Fort Keogh Research Station: Cattle and horses and swine and turkeys, oh my!

When you think of animal research at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Station in Miles City, you probably think of beef cattle. But when the station opened in 1924, other animals were bred and studied there as well.

Initially, Rambouillet ewes were maintained for experiments in breeding and feeding, as well as wool studies. In 1941, Fort Keogh’s sheep were transferred to the U. S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho.

In 1934, the inventory of horses at Fort Keogh showed 250 head including purebred Belgian, Morgan and Thoroughbred sires. They were used for the usual breeding, feeding and reproduction studies. Much of the early research in artificial insemination techniques in horses was conducted at Fort Keogh.

The horse program was phased out with the Thoroughbreds the last to go in 1964.

While there are still sheep and horses at Fort Keogh, they are used strictly as working animals, to mow pastures and move cowboys.

Swine research was a major part of Fort Keogh’s mission. In 1930, according to the history on the Fort Keogh website written by Dr. Robert F. Bellows. “In 1930, pork from the U. S. Range Livestock Experiment Station was reported to be the best American Wiltshire Sides on the London market,” Bellows wrote. 

The Montana No. 1 swine breed was developed at Fort Keogh through crossing and breeding with the Danish Landrace and the Black Hampshire breeds. When federal funding for swine research at Fort Keogh was cut in 1968, a cross-bred herd was used to supply animals for studies directed by nutritionists at Montana State University.

In 1986, the swine unit was closed out and moved to Montana State University in Bozeman.

And then there were the turkeys.

“Research on turkeys was also conducted at the laboratory. Studies with Bronze turkeys started in 1929 and involved approximately 1,500 young turkeys and 350 breeding hens. Studies consisted of feeding, breeding and rearing experiments, and the original crosses and the early work lead to development of the Beltsville White breed. This line of research was closed out in 1939 when the turkeys were shipped to Beltsville.”

Beltsville was an agricultural research station in Beltsville, Maryland.

The Beltsville white was just that. White. When you were plucking turkeys yourself, you preferred white pin feathers to the darker pinfeathers of the “bronze” turkeys that were popular. It was also a relatively small bird, which is why they are no longer commonly raised. Commercial cooking operations want the modern ‘broad-breasted’ bird.

The bird is so neglected now, they are considered “quite rare” by poultry fans and are raised by only a few exhibition breeders, according to the Livestock Conservancy. 

 

There is some effort to restore the breed, partly because, unlike modern broad-breasted turkeys, they can reproduce naturally.

But when the turkeys — not yet Beltsville Whites — arrived at Fort Keogh, it was exciting news. The Nov. 1, 1928  Star reported: “The U.S. Range Experiment Station is turning to the breeding of turkeys. A large flock is to be installed on the reservation and in January, hatching is to be started in a large incubator installation at the station. The turkey project adds another to the staff of the station. This morning, Dr. E. W. Wehr arrived from Illinois to head this new department.”

The occasion brought other scientists to Fort Keogh and a major conference was held with local, state and federal agriculture experts.

The turkeys were also popular in town. My late mother told stories of driving out to Fort Keogh in the evening to honk your car horn at the turkeys for amusement. Apparently, a thousand turkeys gobbling all at once was pretty entertaining in Miles City back in the 1930s.