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Black angus cattle grazing on the range on a Montana cattle ranch

(The Center Square) – Every little bit of advantage helps Montana ranchers, so opening up another 8,100 acres of state Wildlife Management Areas for haying or grazing could be a boon for a few of them.

“Obviously this drought has been really hard for farmers and ranchers, and just being able to ensure that they can get hay, keep their herd, is one of the larger challenges with this drought,” Rachel Cone, director of State Affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, told The Center Square.

Gilles Stockton, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, said he did some rough calculations and figured that this proposal would provide enough feed to maintain 2,900 head of cattle for four months.

“Given that there are in the neighborhood of 1.4 million cattle in Montana, this is a drop in the bucket. Even though for those producers who stand to benefit, it could very well save their butts,” he told The Center Square.

Another benefit is that the hoof action of the grazing cattle will reseed the grasses. Areas that are chronically under grazed by large ungulates – hoofed mammals – tend to degrade, Stockton said.

It also can help prevent fires and improve the quality of grasses in the following year. That’s not a bad thing, he said, and for nearby ranchers it can be a good thing.

“It's certainly better to hay it or graze it than have it burned down,” Stockton said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks proposed expanding haying and grazing to another 8,100 acres of public land.

“It's just giving us that much more opportunity to be able to feed our livestock and make sure that they can make it through the year before farmers and ranchers might have to make the tough choice to liquidate some of their herd,” Cone said.

Montana hasn't seen much precipitation since October until recent days.

“It's actually raining today and it rained yesterday, and I've heard from a couple of our members today, but they've got about, like, about an inch of rain the past couple of days, which is really good,” Cone said.

But the lack of rain has meant people haven’t been able to hay or get a good yield of hay. That hurt everyone from farmers, who makes a living off hay, to the ranchers raising cattle. The cost of hay may be the deciding factor on whether they liquidate or not, she said.

“The full impact hasn't hit yet because most people are able to work. We're getting into the season where we're going to be weaning the calves, and then comes a decision: Do you sell them other cows, or do you buy extremely expensive feed to winter them? And if you buy the feed, do you know where you are going to get it?” Stockton said.

If you sell the mother cows you've essentially sold your factory, he said. In that case, a rainy spring and a more normal year in 2022 would leave the rancher with no cows and no place to get them “because everybody at them up as hamburger,” he said. If a rancher spends tens of thousands of dollars on feed to keep the cows and then it doesn’t rain in the spring, they are in worse shape than when they started.

“It's not going to feed every calf in the state. I think there's more cows in Montana than there are people. But it certainly will help and it'll help the people who are able to take advantage of it and in close proximity to it or are able to have access to it,” Cone said.