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Climate Change & Agriculture

A Brief History of Ranching & Farming in Montana

Native American tribes of Montana exercised a certain unique agricultural tradition. For example, botanists know that tribes harvested more than 60 different species of wild food plants supported by the Montana soils and climates of the time. Harvest of buffalo and other large mammals satisfied protein needs. Nonetheless, modern agricultural techniques in Montana date to the pioneer era when settlers began to collect and breed livestock in the western valleys. By the early 1880s, large scale open range cattle grazing replaced the free-roaming bison herds on the plains.

The era of free open range cattle grazing is marked dramatically by a weather event during the late winter of 1887. An extended blizzard during that unusually cold winter killed tens of thousands of cattle on the open range. The free range era extended well into the 1890s and later in some districts. But gradually, smaller more intensively-managed ranches came to dominate the ranching sector. Summer hay harvests, winter feeding practices, and new breeds of cattle came to the industry. Hay fields and other productive acreage were fenced-off over time from foraging ruminants. Sheep were more numerous than cattle on summer open ranges for a time in many districts. But sheep production in Montana has dropped off significantly since the early 1960s.

Beef cattle operations in Montana developed in a similar fashion to other western states. Many ranches are cow-calf operations. Typically, cattle are placed on pasture and rangeland for late spring, summer, and early fall forage. Bottomlands and irrigated acreage are harvested for hay and other feed crops to sustain over-wintering animals. Calves may be sold in the fall or held over for later sale at heavier weights.

Some operations evolved into farm-ranch combinations. This strategy may generally entail more intensive planting and harvesting of alfalfa and other feed crops for cattle. Certain operations involve confinement feedlots to carry-over calves to heavier weights and to more intensively manage pregnant heifers and cows. Some farm-ranch operations also raise grains for off-property sale. Cattle breeds have diversified greatly over time with producers experimenting with lines that calve successfully and grow quickly, given the ranch’s climate and feed conditions, while meeting prevailing market demands. Cattle producers have largely taken full advantage of scientific breakthroughs in genetics, disease control, and hormonal supplements to gain an edge in a commodity-driven market.

Tillage in Montana probably started in the Gallatin Valley in the early 1860s, according to T.J. Gilles in his book, "When Tillage Begins." Produce farms and dairy operations gained a foothold around the mining camps and population centers of early-day Montana to meet local demand. But the homestead era in Montana did not flourish until the period between 1900 and 1918.

Grain Elevators

Aggressive marketing by the railroads and a 1909 expansion of the Homestead Act led tens of thousands to try farming the Montana plains. Towns sprang up along railroads and spur lines to provide services to the newcomers. But again, climatic conditions intervened. Few homesteaders survived the several consecutive drought years that ushered in the 1920s. Of the estimated 100,000 people who came to Montana during the period 1906 through 1918, 65,000 left between the Armistice of World War I and 1925. Economic conditions and more drought years during the 1930s furthered the exodus. Unlike the livestock side of agriculture, farms gradually became larger as 160-acre homesteads were eventually consolidated into more extensive holdings.

Throughout the 20th Century, agriculture in Montana evolved to better suit the physical climate and conditions while adapting to the shifting demands of the economy and marketplaces. Farmers adopted management practices to incorporate mechanization and better allocate labor, diversify crop varieties, and maximize land use. Farm managers also built into their operations use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides as they became available and cost-effective. Dry land wheat became a major farm commodity in Montana with production divided roughly evenly between spring-planted and fall planted varieties.