Understanding Montana

October 12, 2022

Montana is the fourth largest state and has one of the lowest populations in the United States.  It is fondly nicknamed the Big Sky State.  Besides the broad expanse of sky, there is something for everyone – from mountains to plains, towering forests to open grasslands, elevations from 1800 feet to 12,799 feet, and vibrant cities to sleepy small towns and even ghost towns.

We’ve had some interesting questions from farm and ranch buyers in the past few months.  Before looking for a farm or ranch in Montana, it is helpful to have an overview of the Big Sky State.  The State of Montana is naturally separated into very different geographic regions and offers a variety of precipitation levels, timber types, dryland crops, irrigated crops, native pasture, irrigated pasture, temperatures, mountains, plains and growing seasons. Price points are very different in each of these different areas.  Animal Unit Month capacities per acre and potential crop yield also vary greatly.  Montana’s greatest attribute is its diversity. 

Every part of the state provides opportunities in agriculture and truly offers something for everyone.

The Northwest portion of Montana has, without a doubt, the highest annual precipitation. Mountainous landscapes with plenty of timber, productive grass pasture and irrigated wild hay meadows create valuable agricultural opportunities and support a large timber industry.

North Central and Northeast Montana are home to the majority of the state’s dryland wheat production. There are some irrigated farms and lots of rolling grasslands for pasture. Here the price per acre is generally much lower than the west side of the state which correlates with lesser animal unit months and less crop production per acre on dryland farms.  The mountain ranges are smaller and spread further apart, however, the Missouri River Breaks and their unique geography add complexity and beauty to this area.  “The Breaks” are a rugged series of badland areas characterized by rock outcroppings, steep bluffs, and grassy plains and are home to many of Montana’s wildlife species.

Southwest Montana is another mountainous area with more wide open spaces. Although a bit more arid, this area is known for huge tracts of native and mountain pasture. In this neck of the woods, sprinkler irrigated farm ground is also very prevalent. Alfalfa, wheat, and barley are common crops with a fair amount of seed potato farms. Many operations here are divided into summer and winter places. The cattle spend all summer in the native and mountain pasture while the lower elevation winter place is irrigated and the hay put up to supplement the herd during the winter months. The cattle are brought down in the late fall and put on the farm ground where they calve.

Central Montana, we’ll call it the Lewistown area, is very similar to Southwest Montana in many ways. This area is mountainous with similar pasture, irrigation, and farming practices.

Southeast Montana offers another totally different aspect of Montana. This area is greatly affected by the Yellowstone River Corridor with lower elevations and longer growing seasons. Here, large tracts of grasslands and native pasture provide excellent grazing. These irrigated farms produce many products such as corn, sugar beets and lentils.

There are excellent operations found in every region – having a basic understanding of how your desired operation might fit in an area is key.  At 18 Land Company we have spent our lives in Montana and are very knowledgeable about the entire state. We can provide you with the knowledge to help decide which area is best for you and your operation. Please call or email to get the conversation started.


If you have questions or would like to talk to one of us about land in Southwest Montana, we welcome you to contact Keith Handlos at 406.988.0055 or keith@18landco.com

For more about 18 Land Company and investing in or operating a farm or ranch, check out:

Why You Should Invest in Rural Property

What to Look For When Vetting a Land Broker 

How to Start a Successful Ranching or Farming Operation 

18 Land Company Land Concierge Services

About 18 Land Company