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The Key to This Ranch’s Successful Grazing Strategy? People!

When we talk about grazing management, we usually think about how to manage livestock, and we think of forage and the soil below it. But there’s one more factor to consider – people – and that’s the key to the success of Bill and Dana Milton.

Bill and Dana Milton. Photo courtesy of the Sand County Foundation

The Miltons raise Angus cattle on 15,000 acres of private and public land on the sagebrush plains of Musselshell County, Montana. Their grazing management is based on principles they learned at a Savory workshop in 1984. Pastures are intensively grazed for a short amount of time, before allowing native plants to recover and go to seed. But, what makes their grazing system unique is it’s being done on Public Land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

As now retired BLM manager David Jaynes writes in a description of the grazing system, “Creating innumerable small pastures and boundary fences so each pasture could be intensively grazed, and making this fit the BLM billing system for grazing use, was diametrically opposed to BLM management principles and administrative capabilities. Experiments in grazing management are the realm of universities and experiment stations, not the BLM.”

So, how was the BLM able to work through its system to help make this possible? “The Miltons’ infectious enthusiasm for attempting to implement this method, along with their dedication to involving everyone in the process from state and federal government agencies to interested individuals, built the trust of the team members,” says Jaynes. “They convinced Karl Hedrick, Range Conservationist in the Billings BLM Field Office, and a couple of years later me, to adjust the BLM grazing administrative system to accommodate the Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing method and give it a try.”

Giving it a try meant people working together. “Everyone was (and still is) involved and looked forward to reviewing ranch operations to produce the best results for the land and the Milton family,” Jaynes says. “There are annual monitoring and planning meetings, discussion of successes and failures in current management, field trips and always an exceptional lunch. Cohesion and trust between team members grew with the understanding that everyone’s mission was the same – manage the land for the benefit of the vegetation, wildlife and watershed while providing a profitable and sustainable livestock operation.”

The Miltons have worked with many third party monitoring groups over the years. Without their assistance, they wouldn’t have all the data they need to help them make management decisions. This is a group of lichenologists that visited the ranch. Photo courtesy of the Milton Ranch Facebook page.

The result is 20 years of data describing the health of the grasslands. This information is used to guide grazing management and infrastructure development. Changes include reductions in herd size during drought to protect soils and vegetation, new water tanks and pipelines to reduce disturbance to streams, water sources and the vegetation surrounding them. They’ve also worked on wildlife friendly fencing and escape ramps in water troughs for smaller wildlife.

The experiment that the Miltons and the Bureau of Land Management began together has been going on for close to thirty years now with, as David Jaynes notes, “great success and many lessons learned over an extended time-frame that will benefit grazing management for the future.”

You can meet Bill and Dana Milton and visit their ranch in the 4:42 video below. They talk about how they raise and market their beef, and how they manage their landscape. The video comes to us from the Sand County Foundation to celebrate the Milton’s 2019 Leopold Conservation Award. The award recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by private landowners, inspires countless other landowners by example and provides a prominent platform by which agricultural community leaders are recognized as conservation ambassadors to citizens outside of agriculture. We hope you’re inspired!

Resources to Help You Down a Similar Path

The Milton Ranch website includes more about their history and natural resource base.

If you’re interested in how the Miltons market their beef, you can visit the Country Natural Beef website. Explore their different brands and their guiding principles, and learn about joining. GAP certification is one of the hallmarks of the brand. Good Agricultural Practices is a USDA certification program. We’ll be sharing more on that in future issues.

As a follow up to this article, I spoke with folks at the BLM about what it takes to make such outside-the-box adjustments. I’ll be sharing more information on the system that BLM staff work within and what kinds of adjustments may or may not be possible. If you have specific thoughts or questions, do share them with me so that I can include them in my research and article.

How do you work with this many people effectively and successfully? My husband, Peter Williams, has made this his life’s work. In future issues, he’ll be sharing how-to articles on this topic and I’ll be including my own tips and hints from my years as a liaison between federal agencies and farmers and ranchers.

As always, when an article brings up “how-to” questions for you, tell us. It’s easier to give you the information you need when you let us know just what that is.

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