Ranching – taking care of the soil, growing grass and raising livestock – has been the heart of Southwest Montana since our state’s inception. But as Gallatin and Park counties have grown, so has the diversity of economic opportunities. Many kids who grew up on the ranch find it tempting to leave the family homestead and find a job in rapidly growing Bozeman. It makes sense: a growing business scene powered by technology companies, outdoor clothing/gear companies, and a mind blowing number of non-profits provide fulfilling careers. It would seem Montana’s longstanding ranching tradition is under threat of extinction.
I beg to differ. I propose a new paradigm, one in which the number of ranchers in Southwest Montana is actually rapidly expanding. There is no lack of ranchers; there is merely a misconception of what it means to be one. I’ll explain --
Webster defines a ranch as “a farm or area devoted to a particular specialty”. Before you get caught up in thinking there has to be cows or barbed wire fence, try to think about it more simply. A ranch is an area devoted to a particular specialty. This could be 2,000 acres in Paradise Valley or 2,000 square feet on South 3rd. They are both doing the exact same thing: growing grass. While one might feed it to cows, the other chops it up and feeds it to the microbes. They are both in the business of ranching and their particular specialty is growing grass. It’s not that ranchers as a group are getting smaller. It’s that the size of the average ranch is getting smaller.
Now that every lawn owner knows they are also a rancher, it is time we started ranching as responsibly as possible. Massive marketing campaigns sponsored by the chemical lawn care industry have sold us practices that are destroying our tiny ranches. Conventional fertilizer and chemical weed controls poison the beneficial bacteria, protozoa, nematodes and earthworms living in the soil. Watering lightly and infrequently, such as every day or every other day, drowns those same creatures. Mowing shorter than three inches stresses the turf and creates shallow roots. The microbiology in our soil has a symbiotic relationship with grass roots and depends on them being deep and healthy. The key to good ranching is good soil. The key to good soil is a well-informed and responsible rancher.
I would never blame anyone for ranching irresponsibly. Up until you read this article, you probably didn’t even realize you were a rancher. That said, now that you know, it’s time to get started down the path of responsible and holistic ranching. Ranching is our way of life and it is time we all start taking care of our soil as best we can. Your tiny ranch will thank you.