Photo by Montana Cowgirl Photography

By Cassie Gasvoda

When asked to write a short article on the importance of cattle production to Montana I was hesitant. The system is too large, too intricate, and the benefits extend beyond Big Sky Country. I could share the facts and figures, like how there are three cows to every person in Montana, and we are ranked number six in the nation for cattle production. Or how cattle is our largest ag export right after wheat. If you really want to get technical, we could explore the number of jobs that are created by industries that support cattle production, like fertilizer, feed, large implements, and hauling services.

Beyond the economic impact, we of course have to consider cattle production from an environmental standpoint. Cows are actually an amazing resource in the fight against climate change, when properly managed. Good grazing practices are a vital tool in the prevention of wildfires while also preventing
erosion, thereby protecting both our soil and water. Cattle are also important to the food system because they are raised on land that is not suitable for crop production, allowing us to sustainably utilize acres that otherwise could not produce food. What must also be considered, though, is what we get from beef cattle beyond—well, beef. We are able to utilize 99% of a cow to make things like insulin, medications, cosmetics, leather products, dish soap, and crayons, just to name a few.

But while these factors are important, there’s another to consider here. And that is the rich culture and heritage that is cattle ranching in Montana. Cattle production is a job unlike any other. In fact, it’s more than a job; it’s a lifestyle. Ranches are almost always family owned and operated, with the land and knowledge passed down through generations. Cowboys and day-workers have their own unique social behaviors, language, and even art. From music and poetry to intricately designed and decorated tools of the trade, cattlemen and cowboys really are a breed all their own. And cowboy culture in Montana adds to the rich diversity of our nation as a whole.