By L.S. Leonard
Progressive Farmer Contributor
If not for two unrelated sisters and a salt barrel, Robert Bold's family story would read a lot differently.
There was the first sister. Bold's grandfather, Reinhard Boldt, received his passport in 1910 after fulfilling his obligation to the German military. His plan was to travel to the United States. But his sister couldn't bear to see her little brother leave, so she hid the document inside a salt barrel. When the passport was finally uncovered a year and a half later, Boldt booked passage and sailed for America. He changed his name to Bold, homesteaded in Montana and advertised back in Cincinnati for a wife. More on that later.
Both Robert Bold and his wife, Annette, grew up on ranches but left to pursue careers as educators. Over time though, the couple grew anxious to return to ranch life and to views so sweeping you can see seven of Montana's mountain ranges on a clear day.
Robert and Annette purchased what became Bold Ranch, near Winifred, Mont., in 1979 (the original ranch near Big Sandy is now owned by two of Robert's brothers). Together, with their three children, Robert and Annette have devoted 35 years to careful stewardship of the land and have experimented with various systems to couple profitability with protecting the environment. Their commitment earned them the regional National Cattlemen Beef Association Environmental Stewardship Award in 2012.
"The work of the Bold family exhibits the positive impact that environmental consciousness can play in the sustainability of a ranching operation," said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
Bold Ranch includes Angus and Charolais cattle. The Bolds also produce no-till wheat, barley for feed, triticale and alfalfa. The ranch is known for developing breeding stock for themselves and for cattlemen throughout Montana and surrounding states. Between 700 and 800 bulls are on feed here at any one time. The Bolds feed registered and commercial breeding stock, and raise bulls on a custom-feeding basis.
Salt continues to influence the ranch. When the family bought this ranch, the 480-acre, low-lying area that had been flood-irrigated was layered in salt white as snow.
"[That] part of the ranch had been abandoned due, in part, to the fact that the technology and practices to reclaim the soil weren't yet known. So we were guinea pigs, experimenting with different grasses," Bold explains.
The ever-seeking, continually questioning educators researched regions on the other side of the world to discover what worked in their saline soils in central Montana. "We looked at what places like Israel and Australia were doing with saline plants," Bold said. "And we knew we have cool-growing season production versus their warm-growing season production, so we had to factor that in, too. We had to find plants that could handle the soil salts and be able to produce forage to leave behind organic matter."
The first step in the soil-reclamation project was to spread granular gypsum over the soil. With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bolds experimented with more than two dozen salt-tolerant grasses, forbs and legumes. Bold said vegetative cover has improved from less than 10 to more than 90%.
Grasses that worked the best were tall wheatgrass, Garrison creeping foxtail and Fawn tall fescue. "Tall wheatgrass is not a good forage, but it's an excellent cover for the ground, and it's extremely desirable for wildlife. The pheasants, deer and elk love it," Bold explains. He also seeded Garrison creeping foxtail, which is a super forage, good in the saline soil and handles poor drainage conditions. Fawn tall fescue came next. Bold said it is not as aggressive as Garrison but is good forage. The Bolds also seeded some orchardgrass and Timothy grass.
Bold said the family eventually found success, "but only after several tries, once we figured out which plants can thrive in that soil environment."
On other areas of the ranch, native pastures flourish, and Savory rotational grazing is employed to prevent depletion. "It's small paddocks with a large concentration of cattle in there for a short time," Bold said. "We only have about 16 inches of annual rain and snow precipitation, and a lot of that snowmelt is runoff to the Missouri River. So we keep cattle in pastures about four weeks, and we rotate them out, and they don't come back into that pasture again during that growing season."
In this semi-arid region, water is a constant consideration. A series of stock water dams and pipelines provide water to the paddocks. "We have 59,000 feet of pipeline that go out to the pastures, originating from a well," Bold said. "All of the summer pastures have tanks in them, and since we don't have cattle in all of our summer pastures simultaneously, we can regulate the water and regulate where the grazing goes."
The USDA Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which provides funding for water-conservation practices, helped the Bolds make their pipeline system a reality. "We had several dry years here in the '90s, and we needed water in those pastures," Bold said. "If it wasn't for that program, we probably wouldn't have put in that pipeline. That was really an incentive, and we were thankful for it."
Oh, and the second sister? In the early 1900s, Reinhard's marital prospects were bleak. But he did receive a response to his advertised marriage proposition. He was not privy, however, to the joke hatched in response to it by another destiny-tempting sister.
"My grandma's sister saw the ad and wrote back saying her sister wanted to meet him," Robert Bold notes, as he retells the story. "So he gets all loaded up on the train and heads to Cincinnati. But my grandma never even knew it was happening, because it was all a prank by her sister." But the joke soon turned into serious courting.
"Six weeks later, grandpa and grandma married up and came back to Montana." And the Bold line was born -- several times over. So it was that two sisters and a salt barrel changed the course of history from whatever else might have been for this ranching family.
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