Billings Flying Service airlifted about 20 tons of hay, one round bale at a time, Thursday morning to hundreds of hungry horses on a ranch east of Billings along Highway 87E.
Also on Thursday, Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office officials used a borrowed John Deere tractor and flatbed trailer to feed other bands of horses.
An estimated 500 to 700 horses belonging to James Leachman are spread over 20 miles across a handful of ranches and Crow Reservation leases.
Leachman, of Billings, was charged Friday with five main and five alternative counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. He is scheduled to make his first appearance at 3:15 p.m. Friday in Justice Court. The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office based the charges on five dead horses found on the ranch earlier this month.
The airlift, using a heavy-duty Bell Huey UH-1H helicopter, took a little more than two hours. A smaller helicopter flew for three or four hours to scout and gather some of the horses, according to Al Blain, who owns Billings Flying Service with his brother, Gary Blain.
"This was something that was easy for us to do," Al Blain said. "We got the immediate need met and now they can feed by tractors and flatbeds, which will be much more economical."
With horses spread out so far, the first step was to collect the biggest herd in the grassless 2,600-acre Tschirgi pasture.
"There was onesies and twosies everywhere, and we tried to gather them up," Al Blain said. "I was afraid the hay wouldn't get found. How's the horse on the other side of the pasture going to know?"
Three mares and two colts couldn't be moved, Blain said, adding, "It looked like they were in rough shape."
The dropped hay will last a few days. So far, 250 tons of hay have been donated for the rescue effort, dubbed Operation Home Place.
Turk Stovall, whose family now owns the former Leachman Cattle Co.'s Home Place ranch, said Leachman's horses have been illegally grazing on their land since July, when they bought the ranch at a federal foreclosure sale.
A.J. Blain flew the Huey and dropped the bales, while his father, Al Blain, flew Stovall around the ranch in the smaller chopper to locate the best drop sites.
"It's awesome, the outpouring of volunteers," Stovall said. "We've been feeding them for six months, and the neighboring landowners have been feeding them for years."
Stovall estimated that Leachman's about 500 horses each eat at least $1 per day worth of grass. Horses eat 2.5 times as much as a cow, and this herd can consume $1,600 worth of hay per day.
With his cows calving and needing the coming spring grass, Stovall said his family can't continue to let the horses graze on their land indefinitely. And Stovall said his family has spearheaded the effort to get help for horses they don't own.
"These horses would never have had a chance if we hadn't said, ‘We need some help out here,' " Stovall said.
As of Thursday morning, the Northern International Livestock Exposition had pledges for 350 tons of hay from Montana and Wyoming and cash donations of more than $10,000.
"I had a mom call from Alaska and her daughter wanted to donate her birthday money," NILE Executive Director Justin Mills said.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, who drove the loaner tractor, pulled the bales off the trailer he borrowed from his neighbor and dropped the hay into the nets bound for the Tschirgi pasture two miles away.
"We're lucky we live in this community," Linder said. "I spent three hours on the phone, and in three hours the hitch was being built, I had the tractor and the helicopter lined up."
Because the ground is too muddy now for pickups to haul heavy flatbeds, Berkley Equipment & Machine Works built a special hitch so the tractor could pull the gooseneck trailer. Pacific Steel donated the steel. A Billings implement dealer, which wanted to remain anonymous, loaned the tractor.
More hay will be given to the horses Saturday.
"We're doing all we can to get all the hay to as many horses as possible. Hopefully, it's enough," Linder said.