Valuable Validation: Rangeland Analysis Platform Offers Ranchers Decision Support

With data validated through the Rangeland Analysis Platform, Kevin Koss was able to partner with NRCS to begin implementing a tree thinning project.

Ranchers who carefully monitor and manage the range can often describe the changes they have seen over the course of several years. However, on a day-to-day basis, major changes to the landscape can be difficult to recognize and nearly impossible to quantify as some occur slowly and tend to go unobserved when viewing the range each day.

In the case of conifer encroachment on Kevin Koss’ ranch south of Malta, Montana, for many years it was largely unnoticed. But after what Koss called over a decade of “above average precipitation at different times of the year, but good years in all,” he “suddenly” observed “thousands of small trees from six inches tall to several feet high.”

“Then I got to paying attention more, and I could see that the places where, when I was a kid, there weren’t any trees, or very few, were now just completely filled in,” Koss explained.

In fact, since the mid-eighties, the tree cover had increased in some pastures from 4 percent to 15 percent, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA) Conservation Coordinator Martin Townsend said.  Koss suspected an increase in trees and loss in grass, but it wasn’t until he utilized the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) to quantify the change that he realized tree encroachment had tripled.  With that added tree growth, his grass production was decreased by about 10 percent over the same time period and another tool within RAP estimated that to be a 300 pound per acre decrease in grass, or nearly one-third of the available grass in the area lost to trees. 

Being able to match his observations with these startling figures, not only reaffirmed to Koss that something must be done, but the data to back the problem helped him form a partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to begin tackling the issue.  Through NRCS funding, Koss is now working to remove swaths of new and encroaching trees from his pasture.  It’s still early on in the project, but Koss said any effort will help.

“We’ve only done maybe 20-some acres, so the results aren’t necessarily as immediate, but they’re  definitely going to start showing because these trees are growing by leaps and bounds every year, and if I don’t take care of some of the smaller ones when they’re easier to deal with, it’s going to get a lot more prohibitive,” Koss said.

NRCS Soil Conservationist Caitlin Gillespie said the RAP tool has been instrumental in implementing the tree removal project.  The historical imagery slider, which compiles all the aerial photos of a specific region as far back as possible, some even from the fifties, and allows users to see how the landscape has changed over the years.  As a new project leader in the Malta area, the RAP tool helped Gillespie gain a better understanding of what the country used to look like and quantify the goals of the project. 

“Tools like this allow us to see not only in the past what has happened, but also what in the future is going to happen as a result of what we’re doing,” Gillespie said. 

For NRCS, she said the RAP tool will help justify the implementation of many projects as well.

“I think that’s what we’ve lacked in recent years, just the data to back up our practices and see that we’re what we’re doing does make a difference down the road,” Gillespie said.  “Even if we’re not directly monitoring with the producer, we can look back at our project and say, ‘oh, after we did a cover crop this year, or after we did residue management, their perennial grass cover went up.’  We can look back and keep tabs on what we’re doing and if we see something that didn’t maybe work correctly, then we can go back and make adjustments too, so I think that’s going to be huge.”

“We've only done maybe 20-some acres, so the results aren't necessarily as immediate, but they're definitely going to start showing because these trees are growing by leaps and bounds every year, and if I don't take care of some of the smaller ones when they're easier to deal with, it's going to get a lot more prohibitive,” Kevin Koss said.

There is some degree of trial and error in rangeland management, and the RAP tool helps show what land managers may or may not have observed.  For example, Dusty Emond, a rancher in Southern Phillips County, had a clubmoss issue on some acres back in the nineties and attempted to remedy it by spiking the ground.

“I was kind of disappointed, it seemed like all we did was just grow more cheat grass and made it so rough the cows really didn’t want to graze out through it,” Emond said.

Townsend helped Emond analyze this particular acreage on the RAP tool and the year he spiked was evident on the graphs as the bare ground was largely reduced, from about 10 percent to 5 percent.  But upon further analyzation, RAP tools also showed that annual forbs were the main driving factor in reducing bare ground, with coverage increasing from it’s all time low of 0.5 percent to 12 percent after spiking.  The perennial grasses did some improvement as well, growing from 91 to 92 percent production.  So overall, according to data mined through the RAP tool, the spiking project did increase overall grass production on that acreage by about 5 percent, Townsend explained.

Seeing the data the RAP tool could provide, Emond started applying it to more decisions on his ranch.  During the recent drought, he utilized the programs stocking rate tool to calculate his winter grass availability and help with his decisions about supplemental feed and cow numbers to keep heading into the winter. 

“This winter he was talking about trying to figure out if he had enough hay to feed the cows he had left and how long that grass might last,” Townsend explained.  “So we were looking at the winter pastures and calculated out what that pasture has produced through time and tried to get an average based on where we were this year for an estimate of how much grass might be there.”

The tool can serve both as a current AUM calculator and provide historical production data off of which to base decisions.  To add to that, it predicts the percent of normal production for the current point in the year.  As of June 2022, for example, the given pasture was yielding about 60 percent of its average historical production – likely because the cooler spring has delayed growth.

Kevin Koss had observed an increase in trees and loss in grass, but it wasn’t until he utilized the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) to quantify the change that he realized tree encroachment had tripled. With added tree growth, his grass production was decreased by about 10 percent since the mid-eighties and another tool within RAP estimated that to be a 300-pound-per-acre decrease in grass, or nearly one-third of the available grass in the area lost to trees.

While Emond still closely monitors his range and makes his management decisions off his years of experience on the ranch, he said his findings on the RAP tool closely matched his “old-fashioned” calculations and reaffirmed his decisions.

“That came pretty close, I had just a little less grazing than I would have thought based on the tool,” Emond said.  “Monitoring is probably still the best, but as we all know, by the time we get around to monitoring, it’s kind of a mute point.  So, this lets us forecast in the future, and 10 minutes in the office will tell me what two hours of running around checking monitoring sites will tell me.”

He has also closely analyzed grass production after a major cross fencing project and said it “reaffirmed what I suspected.”  After piecing a 5,000-acre pasture into three smaller pastures, Emond increased the utilization of that grass by 40 percent. 

With the cost of large projects like building cross fence, integrating cover crops, or implementing tree removal, having statistics helps justify the price point and reaffirm those management decisions.

“It’s brought science to the equation,” Koss said.  “Things that we may think are happening or not happening, we just don’t have the access to scientific data on our own on the ranch so it’s just been fantastic to have that tool to say, ‘this is right what you’re doing is helping’ or ‘what you’re doing isn’t helping.’ Changes are happening and so it’s just been something that we wouldn’t have access to on our own necessarily.”

That’s why Townsend, through his work with RSA, has helped so many ranchers apply the tool to their operation.  One of RSA’s main goals is to help ensure the viability of the modern rancher, who then supports the local community, and continues to maintain critical habitat for thriving wildlife populations.

“When ranchers are able to validate their adaptive management through time, it makes adaptive managers more successful,” Townsend concluded.

By Kayla Walker for Ranchers Stewardship Alliance

Three Small Tanks with a Large Impact


If there is a water line to add, a tank to set, or a unique water set up to try, it’s likely Dusty Emond has done it on his ranch south of Malta, Montana.  Of the nearly 12 miles of pipeline on his place, six new miles were added just last fall following the harsh drought of 2021 to send water to an additional 7,500 acres that could not be utilized by cattle last summer due to a lack of water.  However, along that pipeline there are yet to be any tanks.  

“Even this year, we will have at least 20,000 acres that will be un-grazeable without portable water that literally has no water in stock reservoirs,” Emond said.

In a widespread drought where feed sources are already scarce and ranchers statewide are seeking pasture leases or hay, having 20,000 acres of grass that can’t be utilized due to a lack of water is ironic to say the least and detrimental at worst.  In an effort to utilize more of that pasture and make use of the new pipeline addition, Emond partnered with the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA) to purchase two portable water tanks and one permanent winter tank.   

“In normal conditions, we were adequately watered. Given the last couple years of drought, we’ve had to drop our grazing considerably and water is my next most important key step to staying profitable and being able to utilize my grass,” Emond said.  “The nice thing about this is we can now set them different places than where the reservoirs are to help spread out our grazing distribution.”

The Tomcat MFG portable water tanks are designed with mobility and ease of use in mind.  The tanks can be moved daily, if need be, and once drained can be hooked on to anything from a four-wheeler to a pickup to pull to the next location.  Emond has one of his portable tanks paired with a solar powered pump, also in an easy-to-move trailer, pumping water out of a stock reservoir that is too low for cows to access.  When not filling out of a reservoir, the portable tanks can be quickly moved to the new six-mile water line where one of eight hydrant locations will become a new water source. 

Along his 12 miles of pipeline, Emond has tried a variety of tanks including 2,000-gallon rectangular fiberglass tanks, half round fiberglass tanks, 12-foot round tanks, tire tanks, and the new RSA-funded portable tanks.  The new portable tanks are quickly becoming one of his favored systems.

“I’m leaning towards the rubber liner portable water troughs just because I can drain them, hook them up, and be gone in no time,” Emond said.  “The big fiberglass tanks I have to drain one day, go back the next day with a tractor and load them on a flatbed trailer and move them.  Fiberglass that are set permanent are quite nice, but they’re also permanent and I’m getting enough hydrants that I don’t want to buy that many tanks.  So, the rubber portable is the most adaptable.  But probably the best long term is a permanent fiberglass.”


Funding from his RSA partnership was also used for the purchase of one permanent winter tank.  The new permanent tank will allow for grazing on one and half sections of deeded land that otherwise couldn’t have been winter grazed.  Given the cost of major projects like new water pipelines, the partnership with RSA has helped Emond increase water availability, for both summer and winter, on his ranch. 

“They have definitely helped offset some of the cost,” he said.  “I keep doing all these little experiments and stuff, so it helps to offset the cost. Most of it I would probably have done on my own, just at a slower pace.”

That slower pace is tough to afford though when drought is causing destocking and altered management plans.  Emond runs cow/calf pairs and some stocker cattle, as well as sheep and goats.

“I was kind of an early bird and I sold cows faster than everybody else with the theory that I would grow grass and be able to rebuy faster than everyone else,” he said.  “I destocked more significantly than most of my neighbors last year, but also I didn’t have that other water line in.”

Emond maintained more sheep and goats than he did cattle last summer as their input requirements are lower.  This diversity in his operation proved beneficial as drought drove many management decisions.

“We had the sheep and goats before the drought, but last year I was able to graze some pastures that didn’t have enough water for cattle. We used the solar pumps and pumped for the sheep because they took less water,” Emond explained.  “I am seriously considering expanding the sheep business because they need less water and can do better on lower brix feeds. We didn’t start with sheep for that reason, but we will probably expand for that reason.”

As ranchers face many variables like market conditions, rising operation costs, and adverse weather conditions, they must seek creative ways to simply stay in business.  Keeping ranchers on the range is one of the main goals of RSA, and their many conservation partners see the value ranchers play in the ecosystem.  For example, Emond’s ranch consists of miles and miles of connected native range which provides critical habitat for not just his livestock, but many wildlife and game bird species including Sage Grouse.  RSA’s conservation partners have prioritized preventing conversion of such range into cropland.

“If it can be grazed and kept in grazing long term, then hopefully it doesn’t ever become plowed because plowed native range doesn’t go back to being native range,” RSA Conservation Coordinator Martin Townsend said.  “We can plant native species, but it’s not the same thing.”

So, while the purchase of two portable water tanks and one winter tank may seem to have a minimal impact on such a large ecosystem, for Emond, it means accessing thousands more acres for grazing during drought, and for wildlife and birds it means the preservation of the native range they call home.

“If we can build a relationship with ranches and keep them enthused about ranching longer, the most successful wildlife habitat is often on working agricultural lands,” Townsend said.  “In fact, 70 percent of the best habitat in Montana falls on private lands and in an area that RSA works in that’s well over 50 percent public land, being able to work on those private lands and provide support through conservation is a huge win for wildlife for years to come.”


By Kayla Walker for Ranchers Stewardship Alliance 

RSA Receives National Recognition

An amazing and unexpected honor, RSA was recently awarded the “Outstanding Partner Award” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

The Program provides free technical and financial assistance to landowners, managers, tribes, corporations, schools and nonprofits interested in improving wildlife habitat on their land.

Along with the fancy plaque, RSA Executive Director Angel Devries and Board member Rick Caqeulin traveled to Arkansas to receive the award and update the group on RSA’s great success.

This recognition wouldn’t have been possible without the local ranchers and ag producers who have trusted us time and time again to collaborate on private-land projects positively impacting ranchers, land, wildlife, and rural communities. This work truly is about the winning team!

Landowner, Sportsmen Join in Fencing Effort

We’ve heard it time and time again: good fences make good neighbors. But when it’s your community that’s teaming up to pound those posts and stretch that wire, the “neighborhood” becomes a whole lot bigger.

Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit started by a group of 30+ ranch families in 2003, joined a widespread effort in 2019 to improve fencing for wildlife migration. While major partners include the Department of Interior, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), a more homegrown element has come to the forefront.

Hi-Line Sportsmen, a Glasgow-based nonprofit focused on keeping conservation local, and local RSA and FWP staff recently assisted in a volunteer day to help remove fencing from the Swenson Ranch near Glasgow. The goal was to take out fencing identified to be restrictive to wildlife by FWP and replace it with brand new fencing from RSA. New fencing on someone else’s dime? It has a nice ring to it! Along with boasting a new lifespan for the Swenson Ranch, it meets the specs of being “wildlife friendly.”

What is a wildlife friendly fence? Simply, it’s a fence that lets big game animals through while keeping livestock in. Grazing management can be maintained yet migration ease is improved by setting the wires at heights that allow deer and pronghorn to go under, reduce the risk of them tangling legs if they jump and miss, and kept low enough that jumping wildlife cause less damage. 

Across the region, other sportsmen groups have rallied around supporting ranchers that are making changes for wildlife. Pheasants Forever has hosted two similar work days in Blaine County with assistance from the Blaine Conservation District and the local Natural Resource Conservation Service field office. The One Montana Master Hunters Program has also traveled to Phillips County to assist ranchers.

Want to help out? On Wednesday, October 19, RSA, FWP, and Hi-Line Sportsmen will be hosting a volunteer day at the Boucher Ranch to remove an un-needed, old woven-wire fence from along the railroad. Projects along high-traffic transportation routes have been identified as priorities. The plan is to meet at Raiders Quick Stop at 8 a.m. before traveling to the project site. Staff and volunteer members of the involved groups will be present to answer any questions.

2021 Impact Report

Hi friends,

We’re so grateful that you’ve been a part of this Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Community over the past year. Together, we’ve made progress in our aim to help multi-generational and beginning ranchers build the collaborative, trusting relationships and community-based solutions we need to create healthy working landscapes and vibrant rural communities.

Here are a few highlights that you helped make happen in 2021:

Last year, the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance’s Conservation Committee worked with 18 ranch families in Phillips, Blaine, and Valley Counties to help implement grazing land improvements aimed to increase the resiliency of their ranch business, our grasslands, and wildlife habitat.

Ranchers Stewardship Alliance committed more than $377,000 to these projects. Conservation Committee partners and the ranchers & landowners themselves contributed another $1.8 million to the projects. That means that together, we invested more than $2.1 million in grassland & grazing improvements that impacted our local communities’ economies this year.

That included:

  • 60 miles of wildlife friendly fence built
  • 4,500 acres of grazing habitat restored to perennial habitat and native grasses
  • 192,595 feet of water pipeline laid for enhanced water systems
  • 60 livestock tanks installed with 25 bird escape ramps
  • 5 new water wells for stock tanks for enhanced water systems

Our Education Committee cranked its efforts up a notch last year, too!

In July 2021, RSA partnered with Winnett ACES and area Conservation Districts to host a five-stop Nicole Masters Soil Health tour, gathering 221 ranchers across our region for hands-on soil health training and analysis.

The inaugural Graziers’ Gathering in October 2021 focused on elevating local ranching knowledge and experience in peer-to-peering ranching TED-styled talks. The event sold out in the first two weeks of ticket sales!

We hosted our first two Ranch Stewards Book Club sessions, featuring Nicole Master’s For the Love of Soil and Dr. Fred Provenza’s Nourishment. These virtual discussion groups created a community that spans the Northern Great Plains for inspiration to read, learn, grow, and create stimulating discussion around ideas that matter to healthier landscapes, people, and animals.

The first five sessions in the Rural Resilience webinar series shared world-class speakers and innovative ranching and conservation ideas with 944 registered guests, representing up to 26 different states, right in the comfort of our ranch homes!

We share these numbers and celebrations as a constant reminder that even in tough years — the years where drought tests our faith and economic challenges try our spirits — we can still grow and learn and build more resilient ranches, landscapes, and communities to not just weather the next storm, but to thrive in doing what we love.

Thank you for your support, encouragement, and participation in 2021.

You can help continue these efforts in 2022.

Our 2021 Impact Report is in the mail! Check out the digital copy here. We’re looking forward to growing stronger in 2022.

Volunteer fence maintenance a win-win for landowners, big game

By Martin Townsend, RSA Lands Coordinator  

This summer, an effort between conservation organizations and Blaine County ranchers at the Louie Petrie Ranch north of Turner, Montana offered two days of hands-on learning, practical ranch work, and collaboration to benefit ranching and pronghorn migration in the region.

The Obrecht family hosted more than 40 volunteers June 17 and 18 at their ranch to share how fencing and simple changes of wire heights can make huge impacts for migrating pronghorn. The Woody Island Coulee area is a key migration linkage for pronghorn. Hundreds of animals migrate through the area each year as they follow­ the narrow strip of grassland from summer to winter ranges at each end.

Along the way, these animals can encounter fences that make travel difficult. This added stress can have negative impacts to their health and survivability, especially in harsh weather. Raising bottom wires on fences to 16-18 inches can greatly reduce these hindrances. This field day accomplished just that task for the benefit of migrating pronghorn as well as completed some needed fencing maintenance on the ranch.

The workshop started with presentations related to pronghorn migration and programs from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and Pheasants Forever biologists. Tyrel Obrecht shared an overview of the ranch and gave a great explanation as to why they prioritize wildlife habit alongside their cattle grazing. The family has found that by managing their grazing in a way that benefits wildlife, their business benefits, too.

Tyrel Obrecht shares information on the ranch’s grazing practices and the carbon sequestration work they are doing with Western Sustainability Exchange.

The group toured the ranch to see cropland that has been seeded to grassland and their use of temporary fence to help with plant recovery and carbon sequestration. By grazing small areas for short periods of time, and therefore allowing greater rest and recovery time after grazing, Obrecht said he has noted increased plant vigor and resiliency without sacrificing grazing capacity. This increase in plant response also helps provide high value food sources for wildlife. These are food sources pronghorn need while migrating through the area.

Next, volunteers either removed a bottom wire, clipped the next wire up in places, or re-hung at a height easier for pronghorn to get under. Most of the volunteers were conservation agency or organization employees with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Ducks Unlimited, World Wildlife Fund, Pheasants Forever, Ameri-corps and more. Surrounding ranchers also came and learned about pronghorn migration and provided support to the fencing crews.

While the volunteers worked on wires, ranching neighbors in UTV’s helped supply tools, moved crews and provided water as the afternoon got warm. The event brought together a diverse network of experiences and expertise: college-aged interns worked alongside state and regional agency directors; ranchers worked alongside employees of wildlife non-profits. Everyone got to meet someone new and directly contribute to improving habitat for wildlife and the ranch’s grazing infrastructure. Many of the participants camped on the ranch to get an early start on the fencing the second day. This provided an opportunity to get to know each other, see more of the ranch and recreate in a place some had never experienced. Some of the intern participants were from as far away as Massachusetts and some had never seen pronghorn before. The event was a great introduction to ranching and wildlife co-existing in this prairie landscape.

Pheasants Forever Biologist Hunter VanDonsel explaining the conservation project and grassland reseeding underway on the ranch.

The Obrecht family and workshop organizers set a goal to modify nine miles of fence for the event. By lunch on the second day, the group had modified more than 11 miles of fence. It was a great opportunity for relationship building, community engagement, wildlife habitat improvements, and ranching exposure for people that might not otherwise see the intersection of ranching and conservation on the ground.

Thank you to all who put this event on, including Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Blaine County Conservation District, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and First Bank of Montana.

Thank you to the Obrecht family and the Louie Petrie Ranch for hosting this great event.

Improving productivity, diversity in old crested wheatgrass stands

In our inaugural Rural Resilience webinar Jan. 19, Dr. Dave Naugle shared key tools and ideas around the scientific basis for investing in grazing communities to conserve wildlife, introduced exciting new technological innovations in rangeland monitoring, and communicated the potential benefits of transforming expired CRP acres into valued assets of your grazing operation.

If you missed the live webinar, the recording is now available on our YouTube page. Registration is still open for future webinars.

One topic that surfaced many times in the webinar chat box and in the discussion following Dr. Naugle’s presentation was the challenge grazers face in rejuvenating or adding diversity to established stands of crested wheatgrass.

In the post-event survey, we asked our ranching participants to share their experiences and experiments with grazing old crested wheatgrass. Here, we’re sharing their responses in hope that it sparks ideas if you’re seeking, and creates space for you to comment with your own successes or failures. The survey responses were shared anonymously.

What has been your experience with improving the productivity or stand diversity in old crested wheat grass plantings? What experiences have you had or experiments have you tried, and to what results?

I like to use them in early March almost like a stockpiled native grass. That time of year the cows really go after those early green shoots in the middle of the bunches.

Just starting to work on that. Bought my own no till drill. Seeded some old crested alfalfa hay fields back to native grass this winter after being in cover crops for 1 to 3 years.

We used an old crested field for spring calving and the native very slowly started moving in. We were good with having the mix and like some crested for places where it gets heavy use in the spring.

Some responded well to just herbicide, but most often crested won.

We have both farmed and sprayed crested wheatgrass monocultures with minimal success.

Targeted grazing has allowed old stands of crested to start to move to greater diversity. I’ve tinkered with several approaches and had some success by: let crested get wolfy for a year or two if possible to reduce vigor and produce fungal-feeding litter in the system; broadcast desirable seed (big sage, purple prairie clover, green needlegrass, western wheatgrass, blue grama and dryland, spreader alfalfa) on the ground; graze intensively to get standing matter trampled to the ground and get current year’s growth down to ~2-3″ tall — then get out and stay out until the area needs grazing again to favor establishment of desirable species. Big sage and alfalfa came in pretty good; some western got established; prairie clover, blue grama and green needlegrass didn’t take in the competitive environment though some plants came up in previously bare patches (claypan microsites). Worked best done in April when the fall moisture had been only moderate and we had some good summer moisture.

Bale feeding didn’t work very well for me — probably would work better with cattle than with sheep. Application of high-quality composted straw and sheep waste (broadcast through manure spreader at average depth of 1/2″ but very patchy distribution) stimulated the existing plants and depressed establishment of desirables. Poor result with using canola fed on the ground in the winter to concentrate cattle — killed the sage while the crested loved the trampling and concentrated nutrients. Next experiment probably combining targeted grazing with application of biostimulants (vermicast and/or Johnson-Su bioreactor product).

I don’t see Rx fire as an answer for me as I suspect low soil organic matter may be part of what gives crested an edge. I would be really interested in a study that examines soil biota in same soil types with different veg communities — what are the key differences, if any, between places where crested/sweet clover/Japanese brome are dominant or increasing versus native plant dominated communities? If differences are found, can we tweak plant species composition by tweaking soil biota (ala Nicole Masters, Marin County Carbon Project, etc.)?

We just have small spots. So we just be sure and graze them when the cows will eat them.

We had a club moss infested crested wheat field. Dow chemical did a plot trial on it looking for a chemical solution; that proved to be fruitless. We tried grazing it very hard for short periods of time for multiple years; that proved to be mostly non-affective. We then tried spiking it with our toolbar. We had excellent results from that! Production increased at least 500% and there is better plant diversity as well. That had to have been 15 years ago and it remains very productive.

Thanks to these participants who shared their experiences and experiments. Please comment below with your own, or with resources you’ve found helpful. 

Building a herd and hope

Beginning rancher revitalizes retired CRP to grow her herd and wildlife habitat

By Laura C. Nelson, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance

The old homestead still stands sentinel on the hill.

Weathered, worn and abandoned long ago, Heather Martin has often looked at the relic and wondered just how the brother-sister duo who claimed this parcel more than a century ago thought they could make a living off such a small sliver of sandy soil.

“There’s no well, no running water, and when this reservoir dries up, there’s nothing,” the Phillips County rancher says, nodding to the still pool nestled in the natural basin. “Maybe they got more rain back then, maybe it held more snow – I just don’t know. It had to have been a tough living.”

As decades wore on, making a living on that land didn’t get any easier. It was plowed, then entered into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the 1990s, indicating it was considered marginal cropland, at best. Planted to crested wheatgrass, a non-native but prolific species, it was left to weather the elements like the homestead decades before. The crested wheatgrass took root and covered the bare ground as intended, but wildlife search for tender, native grasses to graze. Dead growth became a barrier to new life.

Still, like many before her, Heather Martin saw opportunity.

“I was trying to grow; we were running out of ground. I was just trying to make it work, this ranching deal,” she says. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve known that since I was eight years old.”

Martin Red Angus cattle
Photo courtesy of Sandra Petersen-Kindle

Cattle, like the wildlife before, would likely turn their noses up at the brittle, nutrient-poor overgrown and dead vegetation, and Martin feared it was a tinder box of bad luck waiting for a lightning strike and an uncontrollable blaze.

She knocked down what she could with a swather and baled the worst stands the year she bought it. With a land payment pressing, there was no time for further renovations. The dilapidated fence line was ragged at best – “That first year, I was getting heifers in every day. Every day! But what could I do? I had to use it.”

A previous owner had interspersed some alfalfa seed, and native vegetation began inching its way back in. With the first stand knocked back, she bought 600-pound heifers to develop and sold them at 1,000 pounds.

“It’s a producing little pasture,” she says, sure of its potential to grow the nourishment needed to expand her Red Angus breeding program. It’s the perfect spot for developing heifers or for her A.I. and embryo transfer cattle.

“I love yearlings; I love calving heifers, too. I know a lot of people don’t like to bother with it – it’s hard!—but I like the challenge,” Martin says. “I like that you get to be the one who see her ‘get it’ for the first time. You get to teach them, in a way.”

But the land was ready to teach her the same lesson it doled out to generations of westerners before: dreams, ambition, hard work and know-how doesn’t mean much without water.

Heather Martin in her Umdine Pasture
Heather Martin in front of the reservoir that was the only water source on her recently purchased, expired CRP pasture.

“In 2017, I hauled water every day to this pasture. The reservoir dried all the way up. If you’ve ever had to haul water, you know – I’m haying, trying to get everything else done, and it’s up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to haul water, then off to work or to help someone else on their place and back at 11 o’clock at night to fill the trough,” she recalls. “My heart is here – these cows, they’re my heart – but I don’t know. Sometimes you wonder if it makes sense, if it’s really worth it, you know?”

Hope in a hard time

“In 2017, the panic was on – everyone in Phillips County was out of water,” Sage Grouse Initiative Rangeland Conservationist Martin Townsend says. “That summer was a record-setting drought, so it really highlighted where people were low on water. At that point, available water became the most limiting resource for agricultural production.”

When Heather Martin approached the local Farm Service Agency office for potential water development funding, she learned that due to high demand, it would be at least a year before cost-share funding would be available. Instead, she was directed to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to inquire about new conservation funding available through the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA). There, she was introduced to Martin Townsend, who is hired by the Soil and Water Conservation District of Montana to work in the Malta Natural Resource Conservation Service office doing conservation planning and contracting.  Townsend also serves as RSA’s volunteer Conservation Committee Coordinator.

The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance was formed in 2003 as a rancher-led conservation organization based in Malta, Montana. The organization’s mission is to help multi-generational and beginning ranchers build the collaborative, trusting relationships and community-based solutions they need to create healthy working landscapes and vibrant rural communities.

In 2017, RSA was awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Northern Great Plains Program for local rangeland improvements to benefit grassland birds, rangeland health and working landscape through livestock grazing.

Pronghorn at Martin Red Angus Ranch
Pronghorn at Martin Red Angus Ranch

The grant money would be administered through the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance’s newly formed Conservation Committee, a collaboration of ranchers, state and federal agencies and conservation organizations. Matching funds from Conservation Committee partners brought the total available funds to $410,000.

“The first phase of that grant money was specifically focused on expiring CRP land that could be put into a grazing system,” Townsend says. “The goal is to reduce the risk of cultivation and keep grasslands for grassland birds, while supporting working lands, ranching and the rural community.”

Heather Martin’s project was the perfect fit, smack in the middle of priority habitat for grassland birds like the chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspur. The pasture also falls just outside the core area near a sage grouse migratory corridor and has several active leks (breeding grounds) within a five-mile radius.

It marked all the boxes in promoting biodiversity and healthy wildlife habitat, but most rewarding, Townsend says, is that it offered resilience to a  rancher working to grow her herd.

“We want her operation to be functional, because when it is, it’s functional for wildlife, too,” Townsend says.

New water tanks at Martin Red Angus Ranch
Heather Martin checks on one of the two new fiberglass water tanks recently installed on retired CRP land. The additional water has helped revitalize the land as a newly flexible part of Martin’s grazing system.

To do that, the RSA Conservation Committee proposed to drill a new well, install 6,000 feet of livestock pipeline, install two fiberglass water tanks with bird ramps and construct 1.2 miles of perimeter and internal fencing. With a nearly one-to-one match, Martin purchased the tanks and labor to construct the fencing and in turn, the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance would pay to install the well, pipeline and purchase fencing supplies.

“It’s a godsend,” Martin says. “In less than eight months, I had water on this place. I couldn’t believe it.”

Resilience for a first-time rancher

The pickup bounces across what may have once been farming tracks in the hip-high, new growth.

“I’m still getting to know this little pasture,” Martin says. “It takes time to really get to know a piece of land; to know what grows, what does well, the lay of the land.”

The new water system has allowed her to look at this land differently. When she relied on the reservoir for water, it could only be grazed in early spring when water ran. In the first year after the well was drilled and pipeline installed, she was able to experiment with winter grazing with cattle foraging into December. Now, she can rest the pasture through the spring and summer to allow fresh regrowth.

She’s not the only one reaping the benefits of the reinvigorated landscape.

She’s mid-sentence when she stops the pickup abruptly and points: “Grouse.”

Sage Grouse hen
A sage grouse hen in a livestock pasture at Martin Red Angus Ranch.

There, nestled in the swaying sweet clover, the female sage grouse finds cover. Earlier in the spring, the shorter, new grass would be ideal for songbirds, and throughout the year, antelope move through the landscape. In recent years, Martin has seen more elk making their way through her pastures, and one year, she spotted a rogue moose.

“That’s the beauty of a grazing system,” rancher and RSA Conservation Committee chair Sheila Walsh says. “It creates diversity on the landscape that a variety of wildlife needs to thrive. But what’s just as important to us is that it can allow a young rancher to thrive, too.”

Martin still has more fencing work to complete her end of the RSA conservation match. The cross-fencing will help her create an even more detailed grazing plan and add more options to her breeding program. As she develops her herd, she’s working toward more purebred breeding stock to sell. She’s in her second year offering registered Red Angus bulls in collaboration with the Rough Country Breeders sale and sees opportunity to offer more.

“I just love what I do,” she says. Sticking with it involves a lot of stubbornness, she laughs, but it also requires a bigger team. “Starting out on my own and building my own program has been hard,” she says. “But I’ve had a lot of people pulling for me in places I needed them. And for that, I’m thankful.”

Martin Red Angus
Martin Red Angus pair, photo courtesy of Sandra Petersen-Kindle.

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About Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Inc.: In 2003, about 30 ranching families in northern Montana came together to resolve common problems they faced. Now known as RSA, this rancher-led conservation organization works to strengthen our rural community, economy and culture. Our mission is to help multi-generational and beginning ranchers build the collaborative, trusting relationships and community-based solutions they need to create healthy, working landscapes and vibrant rural communities.

About the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation: Chartered by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) protects and restores the nation’s fish, wildlife, plants and habitats. Working with federal, corporate, and individual partners, NFWF has funded more than 5,000 organizations and generated a total conservation impact of $6.1 billion. Learn more at

Meet our Partners: Martin Townsend, Conservation Committee Coordinator

Martin Townsend serves as the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Conservation Committee Coordinator. Ranchers Stewardship Alliance leaders formed its Conservation Committee  in 2017 in order to gather representatives of the ranching community, state and federal agencies and conservation organizations.

The purpose of the Conservation Committee is to establish collaboration and cooperation with partners of similar interests; develop long-term productive relationships addressing our common interests; and administer project funding from successful grants. As coordinator, Martin works with Conservation Committee Chair and RSA board member Sheila Walsh to lead and coordinate the committee’s work.

Martin, tell us about yourself – where you’re from, how you got here and where you’ve been:

I grew up in Manhattan, Montana. I went to college at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming and finished my degree at MSU Bozeman. I graduated with an agriculture education degree. I started working as a range seasonal for the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in college, and I worked here (in Phillips County) one summer. So I lived with my grandparents that summer and spent a lot of time with my aunt and uncle who farm here.

I really enjoyed that summer in college, being a range seasonal, helping with range monitoring, stuff like that. Growing up, I remember seeing the BLM guy with my uncle on his ranch, watching him and what he did… I couldn’t believe that was a job. It sounded like the most fun thing in the world. That’s what I enjoy most about my job now — being able to work with ranchers and farmers to help improve their places and help them meet their goals. That’s what I got to witness as a kid – the BLM specialist helping to improve the resources and grazing of my family’s ranch.

Tell us more about what your current role is and what you do?

I’m a Sage Grouse Initiative Rangeland Conservationist. I’m hired by the Soil and Water Conservation District of Montana to work in the Malta NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) office doing NRCS conservation planning and contracting. I work with private landowners to address resources concerns on their property affecting things like soil, water, air quality, wildlife habitat and livestock production. We want to help improve those resources in ways that improves production and the resource. I do a lot through the Sage Grouse Initiative, helping ranchers implement grazing management in ways that supports sage grouse habitat. I work with a lot with the Sage Grouse Cropland Initiative, where we seed marginal production or marginally needed cropland back to perennial grass. I also work in all of the other NRCS programs, as long as they have a benefit for wildlife and resources.

How did you get involved with the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance’s Conservation Committee?

I started my job a month before it existed. Kelsey Malloy was doing an invite-a-friend to the RSA board meeting. I went, and then went to a Conservation Committee meeting and assumed it had been going on the whole time, because it was so well-run. Turns out, that was their first meeting! From there on, the word was out that they were looking for projects focused on converting expiring CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) into viable grazing systems.

That was the summer of 2017. The summer of 2017 was record-setting drought, so it really highlighted where people were low on water. At that point, available water became the most limiting resource for agricultural production. There were people who had absolutely no well water; if they ran out of surface water, they have no water, and it would have been a lose-lose-lose to get rid of cattle at that point. The Conservation Committee was able to step in and help ranchers develop some new water sources with some of its funding.

How do you describe the work of the RSA Conservation Committee?

It’s the local hub for anything and everything conservation. Every interested agency and group that operates in any arena involving conservation in this area in some ways works with the RSA Conservation Committee. It’s the hub.

What’s the most rewarding part of being on the committee?

I think it’s the collaboration used to get projects working on the ground. We can bring projects to the committee that we are having trouble moving forward in our own agency. We can bring it before the group and ask for help, or one of the other partners will say, we can fund this, or have you thought of this? We usually end up with a better conservation product at the end.

With all those entities in the room, we’re able to make a more thoroughly thought out plan – something that’s better for farmers and ranchers, better for wildlife, better for the resources. We can work on more projects and it’s led to an increase in conservation in this area, as all of our groups are working together as opposed to each entity only focusing on their scope or interests. It opens up what you can do with these projects.

What does the future of North-Central Montana look like with this kind of approach to conservation?

I think the biggest thing that the future is going to show is that relationships between private landowners and these groups will improve. These groups are doing a better job of working together and working with and for landowners. That means an overall improved working relationships within groups and agencies working here.

In the past, there has been tension between all those groups. I think the Conservation Committee serving as that hub creates a very open and transparent relationship so that ranchers and landowners can see what these agencies have to deal with in their job, and these agencies can get an up-close view of what ranchers are dealing with in their jobs. It creates a great connection between the two.

What does RSA’s mission, “Ranching, Conservation, Communities – A Winning team!” mean to you?

I think it embodies what we try to do with the Conservation Committee. Everything we do in the Conservation Committee must have qualities in those categories to make sure that everything we do has a positive impact on ranching, conservation and communities. I think that’s why the works of the committee rings so true for conservation agencies and landowners.

Anything else you’d like to share about being a member of the RSA Conservation Committee?

Last year, RSA had a pot of money, and Ducks Unlimited had a little money and NRCS had a little money… together, in one Conservation Committee meeting, we went through 15 different projects. By the end of it, we took those 15 projects and pooled at least four times as much funding as RSA had. We were able to send some projects to the Fish and Wildlife Partners program, some to Ducks Unlimited, some to Pheasants Forever, like that.

At the end of that meeting, we looked at all of those projects and had a whole lot more for all of them. That was neat to see. If it would have been just one person coming to RSA to get these projects done, only a fraction would have been funded. But by working together, we were able to fund four times that. That’s exciting to me. It’s exciting for conservation in our communities.