Montana Cattlemen looking ahead in 2015 | TSLN.com

Montana Cattlemen looking ahead in 2015

Laura Nelson
for Tri-State Livestock News

When more than 800 cattlemen and women gathered in December for the Montana Stockgrowers Association's (MSGA) annual convention, "every cowboy in the room had a smile on his face," Gene Curry laughed.

Curry, who was elected as the association's president at the Billings, Mont., meeting, said record cattle prices, good grass and favorable weather conditions in 2014 led to abounding optimism when the organization gathered. The trade show at the convention was sold out of vendor spots, the Valier, Mont., rancher noted, and the auction of "priority pages" in the organization's cattle directory set a record for high bidding.

"You could just feel a lot of enthusiasm out there," Curry said.

Sand Springs, Mont., rancher Travis Brown stepped up as chairman for the Young Stockgrowers' committee at the convention.

"2014 has just been a tremendous year in this industry," Brown said. "We've started to get a lot of momentum with Young Stockgrowers, and it's encouraging to see more and more young people showing up and getting involved there."

And while there was plenty to celebrate in 2014, the convention's focus was on the year and potential challenges ahead.

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"About the time you get complacent and think everything is going your way, you get something like the Christmas cow … we all remember the Christmas cow, right?" Curry said, nodding to the discovery of a BSE-positive cow in the U.S. at the end of December 2003 that demanded major crisis management.

"The lesson from that is, never get complacent, work diligently on every issue," Curry said.

With that in mind, he and Brown agreed on three top issues that sparked lively debate at the convention and will be areas of focus as they move into 2015.

CSKT Water Compact

The final water rights compact negotiation between the state of Montana and its tribal entities is nearing completion, Curry said, and it's in a critical stage of the process. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana is represented in the final of 18 water compacts in the state that will dictate water use and rights for multiple users.

The MSGA body passed policy to support a negotiated compact, Curry said.

"The word 'a' was a critical word in this resolution, because we don't know all the ins and out yet," he said.

In 2013, the Montana legislature did not approve the version of the compact recommended by the compact commission. It was re-opened to public comment, and on Dec. 10, 2014, a newly revised version of the compact was complete, according to the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission Committee. The revised compact has not yet been posted. Once it is made available to the public, Curry said, the MSGA leadership will need to read the revisions and weigh in based on existing policy.

"Water is always a contentious issue, and this is a critical one," Brown said. "We just have to make sure we get one that works for all, including municipalities, downstream users like recreationalists and for our own concerns in agriculture, irrigation and uses."

Curry noted that while the water rights negotiations on this particular compact impacts western Montana, it's an issue that should be on the radar for all water users.

"The impact could be, if (the compact) isn't ratified, the tribes would have to file on their state water rights," Curry said. "If we don't have a compact, they have indicated they may file on other waters – the upper Musselshell, the upper Missouri – that flow on the lower east side of the state, too."

That's an unknown possibility, Curry said, but a chance Stockgrowers agreed they didn't want to take.

"It's hard to familiarize yourself with it without being a water lawyer, but we have to be educated and continue to follow these issues," Brown said.

Department of Livestock

"I think one of the biggest issues that we'll need to continue to be educated on and be focused on is the budgeting for the Department of Livestock," Brown said. "Making sure we have a department dedicated to brand enforcement and livestock health that is fiscally responsible and also meeting the needs of livestock producers, while protecting the human health side of the zoonotic diseases."

In July, the department formed a budget subcommittee to examine financial issues and "help find solutions to recent funding shortfalls," a DOL news release noted. Curry said a mid-December conference call meeting of the board made progress in addressing shortfalls.

"The Board of Livestock issues are on everybody's radars," Curry said. "They made some decisions today (Dec. 18) to cut some positions, do some furloughs, time off without pay, to help balance the budget. To me, that shows they've finally taken some real steps to help balance the budget."

Curry said the Stockgrowers and other livestock trade organizations have played a support role on DOL conference calls and meetings throughout the year. He pointed to the costs associated with the department's diagnostic lab as a budgetary drain that still needs to be addressed. Brucellosis testing in particular has been costly.

"Brucellosis causes abortion in cattle. There are other diseases that do that, too, but the reason brucellosis is such a big deal is that it can also cause ungulate fever in humans," Curry said. "So a lot of the costs of that lab goes toward testing for diseases that have a human component."

That would also include diseases like West Nile virus and rabies. Because of those human health interests, the DOL will seek general fund assistance to run the lab, he said.

"We just want to make sure we have a sound Department of Livestock to provide the services we need in the industry; we want to work with them in any way we can," Curry said.

Montana legislative session

When state legislators convene in Helena Jan. 5, the MSGA leadership said having boots on ground to represent agricultural interests in the biennial session is critical.

"We all know that we're a dying breed. Our voices are getting smaller and smaller and smaller – the only way to be heard is, we have to band together," Curry said. "It used to be, there were a lot of boots under the desks in the legislature. That's not the case anymore. We're in a minority. It we don't speak up, we're going to get run over."

Brown noted that the largest event for Young Stockgrowers is their annual Calling on the Capitol Event Jan. 29 – 30 in Helena.

"It's just one of those things where you really feel like you're at the right place at the right time, so you have the ability to make a big difference," he said. While having a physical presence in Helena is important, Brown said those who can't get away from the farm or ranch can and should still participate.

"You don't have to be in Helena to make a difference. But you do have to be paying attention," he said. "The policy that gets set there does have a real impact on our ranches. So you have to stay informed and keep your network working for you."

He suggested following membership and trade organization websites throughout the legislative process to track issues and policies that will have impacts on agriculture. Curry added that relying on a variety of agricultural leaders for information and guidance – across industry segments and species – will be important to all agriculturalists moving forward.

"We've got to stick together," Curry said. "We're all in the same boat; we just need to row in the same direction."