How to Start a Successful Montana Ranching or Farming Operation

may 1, 2020
Gazing at sweeping Southwest Montana landscapes of fields dotted with cattle and wheat farms that disappear into the horizon, it’s easy to imagine running your own farm or ranch. But first, there’s a lot to learn about the cattle business, ranch planning, ranch management practices and Montana farming and crops.

 

With decades of combined Southwest Montana farming and ranching experience under our belts, we would like to share with you some of the best tips we’ve received and lessons we have learned along the way. In this blog post, we will offer some thoughts on how to start a successful Southwest Montana farm or ranch operation.

Meet Nate and David

18 Land Company Owner Nate Finch grew up on a Wyoming ranch. While he could run a tractor and ride a horse from an early age, it wasn’t until he was much older that he learned about the business of running a ranch.

After college and some time spent running another business, Nate and his wife moved to Dillon, Montana to start their own ranch operation. They chose Dillon because they liked the area and its people. In Beaverhead County, agriculture is part of daily life and the infrastructure exists to support farms and ranches. While Nate admits it’s not necessary to the success of a farm or ranch to be surrounded by such a community, it sure helps.

18 Land Company Owner David Schuett was raised on his family’s farm in Wisconsin where they raised cattle and grew crops. David was interviewing for veterinary school in the 1970s when he was asked why he wanted to attend vet school. His answer: so he could own his own farm some day. Years later, David moved to Dillon and purchased his first Montana farm land from a friend.

Today, David owns Schuett Farms in Dillon, producing cattle, barley, wheat and hay. He also runs a number of other successful businesses in the Dillon area.

Here are five tips from Nate and David on how to start a successful Montana ranch land operation.

1. Ask Questions

Starting out, Nate knew successful people in Dillon that he trusted. He wasn’t afraid to ask them for help. 

“That was the biggest thing I did. I wasn’t too proud to ask for help,” Nate said. “They were kind enough to be honest and open. They gave me good advice.”

This includes talking to the ranch’s previous owners. You don’t need to do things the way the previous owners did them, but there’s no doubt that they will be able to provide you with some valuable information.

As a buyer, it may be intimidating to walk up to someone and ask for help when searching for farm property for sale. But remember, everyone had to start somewhere. Asking questions and getting help early on can prevent potential mistakes, possibly save money and maybe even establish a long-term bond. One of the people Nate asked advice from early on was David. Today, they are friends and partners at 18 Land Co.

2. Learn the Area

This is important whether you are new to ranching and farming or just moving to a new area.

Coming from the Midwest, David stresses understanding the importance of water. His biggest challenge moving from the Midwest to Montana was understanding how irrigation worked, including water rights and irrigation equipment. The most important thing on any ranch is water, according to David.

Other factors to consider when buying a farm or ranch in the Mountain West are the weather and elevation. With only about 60 to 70 frost-free days, there are a lot of crops that do not grow here.

Another way to learn the area is to talk to other ranchers. This goes back to our first point, but a lot can be learned about a particular area by talking to people. David suggests looking around to see who is the most successful farmer or rancher in the area to ask for help. Looking at a land management or farming operation in Montana can give you a lot of insight into its success. Especially if you don’t already have in-person connections, take a look around to see who is doing it right, then introduce yourself and ask some questions.

3. Run the Ranch Like a Business

Because so much of farming and ranching deals in a commodity market, you won’t have much control over the prices you receive for your products. What you do control are your input costs. Therefore, to create profitability you must try to drive your costs down.

Having a background in business isn’t necessary, but it is helpful to treat your farming or ranching operation like the business that it is.

 

4. Think Outside the Box

When looking for ways to cut costs, don’t be afraid to think differently. Just because something has been done one way for generations, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.

When David first started his operation in Southwest Montana, he spent the first four or five years putting up hay to feed the cattle through the winter. Because of the mild winter in many of the valleys of Southwest Montana, he was able to pasture his cattle on the crop aftermath for the entire winter without feeding hay. With good stock water and fencing to control the grazing pattern, the cattle have flourished. The hay then became a cash crop to sell to area ranchers and all over the country. This eliminated the costly and time-consuming practice of putting up hay and feeding it to the cattle throughout the winter. And, it provided a new revenue source.

5. Get Help

If you are not experienced in ranching or if you are coming into a new operation in a climate you are not familiar with, you can waste a lot of time and money through trial and error. Having the right people on your side will help set you up for success.

Depending on how you run your operation, you will need to hire people to help you, whether it’s a ranch manager or laborers. Especially if you don’t plan to reside on the ranch and work it yourself full time, you will need someone to help you find the right people to assure your Montana land management is under control. The people that you hire will be crucial to the success of the business.

If you would like to know more, contact the 18 Land Co. team. We offer a variety of land concierge services, from Montana land management to consulting, that can get your farm or ranch off the ground or help improve an existing operation.

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