Trailed by lone riders, the black Angus cattle came together along the grassy bench in slow moving dribs and drabs.
In the valley below, a creek, muddy with runoff, cuts through a band of brush and trees. A panorama of snowcapped mountains ringed the horizon, the craggy Crazy Mountains to the northwest and the Beartooth and Absaroka ranges curling around from the south and west.
The Metcalf Ranch, along Lower Deer Creek, sits a few miles south of Interstate-90 off the Greycliff exit, east of Big Timber. But the top-of-the-world view from the bench above the ranch house seems like a holdover from another century.
As the cattle came together, the pace quickened. Riders veered off to chase errant cows, loping away from the herd. More riders turned the herd of about 200 mother cows back in the right direction when they overshot the gate and moved them slowly down the road.
Among those riders was a lithe 32-year-old wearing a crisp white polo shirt and tight jeans. For Christine Ortjohann, from Cologne, Germany, the chance to herd the ranch's cattle at a late May branding fulfilled a life-long dream.
"I have a lot of good pictures in my mind," she said, her words nearly drowned out by calves bawling for their mothers.
In Germany, Ortjohann sells newspaper printing ink for a living. She also spends the equivalent of about $570 to board a horse in Germany, an expense she equates with the cost of a rental apartment.
At the rope-and-drag and into-the-fire branding in the Metcalf's corrals, the ranch's other paying guest, an ag student from a farm in Tennessee, wrestled several calves to the ground while Ortjohann watched from the sidelines.
"I don't really know how to do it," she said. "I will keep on watching and stay in the background a little bit."
But, a short time later, ranch owner Remi Metcalf, who usually prefers to let his wife, Susan, and 20-year-old son, Bret, take care of the ranch guests, steadied Ortjohann's hand as she burned the Metcalf's brand on three calves.
After many years of taking in ranch guests on their own, last year the Metcalfs joined Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations, a cooperative of more than 20 cattle ranches.
A handful of those ranches are clustered around Big Timber, although three of those ranches have temporarily stopped taking guests, in the aftermath of the Derby fire. Some of the ranches are in decidedly less touristy spots, including Harlowton and Musselshell.
The first 10 ranches banded together in 2002 to offer guests a realistic view of ranch life.
Karen Searle, the galvanizing force behind the cooperative, describes herself as a matchmaker, pairing ranch families and travelers. Searle, a former hospital administrator in Livingston, earns a commission for handling the marketing booking and some accounting chores.
The former director of a national center for cooperative business development credited Searle as having put together the first agri-tourism cooperative of cattle ranches in the United States.
The co-op, which is actually a limited liability company, was formed after Searle returned in 2002 from a World Congress on Rural Women and Rural Issues in Spain. It's modeled along the lines of European farm holiday programs.
The basics were hashed out around a kitchen table by 10 Sweet Grass County ranchers, none of whom had ever hosted guests.
One common thread was the authenticity of the ranches, Searle said.
"We started with ranches that had been in families for generations," she said.
To keep it real, they didn't want anyone to hire wranglers to care for guests or to build a lodge to house them.
The co-op's members saw agritourism as a way to help preserve family ranches and to narrow the divide between ranch and city dwellers on land use and wildlife issues. …