Jay Smith always wanted to be a cattle rancher, and Chyenne Smith had a lifelong passion for riding horses.
Over 15 years ago, the two met in Salmon, and together, they realized their dreams on the J Lazy S Angus Ranch.
“We started from scratch, and we couldn’t have done it without the right partnership,” says Jay Smith.
“It was an adventure for me. And it meant that I could ride horses a lot, so it was a good fit,” add Chyenne Smith.
Even though Jay grew up in a family with ties to ranching in Carmen Creek, he wasn’t in line to inherit a ranch. So he studied business and agriculture at the University of Idaho, and went to work for Karl Tyler Chevrolet. Jay put himself through college as an auto mechanic.
Chyenne, a native of Roundup, Montana, studied art and visual communications at a college in Colorado. But she started her own construction business after finishing school.
By the time the two met, Jay was already starting a small-scale cattle operation in the Carmen Creek Valley. Jay took Chyenne for a long horseback ride to see the Salmon River country from high above the valley. He put her on a good riding horse that an experienced rider like Chyenne could enjoy.
“I was like, this is great! The horse thing cinched it,” Chyenne says.
They got married in 2005. But then, they needed to buy a ranch, expand the operation. For most people in their late 20s and early 30s, you can’t go out and buy a ranch. It’s way too expensive – multi-millions.
But Jay and Chyenne were passionate about their dream. Suddenly, it all fell into place.
“This guy who owned this place needed it hayed. And that was fate, it was almost like meeting Jay, it just happened,” Chyenne says. “We came down here, Jay did the hay, and he said, “Don’t you guys have a ranch?” We said no, and he just decided we needed to have this ranch. It was a matter of figuring out how we were going to pay for it still, but he really wanted us to have the ranch.”
Jay and Chyenne bought the ranch in 2006. They registered their brand as the J Lazy S Angus Ranch. They built-up their cattle operation to the point where they run about 160 head of leased cattle and about 160 head of registered Angus cattle on 475 acres of private and leased land. The Smiths also run cattle on the BLM Badger-Springs Allotment to the east of their ranch, BLM range in the Salmon River bottoms, and on the Diamond-Moose Allotment high above in the Salmon-Challis National Forest to the west.
Jay and Chyenne love their life on the ranch.
“First and foremost, it’s always how I wanted to raise my family,” Jay says. “Wide open spaces, and a work ethic, care for your animals, chores. I was raised this way, and I wanted that for my children.”
Jay and Chyenne have two daughters, Carma, 12, and Claira, 9.
“I love all of it, I love the whole package,” Chyenne says. “I like being able to be way outside in the wilderness and the trees and the cattle, the riding, I like watching the crops grow, the hay, raising the horses, the puppies, the chickens, the cats, it’s all pretty nice.”
An overarching theme that permeates the J Lazy S Angus Ranch operation is to always strive to make things better.
“I love a continual challenge,” Jay says. “In the cattle business, you can always make your cattle better, you can always make your range better, you can always make your crops better, the challenges are never done. You can go as deep into the science and as hard into the work as you want, there’s more than you can handle tomorrow. I enjoy that. I like to have a challenge in front of me every day.”
The Life on the Range video crew followed the Smith family for a year to learn about animal husbandry, range stewardship, water conservation, and wolves. In the process, we saw how Jay and Chyenne’s ties to their family, friends and community all contribute to the overall success of a family business.
Let’s tag along with the Smith family on their daily adventure of raising cattle in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Salmon, Idaho.
Come January, it’s time for calving to begin. Mother cows give birth frequently, starting in early January and then tapering through March.
“Truly this is the beginning, starting a new cycle. A sense of renewness for the ranch,” Jay says.
Every day, the Smiths keep watch over all of the new calves that are born, with some extra labor for a 24/7 operation over two months. They constantly check the newborn calves to ensure the birth goes well and that they start nursing as soon as they’re able.
“That first shot of mother’s milk. It gives them the immunity they need. It jump-starts their whole system. It’s critical. We do everything we can to make sure that calf gets that, because they need it,” Jay says.
Sometimes Jay and Chyenne have to graft a calf to a different mother cow. Jay ties the legs of a mother cow around the post in the barn so she can’t reject the calf, and Chyenne does the rest, helping the orphaned calf bond to its new mother and drink mother’s milk.
After each calf is born, the Smiths weigh the calf, and give it an inoculation of vitamins. They keep records on each calf’s birth date, weight, its actual genetic information, its sire and pedigree.
During calving season, keeping watch over the cattle at all times is paramount.
“Every time you get up to make a check on the cows, that’s running through your mind,” Chyenne says. “What am I going to find that’s not right? How do I make it right when I find it? We still find things that are new … check to see if a calf is limping … if their navels are swollen … watch to see if the calves are perky or if they get up kind of slow … might be an indication that something is up.
“You have to be with them, and look at them. We’re constantly calling our local vet and talking to them.”
“We have a tighter relationship with our vet than we do with our family medical doctor,” Jay says. “That guy is on speed dial, and we talk to him a lot.”
It’s the last weekend in March, and friends and family come to the J Lazy S Ranch to help brand cattle.
Friends help rope the calves for branding, and family members pitch in to help handle the calves. The first step is to separate the calves from the mother cows.
Jay gets a hot fire going to get the branding irons ready.
Riders take turns roping the calves and helpers wrestle the calves to the ground for branding.
“Branding is the oldest and still the truest form of identification for a ranch,” Jay explains. “There is a state brand department that watches for theft, but really and honestly, it’s mostly used amongst friends and neighbors. When we come off a co-mingled range where 4-5 of us run on one range, we sort each other’s cattle as we come off, we use those identification marks more for ourselves than any other reason.”
Jay’s younger brother Chris and niece Katie are quite the team, wrestling the calves to the ground like pros.
“This has always been a tradition for me,” says Chris Smith. “It’s been a few years since I’ve done branding. It’s something I’ve done ever since growing up.”
“I grew up coming down to Salmon from North Idaho, I’ve been doing it when I was just as little as these kids running around here,” adds Katie Comstock. “I was born here, so this has always felt like home to me, especially branding, kind of an iconic Wild West still.”
Chris is a policeman for the Lewiston Police Department, and Katie works for an organization that supports Christian missionaries. But they love to come help on the ranch whenever possible.
“Yep! Riding range, riding cattle in the fall, we’re game to do as much as we can,” Katie says.
The team branded the Smith’s leased commercial cattle with an LT brand, and then their registered Angus cattle with the J Lazy S brand.
Jay Smith keeps a keen watch over each animal during the process for quality control.
“One of the things I do is make sure each one of these cows are just right at all times,” Jay says. “I want them handled properly, I want injections done correctly, and that’s all for quality assurance. Make sure we make the best live animals we can, and that they make the best beef product in the end. Handle them correctly, and all things go well.”
The Smiths fed everyone a big pot roast for lunch for helping them out.
“We have a lot of great friends, neighbors, family, we have a great community,” Chyenne says. “You almost have to be careful to not tell too many people or otherwise, you’d have about 200 people here. Everybody in the community likes to help each other brand.”
The next step, after branding, is the Smiths separate their cattle into groups in preparation for breeding.
Five bulls are released into their herd of leased cattle to work on impregnating 100 cows over a 45-day period. Each mother cow comes into heat every 21 days, even while they’re nursing their calves.
For their registered Angus cattle, they set up a special portable shelter for doing artificial insemination work to breed ideal characteristics into the mother cows.
Jay Smith spends hours on the computer researching the best traits in registered Angus bulls to mix into his cattle herd, and purchases the semen on the open market.
“Always trying to create the ideal cow,” Jay says.
In early May, it’s time to turn out the leased cattle to a spring BLM grazing allotment next to the Salmon River. At daybreak, Jay and Chyenne round up 80 cow-calf pairs and 4 bulls in a private-land pasture in a matter of minutes.
Then, the Smiths trail the cattle along busy U.S. 93 with a great support crew. Bill Slavin, who leases his cattle to the Smith’s, helps keep the animals going in the right direction on a motorcycle, heading off any stragglers.
“Spring turnout day,” Jay says. “We gathered the cattle at about 6 this morning, had to do 3 miles of US 93. Friends and neighbors helping out. Went really smooth. We’re off the highway, got about 2 miles to go to our turn-out spot. On to a little strip of BLM for a couple of weeks and then we start heading up the mountain on to the forest in the first week of June.”
The Smith’s girls, Carma and Claira, enjoyed the ride. Claira rides Clover, and Carma rides Badger. I asked Claira about the ride. “It was fun,” she says. “Cars bother you? No, not a bit.”
“This is a mixed emotion day,” Jay says. “We’re always happy to be done feeding hay for the season, always glad to get the cows on green grass, we love the range, we love what that means in terms of a renewable resource that can’t be utilized in any other way. But, we know we’re going to have predator issues. It’s just a matter of how severe, when and where. We know there’s going to be a price to pay for that. Just a matter of how severe that price will be. We won’t know until fall.”
The Smiths run their cattle on the Diamond-Moose Allotment in the Salmon-Challis National Forest in the summer. The Diamond-Moose has a history of chronic wolf depredation on livestock. The Smiths always hope for the best, but they know that wolves are in the neighborhood.
They also have had some issues with people in the forest.
“We’ve had some animals shot in the past,” Jay says. “Mostly, people just disturb them, running around with ATVs, stuff like that. Wolves are the issue. That’s what costs us in the end.”
“We had a good year last year, and a pretty tough year the year before. It’s so random. I wish I knew.”
On to Summer Range
In early June, it’s time to trail the cattle from the Salmon River to summer range, a beautiful patch of mountains and succulent meadows in the Diamond-Moose Allotment.
As always, the Smiths recruit friends and family for an arduous, day-long ride to the high country. They start by crossing the Salmon River on horseback to gather 80 mother cows and their calves, 160 Angus cattle.
Jay Smith explains the day’s challenges. “It’s a long ride to the top of the mountain, no good places to stop, corral or hold cattle, or they’ll end up back at the bottom, so you’re committed to a long day.”
After they gather all the cows, they push them up an open ridge and up, up, up toward treeline. The Smiths know the mountain like the back of their hand. They hit small springs along the way for the cattle and horses to drink.
“The challenge is to not miss any shade and water because it’s such a long ride,” Jay says. “The challenge is to have a crew that works well together so you can get it done in 1 push.”
Jay’s dad, Jim Smith, and their hired man, Alvin, hit the top first with their group of cattle. Jay and Chyenne’s crew arrive moments later with the main group of cattle. Everyone is tired after more than 8 hours in the saddle. Claira collapses in her mother’s arms. It’s time for a cold drink and a much-deserved rest.
The cattle have abundant fresh green grass to eat up here. They load the horses into the trailers and head for the Smith cabin a few miles ahead. Everyone looks forward to a hearty steak dinner tonight.
Jim Smith bought an old mining claim here years ago and built the cabin in the middle of a mountain paradise.
“This is a special place up here for a lot of reasons,” Jay says. “It’s a really special place to be our hub for our summer operations. My father and great-father ran cattle up here ran cattle up here pre-Taylor Grazing Act, my family has been a part of this mountain always had a special place in my heart, just always been in my blood.”
For Chyenne, the trip involves a lot of advance planning and logistics.
“My biggest preparation is just stressing out for a week. Just to get myself hyped up,” she says. “We have to make a list of the food we want, plus you need all the right clothes because you never know what the weather is going to be like. Make sure everybody’s tack is in working order, that we have enough horses for everybody.
“And then inevitably, we always forget something. This time, we forgot butter, so we’ll have to get by with butter for a couple of days. Make sure we have enough snacks for the kids in the saddle bags. I know of all the things that people come do with us, this is probably their favorite thing to come do.”
Jim and Sue Smith make a big breakfast for the group the next morning. The plan is to move the cattle through a series of green meadows today. The objective is for the cows to put on weight every day.
Because of the topography and elevation, we’re always moving them to green feed. We have a 2.5-pound average daily gain is our minimum requirement. They’ll gain real well up here.”
The Smiths drive the cattle over to a steep creek crossing. The cattle and the horses are sure-footed in the steep country. The Smiths will keep tabs on the cattle for the next 5 months, keeping them on the move in the summer range. That’s one of Chyenne’s favorite things to do.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s gorgeous everywhere here,” Chyenne says. “I feel free, unattached. All of your worries kind of get wiped away, and you can focus on what you’re doing. It’s very rewarding and very freeing.”
Plus, Jim and Sue Smith love to hang out at their mountain getaway, and keeping watch over the cattle is one of their favorite things to do. It also seems to help keep the wolves away from their livestock.
Sue Smith has been coming up there since she was a little kid – more than 65 years.
“It’s just the best thing ever. The freedom, a good horse, and beautiful country. Just an opportunity to enjoy the solitude and spend quiet time with my lord and savior. It’s perfect for me,” Sue says.
Ron Johnson enjoys helping out, too. He lives next door to the Smiths.
“I’ve spent a big part of my life in the wilderness … to have cooking over the fire, be out in the wilderness and the fresh air, there’s nothing better … the food tastes better, the friendships, talk around the fire, everything,” Johnson says.
The Smiths are great people, he says.
“It’s absolutely amazing. Their heart and their house is open to you instantly at the time they meet you. It’s just the way they are. Really cool.”
Water conservation for salmon and steelhead
While the cattle are out on summer range, Jay and Chyenne tend to chores around the ranch. A big one is to cut hay in the pastures.
Jay has been working on boosting the yield of the hay fields with an innovative irrigation system.
“We actually had our best hay crop ever this year,” he says. “There were a couple of factors that went into that. We had a wet June, and then, we’re always trying to make things better. We do soil sampling, use moisture probes so we put on the right amount of water. A few things we do every year to maximize production and reduce input costs.”
The Smiths also have made improvements to their irrigation system to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead in Carmen Creek. This was a long-term project with multiple partner agencies. The concept was to change the point of diversion from Carmen Creek to a Salmon River canal to leave more water in the stream for fish.
Smith worked with the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation in Salmon to generate cost-share funds for the conservation project. It took 5 years of meetings to put the complex project together.
“In 2015, the stars aligned and the project came to life. And very few obstacles since, it’s been really good,” he says. “We had a 3-year contract with NRCS where we metered every drop of water we used so we could prove that we were staying within the amount of water we transferred. We soil-sampled for 3 years to make sure we weren’t putting any nitrates in the ground.”
“So now, there’s a little over 2 cfs in the bottom of Carmen Creek in a critical time of year. It was a great win-win. We got a great system that works well for us, and our crops, and our fish have some water to spawn in.”
Range stewardship on Fall Range
In the fall, the Smiths graze their registered Angus cattle on the Badger-Springs Allotment, just up the hill to the east of their home ranch. It’s a beautiful area with the Beaverhead Mountains in the background.
Tom McFarland, who ranches in the upper Carmen Creek area, was involved in developing a grazing management system in the Badger-Springs Allotment with the assistance from the NRCS and BLM in the late 1990s.
With solar hot-wire fencing, more than 4 miles of water pipelines, and 7 water troughs, they divided the allotment into a three-pasture rest-rotation system. The new system would spread out the cattle on the range, protect natural water sources, and allow the plants to thrive during non-use periods.
“With that, we saw a huge change in the native materials that we had to graze,” McFarland says. “They would all get a break at least every other year. It was really significant. Our calves put on more weight. We sell more pounds in the fall. The plant communities and range conditions have significantly improved.”
Indeed, range monitoring data from Tom’s son, Seth McFarland, have shown an improving range trend over time.
The Badger-Springs Allotment is one of Jay Smith’s favorite spots.
“I grew up in this country just on the other wide of this ridge, and I’ve known this piece of ground my whole life,” Jay says. “About 20 years ago, this has always been a good piece of range, and we decided, let’s make it better. With this system, and the deferred rotation in the spring, we’ve made a huge amount of difference in this low country. It’s got perennial grasses, needle and thread, bluebunch wheatgrass, all of the desired species are here. It’s a sign of good management.”
Giving back to family and friends – Barn dance for Jim and Sue Smith’s 50th anniversary
Jay and Chyenne Smith cleaned out the upper story of their red barn so they could host a big 50th wedding anniversary party for Jay’s parents, Jim and Sue.
They invited friends and family to come, and lots of people showed up. They hired a band to play country western music, and Jim and Sue had a wonderful time, dancing to just about every tune. Dancing is one of their favorite things to do.
“It’s a close-knit community here,” Chyenne says. “Yeah it sounds silly to say, when they ask for something, and they never ask for anything, we try so hard to do it, because they give us so much. It’s the least we can do.”
“Our family is community oriented, that goes back to our history,” Jay says. “Your neighbors are your source of recreation, your friends and your co-workers. Your kids go to school together, we see each other at the grocery store, at church, or whatever, you run into these people so it’s real natural when there’s a community event that it’s well-attended, by a wide variety of people.”
Shipping cattle to market
Come November, Jay and Chyenne are ready to ship cattle to the market. The calves are fattened up and looking great.
Jay and Chyenne keep detailed records as the calves grow throughout the year. Right before shipping, they weigh the calves to make sure they’re on target for the contract they’ve signed with the buyer.
They are shipping a mix of heifer calves and steer calves tomorrow. They are expecting all of the calves to meet minimum weights, if not exceed them.
Early the next day, the Smiths round up the calves, load them into stock trailers and drop them off in a corral where they can be weighed by the cattle buyer/broker at the Carmen Creek scales.
Fresh snow fell overnight, making for a wintry-like scene for shipping cattle.
It’s a critical time of year for the Smiths as this is when they get paid for a year’s worth of work. All of the care that they’ve put into their animals contributes to the pay day.
“The animals looked really good, and what really matters more to me is they looked good to the buyers,” Jay says. “We brought a few extras here so they had room to sort, and they looked good enough that they took them all, above and beyond the contract. Can’t do better than that.”
Overall, Jay is happy with how things turned out this year. Fortunately, they had almost no death loss to predators and wolves.
“If you consider price, death loss, all things considered, this has been a good, slightly above-average year,” he says.
The Smiths signed a contract to lock in the price earlier in the summer, so they knew what to expect. And they budgeted for the outcome. Now, they can take a little bit of a breather before calving starts in January.
They’ll go to the Lemhi County Cattlemen’s annual meeting, a festive affair, and then, the Idaho Cattle Association annual meeting in Sun Valley. Jay is an officer on the ICA board. And then they’ll enjoy a vacation in Arizona with the kids.
“The kids are excited, they’ve never been on an airplane, go somewhere warm, and then buckle down and do it all again.”
The Smiths work hard to raise quality animals and make things better in all aspects of their business and operation.
“My great-grandfather bought these ranches on Carmen Creek in 1924, and our whole philosophy is sustainability. We wouldn’t have lasted this long if we didn’t care for the resources and care for our cattle and make sustainability our No. 1 priority,” Jay says.
Ultimately, Jay points out that running a ranch is a business, and he stays focused on a sustainable budget and producing the best quality cattle possible.
To help stay on budget, Chyennes drive a school bus for their kids’ charter school. Jay does extra mechanic work, sells a round hay-bail system, and manages the bull sale for Leadore Angus.
All of their hard work ensures that they can raise their daughters on a ranch, a lifestyle the girls enjoy. Claira is 9 years old now, in 4th grade. She talks about what she likes to do on the ranch.
“Riding the horses and chasing the cattle,” she says. “I like feeding the horses, feeding the cattle grain, I like to go with my dad on the 4-wheeler to feed the cattle, and I like to go with my Mom to feed the horses. Also my favorite part is in the horses pen, I showed my cousin how to ride a horse, and I learned how to gallop. I also like driving the tractor.”
Claira likes playing with the chickens, too. “Whenever I get close to this one chicken, it’ll huddle down, and I can pick it up. One time, I let some chickens in the house, and it pooped on daddy’s hat.”
Carma is 12, and she’s in 7th grade. She likes riding horses with Claira. They often ride in the back 40.
“We make a big loop. The chickens always follow me because I give them food, and the lambs chased us up trees.”
Carma also likes to crochet and she’s a budding artist. She likes to draw colorful dragons.
Ultimately, the Smiths want people to learn about ranching, raising animals and ranch life.
“In this livestock deal, it’s not optional to tell your story,” Jay says. “There’s fewer and fewer of us all the time, and more and more people don’t understand what we’re doing, how we’re raising a healthy nutritious food source, responsibly and sustainably, if we don’t tell our story, who’s going to?”
“We really truly believe that this life and this lifestyle is a gift. It’s not ours to covet and withhold, it’s ours to share. That’s definitely our philosophy.”
Next: Wolves Part 4 – Unforeseen impacts caused by wolves in Idaho