Women of ASA - Nancy Burnham

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Women of ASA - Nancy Burnham

by Lilly Platts     |     

Nancy Burnham grew up on a ranch in Montana’s Helena Valley, where her parents raised hay, potatoes, sugar beets, and cattle. “I went to grades one through eight in a one-room schoolhouse and often rode my horse to school. I was very active in 4-H taking numerous projects, and I always took a steer to the fair.”   

She met her future husband, Don, during high school week at Montana State College (MSU). “He was a city boy from Missoula majoring in Agriculture. On our first date, I went to Bozeman to help him get his animals ready for the Little International Livestock Show.” 

Burnham enrolled at MSU the following year, studying Home Economics with Education and Extension. “At that time, in 1954, there were only two women enrolled in the Agriculture curriculum. I graduated in 1958, and married Don that spring.” 

The Burnhams soon found themselves in Guam, where Don was stationed with the Navy. During that time, Nancy taught classes for the government. After four years away, Nancy’s uncle passed, leaving the ranch duties to Don and Nancy. “This was the beginning of Prickly Pear Ranch. We purchased it from my family in 1962. Our first cows were purchased from the local meat plant. Old cows that no one wanted! We paid 11 cents per pound after they were pregnancy checked.” 

The Burnhams were involved with the American Simmental Association from the very beginning. “We joined the Montana Beef Performance Association, which was organized in 1956. Later, Don Vaniman became their Executive Secretary and increased their membership from 300 to 1,000. When ASA was looking for an Executive Director, my husband Don suggested to Don Vaniman that he apply. He then became the first Executive Director, and was instrumental in bringing the national office to Bozeman.” 

The polled Hereford cattle at Prickly Pear Ranch were soon bred to Simmental bulls. “The first year they weaned 104 pounds more than the straight Herefords. We were so impressed with their performance we decided to ‘Breed ‘Em all Simmental’ and burned all their registration papers.” 

  “We brought the first Fullblood Simmental bull, ‘Pride of Prickly Pear’, to Montana in 1972. He was consigned to a sale in Kentucky from Canada. They wouldn’t take phone bids at that time so we had to fly to Kentucky to purchase him. We also raised the first black, polled, purebred Simmental bull in the world, ‘Ace of Spades’.” 

  “Until our son Gary took over the ranch, I took care of all of the correspondence, sent out press releases, and kept an up-to-date database on all of our bull customers. Don was diagnosed with Parkinsons, and as it progressed over 30 years I took on more duties. I was always involved with our ranch, as Don’s    partner for almost 60 years, in the bad and the good. Don always said that ‘he wore the pants in the family, but his wife told him which pair to wear!’ It was not far from the truth.” 

Burnham passed her love for agriculture onto her kids and grandkids and has watched them grow up developing the same love for the beef industry at Prickly Pear Ranch. “It brings me joy to know that the ranch will continue for another generation.” 

Like many women in the cattle business, Burnham not only held responsibilities on the ranch and raised a family, but also held jobs off the ranch and served as a leader in various organizations. “My jobs included a live weekly television program I produced called “Coffee Time” in 1961 and 1962. The show was geared to the homemaker, preparation of various recipes, sewing instructions, and consumer information. Live production in those days was a challenge! Then in 1989 and 1990, I worked part-time for the Montana Department of Agriculture.” 

Burnham has also been involved with a variety of organizations, groups, and events, including the Montana Cattlewomen, Montana Simmental Association, hosting visitors from a number of countries and welcoming Simmental enthusiasts to the ranch during various ASA events, and even traveling to Nigeria with Don. 

When asked about her advice for young people trying to make it in the cattle business, Burnham is quick to use Don as an example of growing a business from the ground up by being innovative. “My advice to young people trying to make their way is to never give up on their dreams.” 

Burnham’s decades of commitment to the beef industry and Simmental breed are something she holds dear. “Our life has been blessed by being associated with the Simmental cattle business, including our travels throughout the world and the many friends we have made.” 

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