for lush lupine.
“Everything was covered in purple lupine last year,” said Cody. “The mountain sides, the road sides had flowers blooming everywhere. It’s a pretty flower but my opinion is that it’s the worst weed that’s ever walked because it’s killing animals. The problem really deserves some awareness.“
Cody’s stepmother, Sherry Lee, currently sits on the Ravalli County Weed Board, and he hopes their experience during calving season helps put lupine control higher on the noxious weed list and as a topic of conversation.
Only his cows that grazed on land in the Skalkaho drainage where lupine was rampant have had problems calving, Cody said. “So that’s how we figured the problem but hopefully our March calves were exposed late enough in gestation to not have any more loss.”
Of his 200 head of cattle, about 60 were exposed to lupine at the wrong time and half of those have delivered resulting in 13 calves dead and five or six who survived but have deformed front legs. One calf was brought into a hay-filled kennel in the shop where Joe built wooden braces for her deformed legs. She can stand with assistance and mews contently even though her neck sways far to one side. Cody and Joe hope to nurse her to health enough to give her to someone who would appreciate and care for the calf.
They’ve also garnered hope from another calf with the eartag numbered “54” who was born six months premature.
“He shouldn’t have even been born yet,” said Cody. “He came with so many wrinkles that we named him Riggles.“
Riggles spent two weeks in the shop being bottlefed and then two weeks in a field wearing a jacket until he bulked enough to brave the weather.
“Now, he’s one of the best calves on the ranch,” Cody and Joe both agreed.
“But he’s like a pet now and as smart as a dog,” said Cody. “He’ll climb into your car if you let him and he’ll actually sit and stay on command. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen one born like that and make it. Now, he’s probably the nicest looking calf out there.“
With the mild winter, half of his calves born and his birthing problems defined, Cody hopes the rest of the season goes forward without a hitch.
“It’s been good to keep the ranch in the family and we really enjoy the work,” he said.