I’m delighted to be featured alongside several phenomenal women in the Audubon Conservation Ranching program. They are highlighting women ranchers in honor of Women’s History month. Following is my profile.
Rancher Name: Heather Bilden
Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Ranch: Coulee Creek Ranch
Location: Lavina, Montana
What is your favorite bird and why?
This is a tough question! It’s like asking me to pick my favorite color – my answer depends on my mood, my surroundings, and the season. In this moment, my favorite bird is the Common Redpoll. Large flocks of them have been descending on our yard every morning for the past few weeks. It is fascinating to watch them move in unison: landing, eating, and then taking off abruptly only to land again just a stone’s throw away. I love their bright red caps and the variety of reddish hues on the males’ chests (what the field guide aptly refers to as a “variable pink wash”). If you ask me in a month, I’ll likely say my favorite bird is the Sandhill Crane, which will be returning to Montana by mid-March. Their rattling calls will echo across the prairie for months and become part of the fabric of our daily lives. We have the pleasure of watching a pair raise their young in our pastures every year, and the transformation that occurs in just six short months is marvelous.
What conservation projects are you working on right now?
This summer we are excited to begin a trial of multi-species grazing with our new flock of Icelandic sheep. About five years ago, we subdivided 4 large pastures into 14 smaller units. We now rotate our cattle more frequently to spread grazing pressure evenly across the landscape and incorporate periods of rest for each pasture. Cattle and sheep prefer different types of plants, and grazing them in succession can improve pasture quality, decrease weeds, and increase biodiversity. Raising sheep will also give us the opportunity to diversify our income stream and provide lamb and wool to our community.
Any advice for women looking to pursue a career in ranching?
It has been vital to me to find and nurture community. Living in rural areas can feel isolating. Our business is just my husband and myself, so we often go through our day-to-day lives without seeing other people. But even in our small community, there are always neighbors that we can call on to help us when we’re in a pinch, and to whom we are eager to lend a hand. I’ve also found a tremendously supportive community in the Women in Ranching program coordinated by the Western Landowners Alliance. Virtual calls, email conversations, and annual gatherings bring this group together. I have a network of knowledgeable, inspiring, and compassionate women ranchers with me wherever I go!
What’s your dream job?
I’m doing it! Being a rancher and selling beef directly to consumers is a dynamic job that keeps me on my toes. I love working outdoors – moving the herd, checking water tanks, and feeding with our team. Even fencing has its moments! I also love connecting with our customers at farmer’s markets and through weekly deliveries to Billings. People in Montana often have stories to share about growing up on ranches and working with horses. Or they may be new to it all and are curious to learn what it’s like to live on a ranch. I enjoy talking with people about the animals we raise, and the connection between healthy landscapes and nutritious food. I also love how our work on the ranch is deeply connected to the seasons. It is very grounding to have routines that we repeat in harmony with nature’s cycles.
Support Coulee Creek Ranch
If you live in the Billings, Lavina, or Bozeman area, you’re in luck! Coulee Creek Ranch will deliver your online order or you can visit a Billings Farmers Market near you during the summer months.
Head over to the Audubon Conservation Ranching page to learn about the other women in the program.