Making hay while sun shines in Montana
AFTER moving on from my first host family, I attended the American 4H Congress in Bozeman where I met up with nine of the other IFYE delegates from around the world.
In the USA the 4H is the equivalent of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster and Congress is similar to the annual YFCU Conference. During the opening ceremony all ten exchange students were individually introduced to the 4H members and following this, we attended the first social evening. The following two days were spent attending 4H workshops, western dances and visiting Virginia City in Nevada where we were given historic tours and took a railroad ride. That evening we attended ‘Music on Main’ which is a summer street music festival in Bozeman and the following day we all moved on to our next host families.
After an eight hour journey I arrived with the Phillips’ family in Helmville, Montana. In 1867 the Phillips’ family settled here after emigrating from Southern Ireland and since then they have expanded their ranch to approximately 5000 acres. They have 600 head of Simmental and Angus cattle, excluding calves, and they also annually rear 200 Brahma bucking bulls for the Montana rodeos. With three generations trying to make a living from this ranch, a member of each family has been forced into employment outside the family farm. Two are currently teaching at the Helmville school, which only has 14 pupils this year, and two are employed at another teaching facility 30 miles away. This employment is full time but all members of the family are expected to help on the ranch during their free time due to the heavy workloads involved.
Temperatures in Helmville were approximately 35 degrees during the summer months with only one inch of rainfall per month. These dry, humid conditions meant that irrigation was vital for ranchers as they needed to produce hay from their land. The cost of irrigation pivots begin at $40,000 and this only irrigates 60 acres, so for the Phillips’ family to irrigate their entire ranch this would cost them approximately $3.5 million. Much of their hay is on dryland, however they do irrigate 20% of their land which is mostly alfalfa. The month of June sees the beginning of their haying and this usually continues every day until September so the entire time I spent with the Phillips’ family we were haying. Due to the hot, dry weather haying began early each morning until approximately midday. It was then postponed until the temperatures decreased in the evening at approximately 8pm whenever haying then began again. Ranchers in Montana all have their own machinery so contractors are nonexistent. Therefore it was understandable why all family members were required to help, particularly as the Phillips’ family needed to make 6000 tons of hay this summer. Due to the drought, hay was costing approximately $225 a ton which many of the ranchers simply could not afford so again it was vital for them to produce as much as possible.
Although the Phillips’ family baled their hay, many neighbouring ranches still used the 1910 beaverslide invention in order to save resources. To use the beaverslide hay is placed in a basket and a team of horses or men pull a cable through a pulley which draws the hay into a stack. These stacks remain outdoors and are fenced off, meaning that ranchers do not require balers.
Weather is a huge obstacle for ranchers during haying and because of frequent lightning storms in the dry climate, fires were a common sight. Luckily none of the Phillips’ hay fields caught fire this year, but during my time in Montana there were nine forest fires with 377, 201 acres being burnt. This year in particular has seen the forest fires spreading more rapidly than usual as towards the end of 2011 the Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic struck Montana causing a large number of trees to be destroyed. These trees remain upright but dry out causing them to catch fire in an instant.
This drought in Montana has not only affected crops but has also reduced the weight of the beef heifers and steers. This year heifers averaged 537lbs whereas in 2011 they averaged 587lbs and steers have averaged 669lbs as opposed to 709lbs in 2011. These have all now been shipped to mid-west Montana to be fed out during the winter period, as winters in Helmville often see 30inches of snowfall within a two day period. Although Helmville winters are bad, unfortunately the Phillips’ family only has enough facilities to house newborn calves for a few hours. Hedges are nonexistent in Montana so shelter can rarely be found, leading to the loss of some of the herd.
Alongside weather, local wildlife also proved problematic. Gophers, flocks of cranes as well as elk and deer herds were very common and they ate, dug and trampled much of this years crop. Although it is legal to shoot these animals, they tended to appear in flocks or herds of over 100. Coyotes are also a major problem killing approximately 700 sheep in Montana each year. This is the key reason why the Phillips’ family refuse to keep them as in recent years they have put 200 ewes and lambs out to pasture and whilst housing them in winter, they had lost approximately 70% of the flock. Sheep farmers in Helmville now tend to take the flock out to pasture each morning and stay with them until they house them again each evening.
As well as being involved on the family ranch, I also helped the four young children of the family with their 4H projects. In the USA the rural youth do not just attend public speaking, stockjudging and floral art competitions but rather they must take at least one project each year. This year Sydney Phillips’ took the pig project which saw her raising two piglets from birth until they weighed 200lbs. She was required to keep track of its feeding and vaccinations and also had to walk the pigs every day in preparation for the 4H show where she had to show the pigs. She also had to attend an interview where she was asked 20 questions about her project and once she completed her project she received a badge which is similar to the YFCU proficiency scheme. Other projects included photography, shooting, crop production, hiking and sheep raising.
As well as being involved with all aspects of Montana agriculture, I also took time to visit some of the popular tourist destinations including an old style ranch, the county jail and the Lewis and Clark Caverns. I was also given many opportunities to try steer roping, go horse riding, go on some fishing trips, go canoeing and go rafting which were incredible experiences.
As I prepared to leave my second host family I realized that my exchange experience was actually coming to an end. Although I was heading on to other parts of the USA to travel on my own I knew that it would be very difficult to leave all my new friends behind. The beauty about going on the IFYE exchange programme is knowing that you will be treated as a member of the family no matter who you are. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in travel, meeting new people, learning about agriculture in other countries and having the time of their life. I would like to thank all those who have made this experience a possibility for me including Kerry Megrath at YFCU Headquarters and my sponsors McCollam Heating & Plumbing, Imagis, Greenville Electrical, the British Texel Sheep Society, Greenmount Country Stores, Kilcross Feeds, Clare Vet Group, Martin Supplies and the YFA. Without the help and support of these organisations my trip would not have been possible.
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Weather for Belfast
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: South west
Temperature: 12 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: South east