San Francisco Ranch
photos and article by Christene Miller
On the shores of Flathead Lake by the town of Polson in Montana, you’ll find part of the San Francisco Ranch, a large cattle and horse operation belonging to Jim Brown. Forrest Davis, the man who runs the ranch, came to work in 1973 and was instrumental in converting the operation to true horsepower. Belgian draft horses provide the majority of the power for the San Francisco Ranch.
In mid-April of this year I visited the San Francisco Ranch and was warmly received. Forrest and Charlene Davis put me up and put up with me as Spring farm work was moving into full swing.
It’s a beautiful ranch and part of that beauty is the practical application of Belgian horse-power.
Pete Weimer, Forrest’s son-in-law, is the chief teamster and drives most of the big hitches. Along with Pete, Jim Teachman, Pete Lapham, Jeff Scott, Leslie Wyman and Guy Hollis all work on the horse end of ranch business.
The ranch consists of several thousands of acres; the horse are used to farm 555 acres. Last Fall 25 acres were plowed. So far this Spring they had worked up 200 acres with horses. The main part of the farming is done with horses. A tractor is used to clean corrals and bale hay. The hay is cut with a swather. All hay hauling is done with horses. 16 head of horses are used every day. 24 horses are available to work. Pete uses an 8 horse hitch. With green horses, he rotates them in half days at a time in 3 to 6 day intervals. There are 47 head of registered Belgian horses, 2 pair of geldings and some grade horses. Add in the saddle horses and the total equine count comes to 105.
The cattle herd consists of Beefalo, registered Herefords and commercial cows. They are working on a 4 year AI program to get purebred Beefaloes.
The crops raised consist of alfalfa, timothy, orchard grass and oats. Oats are rotated for a couple of years with the alfalfa. This year they will have 60 acres in oats and they plan on binding and thrashing with horses. They will be having a threshing bee to help get the work done.
On the horse end of things, 2 main people, Pete and Forrest, do the majority of teamster work with Pete Lapham filling in with manure spreading and general hauling. All together the ranch employs an average of 11 people.
Work begins each morning at 7:00 a.m. in the barn, brushing, graining and harnessing horses. At about 8:00 a.m. the horses are led to water, then the farm crew comes in to clean and load the manure spreader. Every morning manure from the barns is spread on the fields. Forrest demands that all horses are kept in the barn during the Winter. Every stall is filled.
Every Spring the permanent pastures are harrowed and spring-toothed to get better growth and to prevent matting. This Spring they plan to drill 60 acres of oats and 14 acres of new alfalfa. In the Spring, they disc, harrow and level the seed bed with horses.
In talking to Forrest, I asked if horses were economical. His reply: “You bet!” He said he didn’t have any cost comparisons for large operations such as theirs but said that he was certain that with smaller acreage you would make more money with horses rather than with tractors. He said, “I don’t think they can eat more hay than the tractor can use.” 40 years ago Forrest logged with horses for the ranch owner. Forrest sold his ranch and went to work for Jim Brown in 1973. They decided together to give real horsepower a try. For the last 7 years it seems to have worked quite well for them. Forrest suggests that the horses may have had a part in the financial security of the operation as they’ve never had any problems.
Forrest doesn’t believe the ‘average’ person farming will change to horses. But he does think that anyone farming 250 acres or less should farm with horses. As a side note Forrest expressed concern about selling good teams to people who don’t know anything about working or how to care for horses. He believes there should be more clinics to teach people about how to use horses.
I also talked to Pete Weimer about his thoughts on horses. Pete came to the ranch 7 years ago and learned how to work horses from Forrest. Pete uses just two lines to drive any and all hitches no matter the number of horses. He uses the bucking back system that Forrest taught him.
On driving Pete said, “You don’t have to be strong to drive horses. No matter how strong you are, if they are going to run, you can’t hold them. You have to learn how to outsmart them and learn by your mistakes so they won’t have the opportunity to run.” Also, he said, “I hook and unhook the same way every time. I don’t like anyone to help me ’cause I will forget to do something. Even with 8 head, I hook them all and do it the same way every time. Before I started this I once forgot to unhook a buck strap and I went to lead off the leaders and one of the rear horses was still hooked. The horses started to get excited dragging equipment. That’s when I started to do everything the same every time.”
On the practicality of horses Pete remarked, “Even if gas went down to 2 cents a gallon, there will always be people working horses. I think the guy who has 200 acres or less should throw away the expensive tractors and use horses to farm with. The cost is so much less. You’re growing your fuel and fertilizer. It takes more time but it’s worth every bit of it.” As for big farms, Pete doesn’t believe horses will work yet as there is a shortage of able teamsters available for hire.
Well, with the information we get through the SFJ, Pete might be wrong in the near future because there are lots of people out there looking to get started with horses. So as for the practicality of work horses on large acreage – Forrest and Pete seemed to agree that the only drawback was finding enough good people to work. It just goes to show that the limitations aren’t with the horses, they’re with us, something the old-timers have been saying for years. Thanks to everyone at the San Francisco Ranch and to Doug and Carla Hammill for a special opportunity to view a unique operation and share it with SFJ readers.