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Since 1896

5 generations tend Boulder Valley family ranch

  • 5 min to read
Family ranch

Tom Carey Jr. holds a cow in a headgate to keep her still while a motherless calf suckles for milk.

Thom Bridge/For the Gazette

BOULDER — Luckily for the Carey family, their ancestor Lillian journeyed to the Boulder Valley in 1890 to teach at Basin School.

She liked Montana so much, she talked her family back in Eau Claire, Wis., into moving here.

She would later become superintendent of Jefferson County School.

Fast forward, and the fifth generation of Careys is still ranching in the Boulder Valley, after buying their first land here in 1896.

A recent Monday morning began with sweet rolls and mugs of hot chocolate at the Carey Cattle Co. ranch kitchen table, about 18 miles south of Boulder.

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Tom Carey Sr.

Tom Carey Sr. chuckles while the family shares a cup of coffee one morning.

Gathered round were three generations: Tom and Helen Carey Sr.; their son and daughter-in-law Tom and Lorie Carey Jr.; and their son Steven.

Despite see-saw markets, the family has stuck with cattle over the decades. Tom Sr.’s dad, Frank, had also raised sheep in 1928, he said.

But good workers — shepherds and shearers — were hard to find.

And then the market got picky about whether their wool was too fine or too coarse.

“They lost their market after World War II,” said Helen, who first came to the valley as a music teacher and fell in love with both Tom Sr. and cattle ranching.

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Family photos

Family photos of life on the ranch adorn the walls of Helena and Tom Sr.’s bedroom.

When Frank died in 1957, Tom Sr. and his brothers, John and Martin, bought the land and split it, leading to several Carey ranches throughout the Boulder Valley.

This family branch — Tom Sr. and Helen — run the Tom Carey Cattle Company, while Tom Jr., Lorie, and their kids Steven and Mariah own the nearby XC Ranch. Altogether there’s about 3,300 acres in just this branch of the Carey family ranch operations and some 350-plus head of beef.

It’s largely a family affair and an innovative one.

Diversifying

It can take more than one income and skill set to keep a ranch thriving.

Helen has launched the Ranch Bed & Breakfast, drawing guests from all over the world.

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Helen Carey

Helen Carey prepares lunch for those out working cattle.

Lorie works as the Jefferson School District business manager.

And Steven has launched his own disc jockey business.

After sweet rolls, Tom Jr. heads to a pickup, while Steven takes the wheel of a tractor pulling a bale processor.

Red-winged blackbirds trilled from the brush, as Tom Jr. headed into one of the nearby pastures. Across the way, a pair of sandhill cranes raised their heads from picking through the stubble.

In the opposite direction, a herd munched their way through the hay that Steven had just spread.

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Hay bale

Using a bale spreader, Steven distributes a hay bale for one of the family's herds of cattle.

Their rainbow of cattle ear tags attest to the array of family members in the operation — green for daughter Mariah, purple for Steven, orange for Tom Sr. and Helen, and white for Tom Jr. and Lorie.

“People like it too much for beef to go away,” Tom Jr. said of the future of the Carey Ranch. "I think it will always be here, as long as there is interest in it by the upcoming children.”

Ranching future

And in his case, he and Lorie’s children — Steven and Maria — see their future on the ranch or helping as needed.

Mariah is away at Montana State University earning an accounting degree, but would be back by Friday to help with branding.

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Tom Jr.

"People like it too much for beef to go away," Tom Jr. said of the future of the Carey Ranch. "I think it will always be here, as long as there is interest in it by the upcoming children."

Another boost to the ranch is Jefferson County’s agricultural zoning, which keeps their land zoned agricultural and taxed at ag values, rather than rates for subdivided land.

One of Tom Jr.’s tasks Monday morning was starting a hired hand on brushing meadows, with a contraption that Tom had designed and built that breaks up the ground and spreads out manure left by the grazing cattle.

“I always liked cattle,” said Tom Jr. “And I like the mechanical part of farming — the equipment, and running equipment and building things and farming.”

Most of the calving is done with just about 20 cows left, who were held near the calving shed.

That can be a grueling time of year, but this season there were enough people to split the work into three shifts, so everyone could get some sleep.

Helen recalled that years ago it used to be so intense, that they’d sit on the edge of their bed too tired to know if they were coming in or going out, and would have to reach down and touch their boots to see if they were cold and wet.

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Daily feeding

Steven takes a tractor for his daily morning feeding routine.

Innovations and inventions

At heart Tom Jr. is a builder and inventor.

Some of his latest handiwork is a new, more weather secure calving shed he built two years ago and a series of new fences to keep cattle and manure run-off out of the Boulder River.

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Tom Carey Jr.

Tom Carey Jr. chuckles while checking on a motherless calf.

He also designed a Cow Be-Gone device to keep cattle out of streams, which won a Montana inventors’ contest at the Ag Technology Show in 2003. It’s actually got a number of uses and is sold under several names — Stream Box and Pipeline Box.

Tom Jr. turned that business over to Steven, who builds and ships them all over the country. But that’s more a side business than a major money maker.

Markets have been friendly in recent years, said Tom Jr., but then cattle prices dropped back into the doldrums — while other prices climbed.

“In 1979, I bought an $11,000 pickup,” he said, “and steer calves were $1 a pound. In 2006, I bought a pickup for $44,000 and calves were $1 a pound.”

Last fall, they sold their calves at $2.50 a pound. But now prices have dropped to $1.60 to $1.70 per pound.

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Tom Jr.

Markets have been friendly in recent years, said Tom Jr., but then cattle prices dropped back into the doldrums -- while other prices climbed. Last fall, they sold their calves at $2.50 a pound. But now prices have dropped to $1.60 to $1.70 per pound.

While it may not be that easy for making a living, there’s a lot to relish about ranch life.

“It’s nice not having the same job every day,” said Steven, a sentiment they all seem to share.

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Steven

Steven prepares bales for his daily morning feeding of the cows.

“And it’s a great place to raise kids,” said Lorie.

She likes that her kids like being outdoors and have avoided some of the pressures of “hanging out” that can happen in town.

There are hard times, she admitted. Times when prices aren’t good, or when there’s not enough rain.

And over the years, they’ve adapted and changed a lot of the way they do things.

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Hay bales

Steven prepares bales for his daily morning feeding of the cows.

From fencing cattle out of the streambed, to changing the way they graze to leave half the grasses for wildlife, to monitoring their rangeland so as not to overgraze it and planting trees as shelter belts for birds and wildlife.

These are just a few of the ways they’ve adapted operations to work with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said district resource conservationist Nancy Sweeney.

“They’re great people to work with,” added NRCS civil engineer Laurel Ovitt.

For Steven, work gets broken up with “unlimited access to a nice river,” he said.

A lover of hard rock music, one of his favorite times of the year is haying season, even though it’s hectic.

“There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting in a tractor at 2 a.m. and listening to satellite radio,” he said.

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Steven

"It’s nice not having the same job every day," said Steven Carey about his duties on the ranch.

And then there’s his pets, a cow named Jewel, who’s now 15 years old, and one named Azuba, who is 4 years old. They both come when he calls and help lead the herd where Steven wants them to go, he said.

And when he can take a break, he’s off to meet Mariah for rock concerts or out to the ski slopes or down to the river.

A bit of a tech and music head, he’s launched a side business — Crank That to 11 sound production.

From doing music for church functions, he’s branched out to barn dances and weddings and being the technical producer for his church, Freshlife Helena.

And while a farm day that follows the seasons can play havoc with socializing, there’s a lot that Steven likes.

It can be so busy he forgets what day of the week it is.

He’s finding his grandfather’s advice to him, holds true: “You might as well throw your watch away. You’re not going to need that.”

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Tom Jr. and Tom Sr.

Tom Jr. and Tom Sr. share a moment together listening to a 1909 phonograph in Tom Sr.’s bedroom before lunch one afternoon.

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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