Montana Range Days
Tomorrow's ranchers have fun while exploring science from the ground up.
Story and photos by Tom Daubert
Grazing cattle are a common part of the scenery on rangelands around Malta, Mont. But on the third week in June, instead of cows, there'll be small groups of children roaming the grasslands. Hundreds of them, ages four through high school, will gather in clusters, grouped by age. At times they'll separate, strung out in lines across hillsides. Some will crouch down, inspecting plants and making notes. Later, a whistle will blow, and the kids on one hill will trade with those on another. But for the sound of wind and breeze, and the occasional whistle telling them to move to the next station, there will be silence all morning.
This is the final morning of "Montana Range Days." Long after the regular school year has ended, when most could be playing with friends back home, these children are taking a test. But it isn't a formal school and it isn't at all boring. Instead, it's three days busy with learning, combined with fun and entertainment for the whole family.
Now in its 28th year, this annual event for ranch families-and especially for their children-teaches the science that underlies modern-day ranching. Every two years the event moves to a new location. Over time, this makes it possible for Montana Range Days to be a relatively local event a few times during the childhood and adolescence of virtually every young, future rancher in Montana. Malta hosts the event for a second time this year, and in 2005 Montana Range Days will start a two-year stint based in Park County's Livingston.
"Land management practices should be based on science, not emotion," says Taylor Brown of the Northern Broadcasting System (which many Montanans refer to as the "Northern Ag Network"). "That's what Montana Range Days is all about, helping the next generation of ranchers learn the things they'll need to know. When these kids graduate from high school, they'll know more about this stuff than I did as a college graduate."
Brown knows what he's talking about. He was involved when Sam Short, a range conservationist with the USDA's Soil Conservation Service, founded the first Montana Range Days back in 1977. For the past 24 years, Brown's radio network has been the primary sponsor of the program, working with the volunteers in local host conservation districts across the state.
"Look at this," he exclaims, pointing to children grouped on a hill in the distance. "These kids could be anywhere else right now. But instead they choose to have this kind of fun, learning about plants and range and grazing management. It's just tremendous."
Brown's enthusiasm could be called infectious, except for the fact that over the course of a weekend observing the goings, on, it becomes clear that it is the fun and camaraderie-the experience of Range Days itself-that feeds its participants' excitement.
It begins on a Monday afternoon as cars, pickups and vans from all over the state converge at Malta High School. A field next to the school auditorium quickly turns into a campground filled with tents for children aged four to 84. (Most are in their teens.) Many greet friends from across the state whom they haven't seen since last year's Range Days.
A few miles down the road, the event's teachers and organizers have turned a hillside into an outdoor identification laboratory, where flags mark the variety of range plants the students will learn more about this week. As evening approaches, busloads of parents and children visit this area, to begin learning how to identify the plants they may not have encountered yet back home. Later, everyone converges back at the high school for a barbeque. It is soon after eating that the first formal event of the program begins: a range-related public speaking competition involving, generally, the older, high school-aged students giving "illustrated talks" complete with PowerPoint presentations.
After breakfast on Tuesday, participants break into groups based on age. "Beginning Buckaroos" are the youngest and smallest, ranging from four to eight. Then there are the "Superstarters" (ages 9-11), the "Wranglers" (ages 12-13), "Youth" (ages 14-19) and "Adult." After a brief orientation, everyone loads onto buses that take them to the day's outdoor school, a nearby ranch that has donated its pastures for the purpose.
Here, all morning and afternoon, the students attend a series of revolving outdoor workshops on subjects central to smart, science-based ranching. The workshops are tailored to the different age groups, with the most sophisticated sessions for the older groups. One group learns about plant anatomy while another focuses on plant identification; one group learns how to inventory and monitor a pasture's vegetation while another learns how to determine sustainable stocking rates on a particular pasture, or how to assess the nature of a site's soils and how soil types should affect livestock management decisions.
The teachers are experts-and most all of them are volunteers-from agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management and Montana State University-Bozeman's Animal and Range Science Department. At noon, all the teaching temporarily stops for a special lamb barbeque that the organizers have prepared with roasts and supplies donated by local ranchers and businesses. In Malta, Range Days has become a community-wide event, with the only local radio station in the county, KMMR-FM, talking about it all weekend and inviting everyone to attend the Tuesday evening banquet.
That night, the banquet draws a large crowd, and is followed by a hoedown dance for the kids and their parents. Organizers this year are hoping for weather as nice and cloudless as it was in 2003, to allow for dancing under the stars after a busy day at "school."
After Wednesday's breakfast and another quick assembly, everyone again loads onto buses for the ride to the previously undisclosed Range Days' testing grounds. Here, on pastures the participants haven't seen before, they again find flags marking plants they're asked to identify. Other stations in the process test what they've learned about soils, stocking rates and other issues of importance to ranching success. Most of the morning is spent this way, children excitedly moving from one test location to another, completing their score sheets in silence under the watchful eyes of adults who monitor the contests. As the sun rises and the day's warmth builds, a table with cookies and refreshments becomes a steadily more popular stopping place.
And then, the testing period comes to an end, and the buses again take everyone back to the high school for lunch. The climactic event is an awards ceremony. There are winners in every age group, "but everyone here is a winner," one parent says, and her daughter agrees: "We have a lot of fun here. The whole thing makes learning fun."
The adults seem to have at least as good a time as their children. Besides the fulfillment of watching kids enthuse about the science of ranching, Montana Range Days offers adults day-long tours that are entertaining and interesting in their own right. With Malta being a virtual capital of Montana's dinosaur country, one tour focuses on area dinosaur digs and the local museum, whose paleontologic displays rival those of major American cities. Phillips County also borders historically important Lewis and Clark country; the Corps of Discovery came through on the Missouri River near here roughly 199 years before this year's event.
In the year 2105, Montanans will celebrate the tercentennial of the passage of Lewis and Clark. Will Montana Range Days then be celebrating its 129th year? Those who have attended would be likely to answer with a qualified "yes." They might say that if ranching itself survives to the year 2105, the odds are high not only that Range Days will still be ongoing-but that it was Range Days that played a significant role in the survival of Montana ranching.
Tom Daubert is a writer based in Helena, Mont. To learn more about the 2004 Montana Range Days in Malta, June 21-23, check for informational updates on the Internet site, http://www.MontanaRangeDays.com, call the Malta USDA office: 406-654-1334, Ext. 3, or e-mail email@example.com.
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