Lonnie Barg guides his team into a pasture in Silver Creek Valley. His Belgian horses, Jack and Jill, pull close to three tons of hay on a sled through the snow, plodding toward 525 cows.
“Them cows will eat 200 bales a day,” Lonnie says, raising his voice above jingling harness bells. “It takes three loads to feed them every day.”
As foreman of Picabo Livestock, Lonnie is responsible for getting nearly 2,500 head of cattle through the cold Idaho winter. At an elevation of 4,800 feet and with months of snow-covered days, the cattle outfit relies heavily on the hay it grows in the valley during the summer.Picabo Livestock in Idaho, a family-run ranch for 125 years, has a rich history, one steeped in cattle, horses, farming and innovative business ventures. But Bud and Nick Purdy don’t rest on past achievements. They continue building for the future.
Years ago, Picabo Livestock (then named K-K Ranch) relied on 20 teams of horses, most of them used to mow, rake and stack hay in the summer, then in the winter feed cattle and harvest 3,000 tons of ice sold to the railroad. Operations have modernized over time, with the ranch using trucks and tractors more often for feeding, harvesting and performing many other duties. But Lonnie still hitches up the team every day, most times delivering a load to 100 or so replacement heifers.
Feeding with a team may not be the fastest method, but Lonnie does it for reasons beyond keeping tradition alive.
“I don’t think there’s any better work in the winter than bucking bales,” he says. “It’s good, honest work. You hand load all those bales, and it keeps you in good shape. Plus, I enjoy getting out in the weather.”
In 1883, Picabo Livestock was established as the K-K Ranch by the Kilpatrick Brothers Company. The six brothers came from Beatrice, Nebraska, and most of them partnered in the family business of building railroads throughout the West. While grading a path for the tracks across the Arco Desert for the Oregon Short Line, which ran from Shoshone, Idaho, to Ketchum, the brothers stopped in the Silver Creek Valley. The valley served as a useful way station, and eventually the brothers developed the railroad stop into the town of Picabo. When Bud Purdy began managing his family’s operation in 1943, K-K Ranch ran 8,000 sheep and about 300 cows.
During the 1950s, Purdy began building up the cattle numbers and eased out of the sheep business.
Today, the ranch encompasses about 6,000 deeded acres and another 35,000 are leased from private and government holdings. Bud and his son, Nick, run approximately 700 mother cows and stock anywhere from 1,700 to 2,200 yearlings in their feedyard during the winter. The Purdys exemplify modern, 21st century ranchers, and yet horses remain a vital component of their operation.
“Our cattle go out in the desert country in the spring, then we move them to the mountain country,” Bud says. “You got to have horses. We do all our cattle work with horses. We don’t have any four-wheelers.”
The Purdys also don’t have much use for rocking chairs. Bud, age 90, and Nick, 67, don’t know what retirement is.
“I’m just getting started,” Nick says. “There’s still a lot of things I want to do.”
The two men inherited more than a picturesque ranch with sufficient water, fertile soil, abundant wildlife and mountains all around. They’re also heirs to a strong work ethic and a mindset bent on building for the future. They understand how they have benefited from the dedication and vision of their forefathers, and they fully intend to provide the same inheritance to future Purdy generations.
A Heritage of Hard Work
Bud Purdy was born in Beatrice, Nebraska. His parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and shortly thereafter Bud’s mother, Rachel, moved her four children to Redlands, California, where her parents had recently relocated to enjoy a more-comfortable climate.
Rachel’s parents, William H. and Maggie Kilpatrick, gladly helped her raise the children. “W.H.” served as a devoted and influential father-figure to Bud and his brothers and sister. The Kilpatrick brothers had made a fortune building railroads in Idaho, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota, mining coal in Wyoming, logging in Wisconsin and pursuing many other successful business ventures. W.H. could usually be found working on the jobsite. A brusque, hot-tempered, yet affable and charitable man, W.H. had the respect and admiration of his men.
Hard work was clearly an important value to Bud’s grandfather.
“Grandpa sent us to military school,” Bud recalls. “And, for five or six summers, he sent my brother and me out here [to Picabo]. He didn’t want us lying around during the summertime. So, he hired a college kid to drive us. It took three days to get out here.”
Bud was 10 and his brother William was 11 in 1928, when they spent their first summer working on K-K Ranch. Both boys were assigned a team of horses and began hauling sheep manure and performing a number of other ranch duties. During college, Bud came back to Picabo during the summers and worked with the hay crew.
In 1938, Bud graduated from Washington State College with a degree in business administration. But an office job wasn’t in his future.
“In 1938, there was a helluva depression on,” Bud says. “Trying to get a job with a business degree was tough. I couldn’t get any jobs that sounded good. Grandpa said, ‘Go to Picabo, and I’ll give you room and board, and $60 a month.’ ”
While working as a regular ranch hand, Bud married Maxine, and they had three children. Meanwhile, the ranch operated as a diverse agricultural business, with 8,000 ewes, 300 mother cows and flood-irrigated farmland. K-K Ranch also owned about 50 draft and saddle horses.
“We worked everything with horses,” Bud recalls. “We plowed with them, harvested with them. We didn’t have combines; we had stationary threshers. You’d put bundles on the wagon in the field, drive up alongside the thresher and throw the grain in. We’d have about four wagons doing that.
“We had one guy that we called the ‘barn dog.’ He did nothing but look after the horses, the teams and the harnesses.
“We always were working with young horses. There was a runaway about once every day.”
In 1943, the ranch foreman resigned, opening the door for Bud to manage the ranch. Due to World War II, workers were in short supply, but Bud managed to keep things running.
Bud and Maxine eventually divorced, and in 1951, Bud married Ruth, who, with her son, managed the general store in town and also kept the books for the all of the Purdy businesses for decades.
By 1955, the Kilpatrick Brothers Company had dissolved, and Bud was able to purchase the ranch for $87 an acre.
“My sister, her husband and my brother [Paul] took the sheep outfit, and I took the cattle operation,” Bud explains.
Bud began building up his cow herd. Later, he built a feedyard and started feeding stocker calves, using the abundance of alfalfa and grass hay baled during the summer. Typically, the ranch raises enough hay to feed 2,200 stockers during the winter, plus sell an excess to dairy farms. Last year, Picabo Livestock made $300,000 in hay sales. With the price of hay escalating, this year the ranch decided to sell more hay and limit its stocker herd to 1,700.
One of the most important resources to Picabo Livestock is Silver Creek, a spring-fed stream that provides water for the operation and also makes for excellent fly-fishing and waterfowl hunting. The creek has attracted numerous fishermen and hunters throughout the years, including celebrities such as James Stewart, Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper. During the 1940s, Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Mary, began hunting on Silver Creek. He and Bud became friends, and in 1958 the Hemingways moved to the area.
The Purdys base an exclusive hunting and fishing club on Silver Creek, bringing added income to the ranch.
Nick Purdy began working on the ranch at an earlier age than did his father.
“I started driving teams when I was 5 years old,” he says. “I ran the dairy, pulling hay up on a big boom. I ran the team, driving them ahead and then backing them up all day long. When I was 9, I got to drive a tractor with a dump rake. And when I was 13, I took over the haying division of the ranch.”
Nick and Bud operate Picabo Livestock. Over the years, they have added sprinkler irrigators and began raising barley for Busch Agricultural. They irrigate about 4,000 acres of farmland.
Like his father, Nick continues to pursue additional business ventures. He and his wife, Sharon, run the Silver Creek Convenience Store in Picabo, which includes fishing and hunting supplies, a restaurant, hotel rooms and the town’s post office.
In 1973, Bud and Nick founded Silver Creek Irrigation, which supplied irrigation supplies to local farmers. The company is now Purdy Enterprises, owned and operated by Nick and his three sons. It has grown to include several irrigation and plumbing supply stores, and it designs and manufactures computer-controlled pumping stations for subdivisions, farms and golf courses. The company also designs and installs computerized sprinkler systems that control dust in cattle feedlots throughout the country.
Purdy Enterprises also develops and furnishes the infrastructure of subdivisions, installing water and sewer systems, and building roads for new developments.
So much business keeps Nick on the road, but his heart remains with the ranch.
“My idea of a good time is to stay at home and work,” Nick says. “I’m doing everything for the future of the ranch. The conservation easement that we gave is to help perpetuate the ranch.”
In 1995, the Purdys donated 3,500 acres to the Idaho Nature Conservancy, designating a large portion of the ranch as a conservation easement that cannot be developed or subdivided. Picabo Livestock is sure to remain intact. Although many ranchers nearby have sold their land for millions, selling out has never been Bud’s intention.
“The ranchers are all having trouble,” he says. “There is so much pressure on them, especially when they see their neighbor sell out for a couple million bucks. They say, ‘What the hell am I doing this for, when I’m not making much money?’
“We could sell the place, but what would we do with the money? Over the years, there have been times that we didn’t get the bank paid off, and that kind of stuff. But we don’t want to sell the ranch. We want to run it.”
Nick is also aware of the hardships farmers and ranchers face.
“When you’re in agriculture, it’s tough,” he adds. “My mother and father struggled along for many years. And it’s still not easy. You get a lot of debt. You’re rich in land, but there’s no cash. You just got to show up every day and make things work. There’s no room for mistakes.”
Although his sons are not directly involved with the ranch now, Nick says they’re ready to step in if needed. Nick and Bud also look forward to the involvement of Nicholas, Nick’s 20-year-old grandson, who has shown a strong interest in ranching.
“My grandson is studying agricultural management and engineering at the University of Idaho,” Nick says. “He fully expects to come back to the ranch. It’s going to certainly stay in the family.”
Back on the sleigh, Lonnie stays warm by tossing hay bales to cows, and Jack and Jill work up a sweat pulling their load through the snow. Lonnie never worked a team before he came to Picabo Livestock 15 years ago.
“There have been mornings that it’s 15 or 20 degrees below zero,” he says. “Those horses will start every morning, no matter the weather, no matter the temperature, even if the fuel truck doesn’t show up.
“I don’t know if using the team is more economical,” he muses. “Of course, with the price of diesel where it is, it might be saving us money.
“But they run quieter than a truck. You see stuff you normally wouldn’t from the cab of a truck. You’re just out in nature a little more. I could make more money doing a different job, but there’s no one in the ranching business that’s in it for the money.”
Ross Hecox is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.