Cattle Ranching in the American West
By trading one horse or cow for a traveler’s two trail-weary horses or cows, Johnny Grant soon established a cattle business in the late 1850s in the Deer Lodge Valley of southeast Montana. With his business growing, Grant built a ranch in 1859 along the banks of the Clark Fork River that would eventually become known as the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site.
In 1866, Grant sold his ranch to Conrad Kohrs. Kohrs ultimately grew his cattle empire to a peak of 50,000 head of cattle, and 10 million acres of grazing land, that spanned four states and stretched into Alberta. Both Grant and Kohrs utilized open range ranching, which allowed cattle to range free for grazing—a common method of ranching in the latter half of the 19th century. But overgrazing of grasslands would mean undernourished cattle that had difficulty surviving the “Hard Winter” of 1886-1887. Losses of up to 90% of some herds that winter would be the financial downfall for many Montana ranchers.
Despite losing nearly two-thirds of his cattle, Kohrs eventually adapted to modern methods of ranching—including irrigation, fencing rangeland, and growing and storing feed—and, by the end of the century, he would become known as “Montana’s Cattle King.”