2021 Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Annual Report
While 2021 was a year full of challenges and trials, it was also a year where we saw the intersection of “ranching, conservation, and communities” truly create “a winning team.” The severe drought, not just in our northern Montana counties, but across a large sweep of the region, brought with it feed shortages, water concerns, and even tough decisions for ranchers to destock their herds if their hunt for feed supplements or additional pasture came up short. However, in the face of that, the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA) truly embraced its mission leading to one of its most successful years to date.
We hosted multiple inaugural events and educational efforts, saw new participants seeking information from a larger region, forged stronger partnerships with those who shared our concern of preserving this range when drought placed it under pressure, and helped ranchers manage a bit more effectively by implementing water projects when they were needed most. And none of that could have happened if it wasn’t for dedicated RSA staff rolling up their sleeves, our loyal Board of Directors taking time out of their own strained schedules for the greater good of our collective mission, and our reliable partners continually seeing the need for and providing assistance through collaborative
Throughout this Annual Report, it’s evident the work RSA was able to achieve with the help of our staff, Board, and partners was necessary for not only ranchers, but for the greater good of our communities. Events like the Rural Resilience webinar series, the book club, and the Soil Health Tour convened thousands of participants craving more knowledge, seeking new relations, and embracing adaptive management to better their businesses, their local communities, and their part of this larger landscape. The miles of fence and waterlines, and the many new tanks and wells all illustrated not just the ranchers dedication to conservation, but our partners willingness to help improve this
ecosystem for everyone involved – people, livestock, and wildlife.
Looking back at 2021, we may initially remember heat, grasshoppers, water shortages, and drought, but let’s not fail to acknowledge the many wins we experienced – each one coming about because in the face of adversity, we chose to come together as a winning team working collaboratively for ranching, conservation, and community.
Leo Barthelmess, RSA Board President
View a full digital version of the 2021 Annual Report here. Want to receive a printed copy? Email Anna at [email protected] to request your copy!
Preserving agricultural land, legacies in North-Central Montana
Internationally known speaker brings tools to navigate transitions and transfers for farm and ranch families to Malta and Glasgow events in March
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Do you want your farm or ranch business to remain intact for the next generation? Most do.
Do you want the family to get along and come home for gatherings? Most do.
What most farms don’t do is break down assumptions, have robust respectful family meetings, and discover the expectations of ALL family members for the succession or transition of the farm. Elaine Froese is an expert in quickly mapping out the family dynamic and identifying the key challenges that need to be unpacked.
Froese is a certified professional speaker, certified coach, and author. She’s a go-to expert for farm and ranch families who want better communication and conflict resolution to secure a successful farm or ranch transition.
“Most farmers are concerned about death and taxes,” Froese says. “But what they should really be paying attention to are the family dynamics and how emotional factors are keeping them stuck. And all of this is impacting the future success of the farm and ranch.”
Froese will lead events in Malta and Glasgow on Tuesday, March 1 and Wednesday, March 2 titled “Land & Legacies: tools to navigate transitions and transfers,” hosted by the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance.
Each location’s event will begin at 10 a.m., will include a catered lunch, and conclude at 5 p.m. with a social to follow. Registration is $75 for the first individual in a family or farm/ranch business and $35 for each additional registrant. Families and business partners are encouraged to attend together. Every group receives one of Froese’s books, plus personal workbooks to keep each family member moving forward.
“In many farm kitchens there’s a bull in the middle of the room. It’s the ‘undiscussabull,’” Froese says. “It’s the things no one is willing to talk about, and most know they need to talk about these tough issues. They just don’t know how or where to get started.”
Some of these tough topics Froese will cover in her workshops will include:
- Income streams for each generation
- Housing and where each family unit is going to live
- Paying down debt
- More open communication
- Fairness to non-farm heirs
- Conflict avoidance
- Transfer of ownership
- Decreasing anxiety over the uncertainty of the future
Find a full agenda, more information, and registration at www.ranchstewards.org.
Froese’s workshops will also appeal to ranchers and farmers who desire to see their land and agricultural legacies move forward, but who don’t have an apparent family heir, and to young or beginning ranchers who do not have a family business to enter.
Regardless of where your agricultural business find itself in the process, Froese says she’s on a mission to help you get unstuck, communicate better, find harmony through understanding, and secure a profitable agricultural legacy.
Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is a rancher-led non-profit based in Malta, Montana. This event is planned and funded by the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Education Committee with the help of numerous regional and local community sponsors.
Title sponsors include Northwest Farm Credit Services, First Community Bank of Glasgow, Montana Livestock Ag Credit, Inc., Independence Bank Malta and Glasgow branches, The Nature Conservancy of Montana, Bank of Bridger, N.A. Malta and Glasgow branches, and RCAN – Rural Communities and Agricultural Heritage.
Malta local sponsors include: Northwest Realty, Phillips County Title, Blaine County Conservation District, Louie Petrie Ranch, Pleiades Foundation, Phillips County Conservation District (local event co-host).
Glasgow local sponsors include: Edward Jones of Glasgow, United Insurance and Realty of Glasgow.
Sponsorships are still available. Please contact Angel at [email protected] to help sponsor and support bringing these events to your agricultural community! This event will qualify for the continuing professional education credits for the Montana State Board of Accountants.
For more information, visit www.ranchstewards.org or call 406-654-1405.
2020 Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Annual Report
In the midst of severe drought, we’re constantly reminded of the power of deep roots. The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance has been working to solve problems and create a brighter future for our ranches, our rural communities and the wildlife that depends on this land for more than 17 years.
Our organization has experienced some incredible growth in the past year. We’ve added new staff, we’ve added resources for more grazing improvement projects, and we’ve added big goals to our future plans. But we know we’ve only grown today because of the local, focused effort so many people have put in over the course of the past 17 years.
We believe this is how we help our own rural communities succeed. We start small, we focus on the positive outcomes we can control, and we recognize we must desire a clear solution more than we want to fixate on our problems.
Out here, we all want quality of life for ourselves and our livestock, we want a wonderful community to live in, we want these soils and water systems to work properly. As ranchers, we recognize we’re just a little piece of this big complex puzzle of life. Together, we can take good care of the pieces in our hands.
We’re excited to share this 2020 Annual Report with you, and to show you the pieces we’ve been working on. Our collective successes are only possible when we tap into the reserves of a deeply rooted community. We need each other to build a thriving future. I’m so thankful to live in the community we do, to work on the landscape we do, and to partner with the people we do. It’s a wonderful place to be.
Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Board President
PS — View a full digital version of the 2020 Annual Report here. Want to receive a printed copy? Email Madison at [email protected] to request your copy!
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.
2020 Landscape Stewardship Award
The following citation was presented to the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance by Public Lands Foundation Montana representative Richard Hopkin. While the citation was issued Sept. 18, 2020, Hopkins presented the citation in at RSA’s January 2021 Annual Meeting.
The Public Lands Foundation (PLF) presents the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), with its 2020 Landscape Stewardship Award and this Citation. The PLF grants this recognition to honor private citizens and organizations that work to advance and sustain community-based stewardship on landscapes that include, in whole or in part, public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The RSA includes local ranchers as well as specialists from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Foundation, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Pheasants Forever, World Wildlife Fund, and Ducks Unlimited.
The RSA was recently the recipient of a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Western Big Game Migration Grant. This grant was co-funded by BLM. The project is funding targeted habitat restoration and enhancement projects to benefit big game winter habitat and migration corridors in north-central Montana.
The RSA is currently implementing on-the-ground projects within priority areas that include seeding over 1,400 acres of croplands to native plant species, improving grazing systems on over 11,500 acres, and converting over 15 miles offence to be wildlife friendly.
The NFWF Big Game grant is just the latest in a long list of grant funding. Since 2017, RSA has received over $1.2 million in grants and has leveraged much more in matching funds from other organizations for on-the-ground conservation projects in north-central Montana. They have also sponsored and hosted numerous educational and informational tours and workshops to share and promote sustainable ranching practices and conservation programs. Sustainability would not be possible without including the public lands that surround and, in most cases, incorporate most north-central Montana ranch operations.
Because such a large portion of the native range in north-central Montana is under private ownership, it would be impossible for BLM to provide for all the habitat needs of native wildlife without the cooperation of private landowners. RSA has provided a bridge between public and private land managers to learn more about each other’s values, concerns, and available resources. By inviting BLM to participate in the RSA, it has enabled better communication and understanding between BLM and area ranchers as well as other conservation organizations. This has enhanced working relationships in ways that promote larger landscape-level projects and has made the associated processes more efficient.
RSA has set an example of leadership, cooperation and community involvement that has inspired other ranching communities to develop their own landscape-level stewardship groups who also work with conservation and public land organizations to implement projects across private and public lands. The types of conservation projects promoted by RSA align with BLM goals and include: installation of fence modifications to allow migrating pronghorn to pass through; marking fences to reduce sage-grouse collisions; voluntary retention of prairie dog colonies; wetland retention and restoration and native grassland restoration; control of noxious weeds and non-native grasses; and implementation of grazing systems to improve rangeland cover for nesting grouse and songbirds.
The Public Lands Foundation is pleased to present the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, with its 2020 Landscape Stewardship Award and this Citation for invaluable contributions to the stewardship of America’s public landscapes.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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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 www.nfwf.org.