Change on The Range
Updated: Sep 26
Climate Change and Agriculture in Montana
Montana’s farmers and ranchers persist through frigid winters, long periods of drought, relatively short growing seasons and a constantly fluctuating market.
Even so, agriculture consistently leads Montana industries, bringing in about $4.6 billion dollars annually. This is almost $1.5 billion more than the state’s next leading industry, travel and tourism, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A warming climate is now impacting what is an already uncertain industry.
“It’s not an easy job for these ranchers to deal with this kind of environment,” says Tim DelCurto, Montana State University professor of animal and range science.
Montana producers say they are constantly adapting to changing weather patterns and the impacts on their land. Farmers have responded to changing conditions over the years by diversifying their crops. They have reduced soil tillage and planted cover crops. Some producers have also worked to minimize nitrogen, fertilizer, weed and pest control.
“We have always managed around change,” says Bruce Maxwell, professor and co-director of the Institute on Ecosystems, based at Montana State. “We are seeing farmers respond, and it makes sense; they are using a lot of logic there. In the same way, we should be thinking even more broadly about how we respond to some of these changing patterns.”
The Future of Change
Rising temperatures are expected to reduce snowpack, shift streamflow patterns, and result in additional stress on Montana’s water supply, especially during the summer and early fall, according to the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, a research document supported by the National Science Foundation and compiled by a group of scientists and professors from the University of Montana and Montana State University.
Historical observations from 1950 to 2015 show a shift toward earlier snowmelt and an earlier peak in spring runoff in the western parts of Montana. As traditional water sources dwindle, water users will be forced seek alternatives. These changes could lead to dwindling late-summer water availability and put pressure on groundwater sources
The rise in temperature is also expected to intensify the persistent drought periods that are a natural part of Montana’s climate.
“Montanans in the future are going to be living under more uncertain, more variable conditions,” says Hailey Wilmer, a social rangeland scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We are going to see more extreme weather events. There are also going to be extremely dry events across the board.”
Annual average temperatures, including daily minimums, maximums, and averages, have risen across the state between 1950 and 2015, per the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. According to data collected in the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, the recorded increases range between 2.0 to 3.0°F (1.1 to 1.7°C) during this period.
Montana is projected to continue to warm in all geographic locations, seasons, and under all emission scenarios throughout the 21st century. By mid-century, Montana temperatures are projected to increase by approximately 4.5 to 6.0°F overall, depending on the emission scenario.
In early October, a group of scientists, policy makers, ranchers and farmers came together in Bozeman in an effort to align climate-change research with on-the-ground needs in Montana’s agricultural industry. The event was sponsored by a non-partisan organization, The Burton K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University.
“In a world where climate variability adds complexity to our decision making, producers can be prepared through adaptation planning,” says Dominique Woodham, director of the Montana State University Extension climate science team. “This helps replace emotionally-fueled responses with thoughtful and controlled actions, empowering farmers and ranchers to take control of the uncertainty.”
Montana is the fourth largest state in the nation and its location exposes the state to a mix of diverse weather systems. Montana’s unique geography means that climate varies greatly across the state. Because of the state’s large number of micro-climates, each farm and ranch will be impacted differently by climate change.
Woodham encourages each producer to come up with a customized plan that incorporates a variety of potential scenarios to deal with changing conditions. “How you choose to prepare for extreme weather events and adapt to a variable climate is up to you. That will be unique to you and your operations – your goals, your craft, your available resources and your location.”
Rancher J.M. Peck owns Trapper Creek Ranch, a cow/calf operation first homesteaded in the late 1880s. His Melrose-based ranch produces hay, and his cattle graze on native ranges on deeded state lands.
“My grandfather would say, ‘Mother Nature is our boss.’” Peck says. “Climate variability has impacted my family as long as they have been in agriculture.”
Peck says he’s witnessed the climate changing during his lifetime. “The drought of 1999 to 2006 was especially hard in our area,” he says. A majority of the neighboring farms and ranches were forced to shut down as a consequence of that particular drought.
“The past three years have also been especially hard. 2019 was one of the worst winters ever. It had a huge effect upon us. Some of it I’m still dealing with today.”
Peck admits many people in his industry tend to work in the moment instead of formulating long-term plans.
“Sometimes we get stuck thinking about tomorrow and what our chores are. I think change sometimes comes hard for people in our industry,” he says. “We need to do something different. We need to find easier ways to do things.”
The rancher says he takes advantage of spring and fall grazing if the weather allows. “This year we got an early rain, so we went out to pasture early. We take advantage of opportunities. But just because something worked last year doesn’t necessarily mean it will work this year or next year,” Peck says.
Grain producer Vince Mattson has also been working to incorporate new and innovative farming practices in the past decade. His Chester-based operation has been integrating new and better wheat varieties. They’ve striven to increase organic matter in the soil, and are working to find more efficient ways to store water.
Mattson encourages his fellow producers “not to get caught up in the hype,” related to radical claims about global warming, but also by no means to ignore changes. “We do our part to be good stewards of the land. We do everything in our power to be sustainable,” he says.
Responding to Reality
Lyle Benjamin is the President of the Montana Grain Growers Association. He emphasizes that producers in his group are constantly responding to changes in market conditions, and to agronomic problems. “Farmers are not necessarily making a conscious effort to say, ‘You know the climate went up one degree this year, so I’m going to do this.’ They are responding to a range of things that are affecting our farms.”
“Farmers are doing things to be sustainable and successful many generations from now,” Benjamin says. “To me, sustainable means that a family is going to be living here 100 years from now. That means we haven’t hurt the land. We haven’t hurt the soil.” He insists that the solution to sustainable agriculture must also be profitable. “If we can’t make a profit, we won’t have a farm. There has to be a profitability.”
Stillwater County Agriculture and 4-H agent Lee Schmelzer has been working to address climate change and agriculture for nearly 20 years. “In 2000 to 2006 in Stillwater County we were basically in a ‘biblical drought’,” he recalls. The drought stretched through the center of Montana up to Liberty and Toole Counties, he says. “It was horrific. People didn’t know what to do.”
During that period, Schmelzer responded by working with producers to install more weather stations and other early-drought warning tools. He suggests that monitoring soil moisture and temperature trends can be helpful to prepare what he considers flash droughts, where crops can dry up in only a matter of days. “If we know what’s happening below ground, we can prevent it from sneaking up on us,” he says.
New Farmer’s Almanacs?
“Montana Mesonet” is a cooperative statewide soil moisture and meteorological information system being developed in conjunction with the University of Montana climate office to support decision-making in agriculture (http://climate.umt.edu/mesonet/).
Agricultural calendars can also provide timely information on planting, sowing and harvesting periods of locally adapted crops in specific zones. There are also several agricultural applications available on the internet that can be downloaded to smartphones.
Producers say an abundance of information coming from several different sources leads to confusion. While Montana Mesonet continues to develop statewide statistics, Montana producers express the need for a clearinghouse of agricultural data and tools that can be accessed easily and efficiently.
Stanley Bates is an agronomist at Big Sky Agriculture Consulting. He has several applications on his phone including Trimble Agriculture, OnXmaps and MyJohnDeere. Bates says he often has to analyze data from several different program languages to develop something that makes sense for the farmer – tasks that can fill most of the day. Lack of high-speed internet access is also a barrier for Montana farmers. Many farms and ranches across the state lack access to broadband internet services.
New technology such as drones and GPS monitoring can help producers cope with added stresses on the system. These technologies mean farmers no longer have to apply water, fertilizers, and pesticides uniformly across entire fields. Instead, they can use the minimum quantities required and target very specific areas, or even treat individual plants differently, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ranchers may well benefit from GPS services by making it easier to track the location of their cattle; this could help farmers identify sick cows earlier and reduce costs of labor. MSU professor Maxwell suggests that incorporating new technology and farming methods and monitoring the results can help make producers “better gamblers.”
Lee Schmelzer concurs with Maxwell. Farmers should document the successes and failures of whatever methods they employ to garner support from researchers and policy makers, he says.
“There are always changes year-to-year. How can we use these changes to address larger trends and give a bigger picture?”
Agriculture economist Anton Bekkermann says that ongoing communication with Montana producers is key to the success of the state’s agriculture industry. “Researchers and policy makers need to have conversations with producers to make sure their ideas are mutually beneficial,” he says.
One of rangeland scientist Hailey Wilmer’s main goals is to get scientists and producers working together.
“The two worlds don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye,” she says. “But the common ground that scientists and producers have is the idea of the future. They have a common interest in sustaining the viability of their communities and ecosystems. They are just going about it in different ways.”
MSU Climate Change Extension Agent Dominique Woodham sums up the situation in this fashion: “The research says there will be extremes, and we will need to deal with it. There will be unprecedented uncertainty.”
“The complexity of working within the natural world and within agriculture will increase,” Woodham adds. “But the agricultural scene is filled with innovative and creative minds and optimistic people and we are all resilient. Natural resources and agriculture will be part of the solution.”
The Montana Climate Assessment is available in full, in digital format at montanaclimate.org.
The USDA produced the 2017 Adaptation Resources for Agriculture, available at
Further Resources Include:
High Plains Regional Climate Center
Regional source for climate data
National Drought Mitigation Center
Archive of U.S. Drought Monitor
USDA National Resources
Snowpack monitoring provided by SNOTEL
U.S. Geological Survey
Streamflow conditions and maps
Photo credits: www.visitmt.com