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In Memory of Don Burnham

Don was born at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula, Montana on January 4, 1934 to Harry and Marie (Plummer) Burnham. As a young boy, Don discovered his passion for agriculture. During the war, hard work and honest sweat became the building blocks of his character. He learned how to grow a victory garden with his grandparents. Don started his first independent agricultural business at the age of eleven. He negotiated with a neighbor to rent and farm a small plot of land where he raised and sold raspberries. Don went on to begin his career in animal husbandry by raising and selling rabbits. One of Don’s favorite stories was how he and his cousin got the keen idea to dye some of the bunnies to help them sell better at Easter.

Don graduated from Missoula County High School in 1952. He was a respected member of the track team and one of the top distance runners in the state. Participating in FFA and Vo-Ag created a solid foundation for Don’s lifelong career in agriculture. Don’s first trip out of Montana was to attend the FFA National Convention in Kansas City as the president of the Missoula Chapter. He took the money he earned from his FFA projects and started college with $150 in his pocket.

An ardent MSU supporter and 60-year alum, Don attended Montana State College (University) in Bozeman and majored in animal science. In 2014, he was honored with the Outstanding Agricultural Leader Award from MSU College of Agriculture. To finance his education, Don washed dishes for 50 men as a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity and worked the night desk at the Baxter Hotel. His strong focus to achieve his goals and dedication to excellence paid off. In his junior year, he received the Danforth Fellowship for being the outstanding junior in the Department of Agriculture as well as a scholarship from Ralston Purina. He quit washing dishes and became a counselor in the new men’s dorm.

While attending college, Don met the love of his life Nancy Lichtwardt, of Helena. Following his graduation in 1956, Don went on to U.S. Naval Officer’s Training School and served four years as a Navy Aviation Navigator. He was stationed in Hawaii and Guam, flying with the Seventh Fleet. Don took a short leave from duty to return home to Montana following Nancy’s graduation from MSC. They were married at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena on April 12, 1958 and began their wonderful journey together in Guam. The couple shared a beautiful life filled with memorable times and hard work while making numerous friends along the way during their 59 years of marriage.

Don and Nancy raised three sons, Kurt, Kent and Gary and a daughter Marla. Don especially enjoyed family camping trips between hay cuttings that included fishing and huckleberry picking. It was life’s simple pleasures such as stopping for ice cream, coin collecting, playing cribbage and spending time with his grandchildren that really put a smile on his face. Don was an amazing father who loved deeply, guided gently, and never wavered in his support for all of his children’s endeavors.

Don and Nancy started Prickly Pear Ranch in 1962 with the first cows being purchased from the local packing plant for eleven cents per pound. In 1968, the Simmental breed caught Don’s attention and by 1972 he imported the first purebred Simmental bull to Montana. The first black, polled Simmental bull in the world was born on the ranch in 1979. In ensuing years, he sold cattle into 40 states, Mexico, Canada and Kazakhstan. A renowned and highly respected cattleman, Don spent 13 years on the Montana Simmental Board of Directors and six years on the American Simmental Board. In 1999, Don was one of three ranchers to receive the World Simmental Golden Book Award, a very distinguished honor. He also received the Montana Simmental Association Pioneer Award in 2006. As a dedicated American Simmental Association charter member, Don attended World Simmental Federation meetings in the USA, Canada, Austria, Brazil, Ireland and Scotland/England. Don exclaimed, “The best part of the Simmental breed is the lifetime friendships that develop.”

Always interested in issues relevant to his community, agriculture, the ranching industry, and his family, Don was active in several organizations and boards. He served as President of the Prickly Pear Water Users, Lewis & Clark County Farm Bureau and the 4-H Community Center. He was on the Helena Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. Don was a member of the Montana Stock Growers, the National Cattlemen Beef Association, and, for 45 years, he was a representative for American Breeders Service. From 1988 to 2000, Don made ten trips to Africa as a consultant on animal health, nutrition, and genetic programs in Nigeria. Don was active, along with Nancy, in Lewis & Clark County 4-H for over twenty years as a parent, leader, judge, and volunteer.

Visitors were always welcome at the ranch. It can be said that Don never met a stranger. He will always be remembered for his fabulous stories and funny jokes. Don was a very generous man who shared his experiences, knowledge and wisdom without hesitation. Don and Nancy opened gates and doors to guests from around the world including foreign exchange students, a Friendship Force gathering of 200 Japanese visitors and their host families, plus a wide range of travelers from 34 countries.

Don always enjoyed getting out to meet people and explore. He was always up for traveling with Nancy, especially to their winter getaway in Texas, playing bridge with great friends, and spending time with family.

The word retirement was not in Don’s vocabulary -- he dedicated his life to being a steward of the land, a caretaker of the herd, and a man of integrity who could always be counted on as a helpful neighbor, a trustworthy friend, and a devoted family man.

Don and Nancy Burnham

The main ranch has been in Nancy’s family since the turn of the century and is the 13th oldest homestead in Montana. We are charter members of both the Montana (#6) and the American Simmental Association (#174). Don has been on the board of directors of both organizations. Don has also been involved in setting up cattle health, nutrition and breeding programs in Nigeria, Africa since 1989.

Gary and Loretta Burnham

Gary was born and raised on the ranch. The third of four children, he came home from college to help Don during the financial downturn of the early 1980s and ended up staying on to manage and run the ranch. In partnership with Don and Nancy he has continued his father's work in steadily improving the Prickly Pear herd. It is one of the oldest, premier herds in the breed. Gary and Loretta have been together since 2001. Along with her full time job with the City of Helena, she manages the details for the Annual Production Sale and helps where she can.

Cattle Manager Troy Wheeler and Family

My name is Troy Wheeler, Cattle Manager. I was born and raised in Portage Wisconsin. I moved to Montana the summer of 1999 in hopes of starting a career in the cattle business. That summer I worked on a large commercial cattle ranch until they sold the ranch and I happened to meet Gary at their auction. I first started working for the Burnham family in November of 1999, and after the first two weeks of working with their outstanding purebred herd I decided that this is what I wanted to do in the cattle industry. Two summers later I decided to take a job on a large purebred Angus operation in Wolf Creek, Montana. By the fall of 2006 I had decided that I really wanted to either own my own herd or manage a purebred herd. As luck would have it, the Burnham’s were looking for a cattle manager and asked me to come back to take the helm of their herd. My dream came true!!

After being on both a Simmental and an Angus Ranch I feel I have seen the best of both breeds. The characteristics that I hold as a must with my decisions for the Prickly Pear cow herd are: Maternal, Calving Ease Growth, Growth and Carcass. I also have a very strict culling program for disposition, udder quality and production.

The Burnham family has been great in allowing me and my family the leeway to try new things with their herd and have trusted my judgement in taking the herd in a new direction with the Sim-Angus program. This is easily the greatest pleasure in my life having my family help with the day to day work that comes with a ranch.