By Matt B. Walen
Hi-Line agricultural producers have seen many changes on the farms and ranches across northcentral Montana through the decades. Gone are the days of back-breaking work with horse-drawn plows and weeks of cattle drives across the harsh prairie lands of Montana.
Major technological improvements have helped keep agriculture abreast of the times.
Technology has made raising cattle and grains much easier along the Hi-Line and at the forefront of securing this technology have been the scientists at the Northern Agricultural Research Center near Havre.
Don Anderson, the superintendent of the center since 1975, said the modes of operations on the Hi-Lines numerous farms and ranches have definitely changed from the horse-and-plow days to the big tractors and monster combines. And so has the cost of operating a place, he said.
Technology has played an important role in the improvements made in the agricultural industry, he said.
Technological advancements in agriculture has helped area producers stay competitive in the world market. Staying competitive in the world market begins with the research gathered at the Havre station, Anderson said.
The research center is a part of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station headquartered at Montana State University. The center was established in 1915 on the site of what was once Fort Assinniboine, a military post established in the 1880s. The goal of its researchers is to serve Montana farmers and ranchers by seeking more profitable ways to produce, market and use agricultural products.
The ag station feels the pinch of the market, too, Anderson said. But it is funded by federal, state and corporate grants to help offset the costs for gleaning knowledge.
Funding was first approved for the station in 1913 and the research first started in 1915 when a steam engine was rented from the Hi-Line and broke ground for farming, Anderson said. That was the start of 84 continuous years of dryland farming research at the facility, he said.
The livestock research started in 1917 when 30 head of high-grade cattle were purchased from a Virgelle rancher and trailed north to the research center, Anderson said. The cows purchased were probably a straight Hereford breed, he said.
Eight decades later, the personnel at the research center have built the herd to 500 of mixed breed cattle. The research gained through the decades has shown that mixed breeds may be the best for the harsh Hi-Line environment, Anderson said.
The research conducted at the station and at Miles City has helped build herds that do better in the high-stress environment of Montana, Anderson said. Now most of the commercial people have cross breeds, he said.
Other improvements the scientists have contributed over the years include:
- Cropping techniques allow the production of 1.7 bushels/acre more spring wheat per inch of available water than earlier techniques;
- Beef production is optimized by suiting the size and type of cattle to the type of range they will be on bigger is not always more profitable;
- Wheat varieties respond to fertilization differently, so variety selection and fertility programs need to be coordinated;
- Beef producers can breed for both low birth weight and higher weaning weight by careful sire selection;
- Soils produce different variety responses in the same field. It may be profitable to plant different varieties on contrasting soil units of manageable size;
- Crossbred cows increase milk production and calf production under north central Montana range condition;
- Grassland production can be increased using techniques developed at Havre.
Torlief S. Aasheim, as a scientist at the station in 1940s, helped create a new technique to battle wind erosion and end the era of the Dirty 30s chemical fallow. He started the use of chemicals on summer fallow to control weeds and reduce wind erosion at some of the plots at the Havre station.
A sprayer, complete with a gasoline pump engine and a folding boom with a 33-foot range, was installed on the back of an old truck frame.
Aasheims new process worked. The weeds died, moisture remained in the fallow plots, and the top soil stayed in place.
The process took some getting used to, said Aasheim, who was honored during the 1997 Fields of Tomorrow celebration at the station. The revolutionary idea started to grow with area producers and some used it into their operations.
Other fertilizing techniques have been created at the station through the years, Anderson said. Technology has changed the way farming is conducted with air seeders that pump the seed into the ground without breaking the soil compared to the old-fashioned plow and shovels, he said.
The new technology the air seeders offer helps keep the limited, precious moisture locked in the ground, Anderson said.
Another important program being conducted at the station by Dan Long is GPS, which uses satellites to map key fields for growing patterns or weed growth, Anderson said.
Long has been conducting the experiments for the past six years and is starting to collect some data that are bearing results of a successful program.
The GPS is also being used to track cattle and their grazing patterns, Anderson said. The idea behind finding out which breeds of cows and where they prefer to graze may help save water areas, he said.
But with any brand of new technology comes a staggering cost and with the GPS cow collars comes a price tag of $4,000 apiece, Anderson said.
Computers and upgrades in technology have helped with the data sorting and analysis at the station, Anderson said.
We used to do everything by hand, he said. The information was collected and then sent to Montana State University in Bozeman when the data was sorted and analyzed.
Bozeman had the lone computer until all of the research sites received a super brain computer, Anderson said. Now, the center has seen its fair share of computer upgrades, he said.
You dont decrease the workload with the computers because we analyze everything, he said. We do all of the data analysis here at the station.
The big variable in any kind of research is the variable year, a year where that isnt the norm for the environment, Anderson said. Thats why we dont like to use one years data alone, he said.
Area producers sometimes come up with innovative inventions to help ease wear and tear on their equipment.
Loran Perry of Fort Benton is one such producer.
Perry, of Perry Points, invented chrome-alloy points that fit over plow shovels. The chrome alloy allows for extending the life of the steel shovels used to plow summer fallow and stubble fields.
Ive been a farmer all of my life and thought there has got to be a better way to make things last longer, he said during the 1997 Fields of Tomorrow event.
The result of his brainstorming plan was the chrome-alloy points that really added life to his shovels, Perry said. The added life reduced the costs of replacing the shovels, he said.
Isabel Bitz, 82, has seen a lot of changes on the Bitz operation during the past 50 years.
The Bitz operation, located just outside Box Elder, includes 400 head of Black Angus cows and 2,500 acres of winter wheat, barley and oats. Her husband, Herb, died in 1987 and her son, Donald, and his family run the operation.
The changes Bitz said she has seen on the operation over the years include bigger machinery, including a Big Bud tractor, crop rotations and use of fertilizer. Bitz said they also used some of their land for haying to feed the cows in the winter. The Bitzes also have pasture land north of Havre for the herd to graze in the summer months.
Between the cattle and the wheat, it keeps us busy, she told the Daily News recently. Now that Im retired, I still do a lot of work. Im still active in the operation and help with the flagging when equipment is moved.