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Tough conditions, tough producers: Eastern Montana agriculture thrives in rugged conditions

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Wyoming Livestock Roundup is excited to highlight farms, ranches and agribusinesses throughout eastern Montana in this 2021 Winter Cattlemen’s Edition. 

Montana became the 41st state to join the union in 1889, and during this time the state began emerging as one of the country’s leading copper-mining and agricultural centers. Today, Montana’s agriculture and natural resources play a huge role in the state’s economy. 

Contrasting landscapes 

One of the most powerful geographic features in the state of Montana is the contrasting landscape between the east and west. 

In fact, the western two-fifths of Montana fall within the Rocky Mountains, where the land consists of high peaks and deep valleys. The eastern three-fifths, on the other hand, lie upon the Great Plains – a vast sweep of rangelands and grain fields. 

Great Plains Montana is semiarid, with hot summers and cold winters. The average annual precipitation is scant and total snowfall is light, although frost or freezing occurs more than 200 days of the year.  

The chinook, a warm winter wind blowing through the plains near the base of the Rockies, periodically interrupts the bitter cold for which Montana is notorious.  

Most of the Great Plains stretches across rather rough land, including scattered hills, austere uplands and rugged badlands. Producers here are no stranger to tough conditions, yet they continue producing some of the leading agricultural products in the nation. 

Agriculture and the economy  

Montana’s agriculture industry generates nearly $4 billion in agricultural cash receipts each year. 

Nearly 62.4 percent, or 58.1 million acres, make up agricultural land in the state, a number ranking second in the nation behind Texas. This land is home to 26,800 farms and ranches, averaging 2,164 acres in size. 

Beef cattle, sheep, grain, sugarbeets, potatoes and fruit are produced on irrigated farms in the broad, dry valleys of Rocky Mountain Montana and a few other areas scattered throughout the Great Plains.  

Wheat and barley are grown on large dryland grain farms throughout northeastern Montana and the Golden Triangle.  

The majority of the rest of the state is rangeland and used for the production of beef cattle and sheep. 

The value of agriculture production in Montana is $4.38 billion. The value of crop production comes in at $2,045,351, while the value of animal product production is $41,544,080. 

National rankings 

Montana’s agriculture industry boasts several national top 10 rankings. 

Montana is ranked number one in the nation for garbanzo beans, lentils, dry edible peas and alfalfa hay. Every year, the state harvests 5,138,000 hundredweight (cwt) of garbanzo beans, 3,354,000 cwt of lentils, 10,150,000 cwt of dry edible peas and 15,171,025 tons of alfalfa hay. Montana accounts for 41 percent of all dry peas and 35 percent of all lentils produced in the U.S. annually. 

The state is ranked second in the nation for barley, with 44,840,000 bushels harvested annually. This number accounts for 23 percent of all barley produced in the U.S.  

Other products ranking second include canola, with 200,100,00 pounds harvested annually, flaxseed, with 1,335,000 bushels harvested annually and wheat, with 217,725,000 bushels harvested annually.  

Montana also comes in second for agricultural land acreage and the average size of farms. 

Additionally, Montana comes in fourth in honey production and fifth in all hay and sugarbeets. The state produces 14,878,000 pounds of honey, 6,225,000 tons of hay and 1,153,000 tons of sugarbeets annually. 

Montana also ranks in the top 10 for beef cows, breeding sheep and lambs, wool production, all sheep and lambs, cows and calf crop. 

Information in this article was compiled from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service and the Montana Department of Agriculture. 

Hannah Bugas is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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