Dr. Monty Brett Weston’s commute to his dental office every day starts in Utah, cuts through Wyoming, and ends in Montpelier, Idaho, more than 50 miles away. In an area known for its wicked winter weather, he makes the drive faithfully in spite of storms and icy roads.
He does it because he loves being a cowboy.
He does it to help support the family ranch. For him, the social, spiritual and economic benefits to ranch life are worth the sacrifice. The strengths and the growth that ranch life offers to his family are the most important reasons he is a rancher.
Dr. Weston says he started riding horses at about three years old and grew up helping on the ranch. “The cowboy bug just gets in your blood, and you can’t get rid of it,” he says. “It’s that simple.”
But as small, independent ranches and farms everywhere struggle to survive, his income from the dental practice is also necessary to help provide for his family.
Beyond the benefits for his own family, there is another reason Dr. Weston works two jobs; he says that family farms and ranches are vital to the country’s economy. Without them, Americans would be paying a far higher percentage of their incomes for food.
He didn’t start out to be a dentist in order to help support the ranch. He planned to become a veterinarian instead. But as he approached the time in his college years when he would have to apply to a veterinary school, a veterinarian who knew of his intentions offered some insights that changed Monty Weston’s course. The veterinarian showed Monty records of his income. They looked good. Then he showed Monty his records of hours worked per week — 60 plus. That would leave very little time to work at ranching. But Monty’s father-in-law, a dentist, was able to work part of the week and still spend part of it in the outdoors. Monty realized that a career as a dentist could not only provide for his family, but also provide both income and time for the ranching he loved.
When he talked to the adviser for pre-dental students at Utah State University, where he got his undergraduate schooling, the discussion did not go well. The adviser let him know that because of the high numbers of applicants at dental schools, Monty would be lucky if he won acceptance to one, or maybe two, dental programs.
The adviser said Monty’s resume and the rural image he projected would probably not compete well with applicants from very diverse backgrounds and degrees from prestigious science programs; Monty would need to change his image and his approach to seem more like the traditional applicant to dental school. Monty chose to go ahead on his own, being himself — and won admission to six dental schools.
Diversity became an issue that worked in his favor in at least one interview at a dental school in a large Midwestern city. The recruiting officer who hosted him pointed out the social and ethnic diversity and the attractive resumes of the students with whom he was competing, then asked skeptically what Monty thought he had to offer the school. Monty replied that he had seen and heard much about diversity during the day, but the school’s program was lacking in one area: “You don’t have a cowboy.”
“Are you a cowboy?” the recruiting officer asked, brightening. For much of the rest of their visit, she asked questions about life on the ranch and what he had done there. He won admission to that school.
But he chose not to go there and entered the dental program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, instead. It was an inspired choice; six weeks after he started at Case Western Reserve, the other school announced it was terminating its dental program.
With a degree from dental school, he could get a loan to start a practice in Montpelier, where he has worked for 20 years now. This ease in getting that loan, he says, illustrates one of the problems for America’s family farms and ranches.
It is estimated that starting a ranch capable of supporting one family — buying the land, equipment, and the 300 head of cattle needed — would cost about $3,000,000. What bank, he asks, would loan that kind of money to a graduate just out of college with a degree in agriculture?
Not only is the cost of acquiring a ranch prohibitive, but so is the cost of running one — particularly the prices for equipment and ever-rising diesel fuel. Each year, he says, what farmers and ranchers make for their product shrinks in comparison with their rising costs. He can see the difference in any grocery store meat department; the per-pound cost of meat for consumers is 500-600 percent greater than what the rancher gets paid for the animal.
That tremendous gap is caused in large part by corporate investment in agriculture and by monopolistic practices in the meat-processing industry.
Large corporate farms and ranches must meet profit goals for their investors, and this helps drive up costs for consumers. In other parts of the world, people may have to pay anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of their income for food. “In America, we don’t have to do that, and I think one of the reasons is the family farm.” If the day comes that most of our food is produced through corporate farms and ranches, he predicts, Americans will have to make some painful adjustments in our family budgets.
Meat processing in this country is controlled almost entirely by four large companies, he explains, and this also keeps costs high for consumers. Speaking from the viewpoint of a rancher forced to deal with those powerful companies, he suggests there are issues in the meat production industry that would bear antitrust investigation by the government. (This problem has been well documented. See, for example, “Chopped,” in a Deseret magazine special issue, September 2022, 20-22.)
Despite the economic struggle, Monty Weston won’t give up on ranching.
The Weston family’s ranch operations are not centered in just one place; economic realities and the availability of land mean they are spread out. The family’s holdings include land near both Randolph, Utah, and Montpelier, Idaho. The Westons also lease land southwest of Salt Lake City for winter grazing and pay to graze animals on national forest lands near Montpelier during the summer. This means transporting cattle back and forth in the fall and spring.
Ranch life is “an amazing way to raise a family,” he says. “I think it builds character, and it just makes good kids all the way around.”
It teaches responsibility, confidence, and independence. The tasks young people handle on the ranch are often very challenging, but they bring experience. For example, if there’s a cow loose out on the highway, he knows he can send one of his children to round it up, even if they have to rope it and bring it back in a trailer.
His wife, Nikki, grew up in urban Davis County, north of Salt Lake City. They met when she was 16, at the wedding of her cousin and his uncle. Monty invited her to come up to the family ranch to ride horses. She took him up on the invitation several times, staying with her cousin near the Weston ranch. His invitation “was a good way to a girl’s heart,” she says. “It was fun and exciting and something I’d never done before.” He even taught her how to brand cattle during one of the family roundups.
They were married in 1994, after he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When they moved east to dental school after he graduated from Utah State University, they had one son. When they came home to start the dental practice in Montpelier, they had two children and a third on the way. Now they have five, and a first grandchild as well. In the first years after they moved back to the West, they lived in or near Montpelier, but they relocated to the ranch in Randolph in 2008.
Nikki Weston embraced ranch life fully. She is out working on the ranch almost every day. She is Region 6 director for the American National Cattlewoman’s Association (ANCW), which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho. Among other activities, the ANCW holds WIRED (Women Involved in Ranching Education and Development) events for members and also sponsors high school students as “beef ambassadors,” awarding them scholarships for further education.
Ranching as a lifestyle gets some “bad press” because people do not understand it, Nikki says. Some say ranchers are ruining the land with overgrazing. “We do everything we can to educate people,” to show them how ranching can benefit the land. The Westons’ children are the seventh generation to live on the family ranch. The family learned long ago to manage their land well. “If you don’t take care of your land, you don’t have anything,” she says.
It’s no secret that cattle grazing on public lands is controversial. One extreme holds that grazing is destroying the land and its wildlife habitats while the opposite viewpoint says that to forbid it would be to doom the cattle industry. Commonly, the middle ground view holds that the grazing is not a disaster and can be beneficial if properly controlled. The way people see the problem usually depends on their stake in the land.
The Westons see the issue from the rancher’s viewpoint. Mrs. Weston says grazing helps keep down wild grass and underbrush that feed wildfires in the West. The Westons take care to avoid overgrazing the land and try to preserve the quality of areas where they run cattle.
Why does some of the misinformation about the ranchers’ activities persist?
“I like to think the best of people; I think they just don’t know,” Nikki Weston answers. “If they could spend a day on the ranch, they could see the truth. They’re far enough removed from ranch life that they don’t know how their food is produced.” Ranchers generally are glad to have people come to the ranch and learn how it’s done, she says.
The Weston children all have expressed interest in agriculture-related careers, but economic realities mean they have to prepare for the future in different ways. One of their sons, who lives in Montpelier, currently works in the family ranching operations while attending Utah State University in Logan. Another son is preparing to become an electrician, a skill that will provide income to support his family but could also be useful on a ranch.
“Our kids love the ranch, and they would love to be involved, but to grow the ranch to where it can support another family is almost impossible,” Dr. Weston says.
Talk to any farmer or rancher in the area and you’ll find that most are in the same situation—a farm or ranch operation that supports one growing family cannot be expanded to support all that family’s children. Some of the children must move away and take up other occupations. Many of those family farms and ranches can’t continue to grow and thrive without outside income like that from Dr. Weston’s dental practice.
His career is a choice he doesn’t regret. For a good part of every weekday, you’ll find him using his dentistry skills in his office in Montpelier, where he enjoys helping patients.
But most afternoons and on the weekends, the dentist is a cowboy.