Agriculture is key to Montana’s economy as well as to the abundance of the Treasure State’s open land. Farmers and ranchers are committed to continuous improvement, growing more food using less resources. They spend most of their time outdoors and enjoy working the land to ensure it’s sustainable; in fact, every day is Earth Day for farmers and ranchers.
Popular conservation practices used by farmers include no-till farming, conservation tillage and cover crops. Advanced conservation practices are used on more than 50 percent of farmland across the nation.
Conrad wheat farmer Ken Johnson explained how he works to reduce erosion on their family farm. “We’ve been using no-till farming which not only prevents erosion, but builds soil health,” he said. “No-till farming means there is minimal ground disturbance. Using no-till helps build organic matter in the soil. The organic matter makes for healthier soil which holds water better and makes for better crops. Plus, roots from the stubble of last year’s crop mean your soil isn’t going to blow away when it’s windy.”
The former Montana Farm Bureau District 8 Director added that he uses pulse crops—peas, lentils and garbanzo beans—for crop rotation. Pulse crops are legumes, which fix, or keep, nitrogen into the soil.
“The other benefit is by rotating crops you can break up disease cycles. You need a three-year rotation with pulse crops, which works well with wheat. That means we use less crop protectants when we rotate with pulses,” Johnson said. In addition, the farmer pointed out that as time goes on, farmers continue to use new tools and technologies to make the farm more sustainable.
Ranchers also are cognizant of improving soil which in turn improves the grasses and grazing for cattle and wildlife. Craig and Conni French who ranch in Malta, have been working hard to improve their grazing land.
“Our new way to look at managing pasture and grass started when we went to a grazing management workshop with the Natural Resource Conservation Service that talked about rest and rotation of pastures. We quickly realized that we’d been re-grazing some of the plants over and over by leaving our cattle in the pasture for too long,” noted French. “We attended the Ranching for Profit School which led us to step outside the box and change our mindset. We had an excellent base to work with, but we learned to go another step forward and apply more science and soil microbiology. We saw other ways of managing our grazing and ranch, and the economics really made sense to us. We used electric fencing to move pastures more often, and to check our animals and pastures at least once a day. We learned to pay more attention. We were able to increase our stocking density.”
French believes people are here to be stewards and whatever they’re called to do, we need to do their best. “Our calling is taking care of this land. We need to make our land as God intended it to be with livestock, wildlife, insects and people.”