The Winter of 1886

Lone Hereford cow in heavy snowstorm
After the Hard Winter, ranchers started feeding hay throughout the winter to help the cattle survive the winter.

NPS Photo/ Michael Ostreich


"The expense of caring for cattle in herds of 1,000 or more averages annually about 75 cents a head. Adding in taxes and other items, the cost of producing a steer, worth $30, and we have a total of $3.50. The banks loan money to be invested in stock and there is no more sure investment in Montana. One firm that borrowed $13,500 at two percent a month for six years showed a profit of $51,073 over total investment and expenses."

1883 Cattle Prospectus

"Ranchers, huddled about their stoves, did not dare think of what was happening on the range--of helpless cattle pawing at frozen snow in search of a little food or fighting to strip bark from willows and aspens along streams, "dogies" and unseasoned eastern cattle floundering in drifts, whole herds jammed together in ravines to escape the frosty blast and dying by the thousands."

Ray Allen Billington

Overstocking the Montana range had been the norm since the early 1880s. Texas and Eastern cattle were shipped or trailed in, joining herds already feeding on the rich grasses of the northern plains. By fall 1883, about 600,000 head of cattle filled the range, sharing the resources with an equal number of sheep and a proportionately smaller number of horses. By this time, the range was at its capacity.

The natural increase of the herds and the importation of more Texas animals in 1884 added yet to the population. This resulted in more animals grazing on the same amount of grass, which became thinner, requiring more acres per animal even as more animals per acre arrived. By 1885 Montana's range showed the effect of this vicious circle. Conrad Kohrs noted, "It takes 20 acres on a new range to feed one cow, after the range has been grazed two years it will take almost 25 acres, and after six years all of 40 acres."

By early 1886 more cattle, which had not yet developed the ability to withstand rugged Montana winters, filled the range, receiving less nourishment from the sparse grass. As it happened, a dry summer and concurrently poor grass crop preceded a severe winter that started early and ended late. The cattle were weak as they entered the most dangerous winter season in years.

In November, snow blanketed the range, so deep in places the cattle couldn't reach what little grass was under. In January, the hoped-for chinook winds melted the snow and exposed the ridges, only to be followed by a blizzard and unrelenting cold that made grazing impossible. By spring, the magnitude of loss was staggering--60% to 95% in places. The Kohrs herds in the Deer Lodge valley survived; with a $100,000 loan by Butte banker A.J. Davis, he was one of the few able to rebuild. But the disaster foreshadowed the end of the open range cattle era.

Last updated: November 5, 2021

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