Montana, with its wide-open plains in the east and fertile valley floors in the west, is inextricably linked to agriculture.
Those of us who live in the Flathead Valley frequently drive on roads cutting through acres of farmland, its borders only hemmed in by fences and meandering rivers.
If the weatherworn homesteads dotting this land represent a look into the past, then last week’s Flathead Valley Agricultural Forum casts an eye on the future of agriculture in the Flathead and throughout Montana.
The forum, held on Dec. 6 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell, is the eighth annual offering from the Montana Land Reliance, a nonprofit land trust that acquires and manages conservation easements.
“We want to show the community how important agriculture is to the valley, and there are threats to agriculture,” Mark Schlitz, western manager for the Montana Land Reliance, said.
Continued population and economic growth means more land is being used for housing and development, biting into the agricultural acreage. Farming and ranching, then, need to become more efficient if they plan on surviving, Schlitz said.
This was the general perspective at the forum, which hosted at least 40 high school students in the Future Farmers of America program as part of its goal to see agriculture continue successfully into the future.
Previous forums put on by the MLR have focused on the farming aspect of agriculture, but the latest event focused on livestock, and how to raise cattle as efficiently as possible. Race King, ranch manager at La Cense Montana Ranch in Dillon, said having an owner who had no previous experience with cattle and the ranch’s high elevation led to an interesting plan for the cattle in their herds, especially the cow-calf pairs.
“[Ranch owner William Kriegel] wanted us to figure out how to pull value out of the land while also maintaining environmental stewardship,” King said.
The ranch adjusted its grazing patterns to fit the grass it has, with the idea that it’s the cows’ jobs to figure out how to survive on what the ranch has to offer as far as forage and grass. This meant finding the cattle best suited for such an environment and passing on their genes.
The La Cense cattle also calve later in the year, on green grass, King said. This usually means in late April, May and June, and it’s done specifically to match calving and breeding to the most quantity of the best-quality grass.
The adjustments to timing and grazing mean the mother cows at La Cense have not had to have hay to bolster their diets since 2006, which saves on costs, King said.
David Brown of Montana Ranch Inc. in Bigfork spoke about focusing on the ranch’s stock and crop genetics and making them work at optimum levels.
Montana Ranch Inc. pays particular attention to genetic improvement and advancement in its herds, which has an effect on breeding, input and output, and the overall health of the animals. Brown also said value-added products are key.
Ben Montgomery of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ronan and Plains also spoke with the gathered livestock ranchers about how to be more efficient with their grazing and how to get the most output from the grasses in their pastures.
Schlitz said including livestock producers in the conversation about the future of agriculture is integral to the continued existence of farms and ranches in the Flathead.
“The right to farm in the Flathead is important,” Schlitz said. “Producers need to be able to do what they do. And all the presenters talked about the need for more young professionals.”
For more information on the Montana Land Reliance, visit www.mtlandreliance.org.