Welcome to Montana! We are glad you are here. Some of our members have valuable tips for you as new Montanans. Feel free to look around the rest of the Montana Farm Bureau website to learn more about what our organization has to offer.

Beth Blevins - District 1 Director: Large Animal Care
Ronan, Northwest Counties Farm Bureau

Large animal veterinarian Dr. Beth Blevins sees firsthand the challenges faced by people who are new to livestock ownership in Montana. There are some basic must-knows. 

“Ensure your livestock have open water, and don’t think they can survive on getting sufficient moisture from snow, especially if they are eating hay,” said Blevins. “Impaction colic is a great concern. Be sure to always break the ice on water. Some animals won’t drink ice-cold water, so provide a heater for that water, and make sure you monitor it daily. If your horse lies down often, that’s not good.”

 She noted that the flip side of having a water heater is to make sure the horses aren’t getting shocked by the heater. “A client noticed that her horse wasn’t drinking water and watched him go to the water. He’d stay way back. We realized there was a short in the heater that we couldn’t even feel.” 

Blevins said that many horse owners think their equids need alfalfa, but Montana alfalfa is much more potent, often with 15-20 percent protein. “Some horses can tolerate it but some will colic on even a tiny amount. Feed mainly grass hay to horses.” Alfalfa can even be a problem for cattle. Blevins pointed out that oats and alfalfa can cause bloat in cattle. “Be sure to have a bloat block out if trying to graze alfalfa,” she suggested. “You can safely turn cattle out on alfalfa, but only if it’s wilted from a hard frost.” 

Ranchers know that putting cows out in Ponderosa pine can cause abortion in the last trimester, so be diligent about taking pregnant cows off a pasture with pine trees for the last trimester. 

For anyone with sheep and goats, be sure to give them the appropriate minerals. “In our area in northwestern Montana, sheep and goats both need selenium and goats need copper. Sheep need very little copper and cattle, horse, or goat minerals are lethal to sheep. Keep in mind that goats don’t do well on minerals developed for sheep and vice versa,” Blevins added. “Always read the labels on any livestock feed.” 

The Ronan veterinarian strongly encourages livestock owners to have a productive relationship with the local veterinarian before an emergency. “It’s also crucial to talk to your veterinarian about what vaccinations are needed for your livestock in your area.”

Kris Descheemaeker - District 3 Director: Keeping Land & People in Ag
Lewistown, Fergus County Farm Bureau

Descheemaeker ranches with her husband and family east of Lewistown, a vibrant small town in the state's center. She feels people moving to this state need to realize that agriculture is Montana's numberone industry and the backbone of small towns. Local organizations, including the Farm Bureau, have contributed to and hosted Montana's Longest Table local food event for the past few years. The event was developed to educate people and show the diversity and importance of agriculture in the community. 

The American Prairie (formerly the American Prairie Reserve) Discovery Center is in the middle of Lewistown, which brings a different look to the area than someone might expect from an agricultural town. “What worries us is land being purchased and taken out of agriculture, displacing families working on the farms and ranches. We need enough kids in schools to keep the doors open,” Descheemaeker explained. “However, each time someone buys property for wildlife preservation or game hunting, a ranch hand loses a job and his kids no longer attend our area schools. If the number of people in agriculture dwindles, that hits the town hard. The agriculture businesses in the local communities see that impact. Each business we lose hurts our small communities.” 

"It's disturbing to farmers and ranchers that some groups say what a bad job we are doing taking care of the land; however, agriculture has been on the landscape since people came to this Earth. The American Prairie says they're here to save the prairie, but they came here because it is the largest natural grassland in the United States. Yet, agriculture is what saved that grassland, not ruined it.” 

In Lewistown, many new residents are retirees or people who grew up in the area, but some have come back to work remotely. “Remote working also has a downside, as those people often don’t come into town to interact with others,” she explains. Descheemaeker urges newcomers and those returning home to become part of the community. “Volunteer for your local church, church bazaar, help at the school, food pantry, hospital, or with a 4-H program. Volunteering is a fantastic way to meet people, and you will get to know your community much better than if you stayed home." 

She added that new people on organization boards bring fresh ideas. "Our local boards tend to have the same people on them. We must encourage people to get involved in some capacity, no matter what age, to make your community an even better place to live.”

Karl Christians - District 9 Director: Respecting Your Neighbor
East Helena, Lewis & Clark County Farm Bureau

Karl Christians ranches in the Helena Valley, north of East Helena, and the urban interface is moving closer and closer. Subdivisions are now their neighbors. “With all of the new folks moving in, we'd like them to know that agriculture is still key, not only to this area but to the state of Montana,” said Christians. “They're going to see things they may not have seen before. We're out all night checking on our calving cows in the spring. We're moving equipment up and down the highway in the spring and summer. There might be a double line, but if we're only going 10 miles an hour, feel free to go around us rather than back up traffic when it's clear." 

Christians said it's the same with cattle— be careful to work through the cows on the road and don’t hold up traffic. "Cows are generally used to vehicles, so take your time and work through them," Christians advised. "We haven't seen it here, but in other areas, we've seen people get mad, recklessly pass the line of vehicles, and run into a cow or somebody on a horse or ATV.” He cautioned to remember that Montana is an open-range state, which means you must fence the cows out if you don’t want them on your property. That also means if you end up in the ditch and go through a fence, be courteous and tell the landowner. "This has been a terrible year with people going through the fence and driving off. That means there could be cows on the road, and that's very dangerous, especially with black-hided cows at night.” 

Christians said that the area also has groups buying land, and people say, “‘That's great, they're buying this land, stopping the ranching, and are making a walking path.’ They need to realize that the resource, the grass, needs to be managed to stay healthy and control the fuel load. We've seen that on the west end of town with the Prickly Pear Land Trust. They're buying land left and right and kicking off the cows. A couple of years ago, they had a massive fire that worried many people.” 

The District 9 director has helped the trust manage the grass, bringing back some cows and using a rotational grazing system. It worked. Christians compares it to when people move into a subdivision; they seed grass, water, fertilize, and mow— that’s managing the resource. “If they stop mowing and leave it through summer without touching it, see what it looks like next year. It will be a mess. Our grasslands are the same way; native or introduced grasses must be managed to stay healthy,” Christians noted. “We're seeing horrible weed growth in the subdivisions. We're on the downwind side of the subdivisions and receive wind-blown weeds and seeds. Learn about weed control and be good neighbors.” 

He added to respect property, not to use the land as a dump for grass clippings and tree branches, and not to let trash blow around. Montana is windy, so tie things down before they blow onto others' property. "Let's have respect for the resource. If we take care of our land, it will take care of us in all aspects, not only for the grass or the neighbors but for livestock, wildlife, bees and fire loads.” 

Darcia Patten - District 5 Director: Hunting Relationships
Broadus, Powder River/Carter County Farm Bureau

Newcomers to the state would benefit from understanding the relationship between landowners and hunters. The checkerboard patterns of public and private lands may be confusing for newcomers from areas of limited public land and may not realize how these blocks work. Knowing where one can legally hunt and where it's private is paramount to having good hunter/ landowner relationships. 

It is essential to understand that your “Garmen” or other electronic mapping device isn’t always accurate and the listed landowner may very well be outdated. We have run into this very scenario in recent years. There are plenty of stories about people relying solely on their GPS being found stranded with their small cars in areas even a four-wheel drive pickup would have difficulty traversing.

 Public land may be locked inside private land requiring permission from the landowner for access. If a person wants to hunt, it’s imperative to contact the landowner and ask permission, and if granted, ask about any rules of the land, such as leave open gates open and shut gates shut, where livestock are grazing and to keep vehicles on established roads to minimize damage to pastures and fields. Not all landowners will allow hunting and hunters need to understand this is crucial to wildlife herd health. Wildlife needs a haven. If they don't have someplace where they're not pressured for the entire hunting season, they won't have any chance to continue the circle of life. Without these regions, their bodies are not in a good, healthy state to survive the winter, and they won’t be here to have the fawns in the spring. These factors, along with hunting access tailored to the area provide the management needed to maintain healthy herds, much like any livestock, whether cattle, horses, or sheep, to ensure the land can support the population. 

A recommended way to establish a positive long-term relationship with landowners is offer to help with tasks, like fencing, working livestock, etc. It is imperative to remember should permission be given not to overstep that privilege by bringing in others without first checking with the landowner that he/she is okay with others hunting there as well. Treating each other with courtesy and respect goes a very long way in establishing a long-term relationship.

Don Steinbeisser - District 6 Director: Irrigation Essentials
Sidney, Richland County Farm Bureau

Irrigation is the lifeblood of the western United States. What many people don’t realize is how essential irrigation is for large swaths of land in Montana. When Theodore Roosevelt rode along the lower Yellowstone River pre-1900 after he had traveled all over the world he said, “This place would be great if this area had an irrigation system.” When he became president in 1901, he promised us an irrigation system and we got it. By the early 1900s, the area had irrigation canals created by horse-drawn machinery. 

Our irrigation system is a gravity flow system which covers 56,000 acres and runs downhill through a canal system. Because all of the ditches were put in by horse drawn machinery and they went around high spots and low spots, ditches aren’t square and our fields aren’t square. So, some fields we still need to flood irrigate but some we have changed over to pivots. 

Farmers began irrigating with siphon tubes, gaited pipe and open ditches but over time they have switched to pivot irrigation. Center pivots are large metal structures with 130-200 feet span with wheels you see spread across the field with hoses and nozzles hanging down. At the beginning of the year when you flood irrigate, you need to put on 10 to 14 inches of water to get to the end of a field while a pivot can be fine-tuned so there is no runoff. However, because the irrigation system was put in way back when, there is wildlife dependent on our drainage ditches, so we don’t want to entirely switch over to pivots as we don’t want to wreck that environment. Flood irrigating is labor intensive, whereas once pivots are established and running, they can be monitored from a cell phone.

 Everything we irrigate out of the open canal system is under a Bureau of Reclamation water right. We pay taxes on it every year. The irrigation project has one of the oldest water rights out of the Yellowstone River. (Note: Always check with your local irrigation district no matter where you live in the state to learn about access to irrigation water.)

 The controversy between dams, irrigation and environmental groups often makes the news, and the diversion dam was no exception. When the first diversion dam, or weir, was built in 1906, it was constructed of wood covered by copper plates with rocks on it. When it rotted away all that was left were rocks. In 2018 when it was decided to build a new concrete dam, a fish gate was constructed to help the pallid sturgeon. Some environmental groups adamantly opposed construction of the new dam, but we won that lawsuit by putting in a fish bypass. However, it costs $10 million a year to maintain that fish diversion. The Army Corps of Engineers is paying for the first five years and then we all have to pay extra water taxes for it. We hope in the future it costs us less. 

Our diversion dam simply looks like a ridge in the water with a cutout. We proved that the fish bypass works. There are more pallid sturgeon than there ever have been in that area of the river.

Wayne Stahl - District 7 Director: Farming Practices
Saco, Phillips County Farm Bureau

As new folks drive around the state or move into areas with active farming, it’s good to have an idea about what is happening in the farm fields. In summer, balers are seen popping out large rolls of hay and as the days get chillier, combines run all night and beet trucks are frequently traversing country roads. 

In the spring farmers are getting into the fields to prepare the land to grow a crop. Farmers spray before they plant to give the grain or legumes early control over the weeds. If there is an insect infestation, like grasshoppers, we often need to spray again. Farmers continually need to check that weeds aren’t encroaching. 

In the summer the farmers and ranchers harvest hay, so swathers, rakes and balers dominate the fields. Since we irrigate, we can harvest at least two cuttings of hay. That makes summer intensive because you need to ensure your hay crop receives sufficient water. I’ve installed a big pump and I can get all my irrigating done in five days for the first cutting if I go 24/7. Once the hay is cut and baled and the crops are harvested, our neighbor’s cattle graze the remaining grass and stubble until they ship those cattle. By mid-November, the cattle are gone and it’s time to work on equipment to get it ready for the next growing season. 

Our area is not getting droves of new people moving to the area, but big investors have been purchasing large tracts of land for recreation. Sometimes that land is leased back to the former owners. Northern Montana receives minimal moisture, and maybe four out of ten years has good moisture, so don’t expect every year to be a bumper crop. Farmers and ranchers are a stubborn lot. You need to be if you’re going to survive. If you plan to farm or ranch in our state, don’t expect an easy life. It’s hard work but very rewarding. If you come, don’t expect to work 9 to 5. 

Once you get to know the people in Montana’s rural areas, they are friendly. If you’re not afraid to ask, they will help you get your feet on the ground. Talk to your neighbors and see what they do. Be a good neighbor. To survive out here, learn how things are done. You need good neighbors in the country to survive.