Agriculture

Agricultural land covers close to half of the Upper Missouri River Basin. Ranches and farms produce more than 20 commodities, including wheat, barley, hay, beans, potatoes and sugar beets and of course beef cattle.

Overview

Agriculture is essential to Montana: farms provide us with food and fiber, and when maintained properly can provide aesthetic and environmental benefits. Indeed, a significant portion of lands within Southwest and West-Central Montana, both private and public, are devoted to agricultural production.

Agriculture is essential to all people: farms provide us with food and fiber, natural areas, and aesthetic and environmental benefits. But agriculture is also the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering our waterways. While conventional tillage, fertilizers and pesticides can be beneficial to crops, their use can pollute rivers and streams and push nutrients and sediment into waterways.

How does agriculture affect the Upper Missouri River Basin?

Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering waters of Southwest and West Central Montana. In particular, agriculture contributes the majority of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment entering our waters. Unfortunately, some agricultural practices—including intensive grazing and stock feeding, over-irrigating farmland, over-tilling soil and over-applying fertilizers and pesticides—can push pollution into our local waterways.

But well-managed agricultural lands can offer the Southwest and West Central Montana a number of benefits and services, including sustained crop yields, restored rivers and streams, and valuable insect, bird and animal habitat. When effective agricultural land cover occurs year-round, these systems can store carbon, minimize soil erosion and reduce the Basin’s vulnerability to flooding and the effects of climate change.

Irrigation

Irrigation brings water to land. Through the use of hoses, sprinklers or other watering methods, irrigation can ensure consistent crop production in a range of weather conditions, particularly Montana’s arid climate.

Poor irrigation practices, including the over-watering of crops, can promote erosion and push pollution into rivers and streams:

Excess water that is not absorbed into the soil can wash into local waterways, carrying with it soil and sediment, fertilizers and pesticides, and nutrient-rich animal manure.

Excess water that soaks into the soil can push nutrients into groundwater supplies, where it can remain for decades.

Tilling Soil

To prepare a field for planting, a number of farmers practice “conventional tillage,” turning the earth over with a plow. While tillage can loosen the soil and promote crop growth, it can also damage soil structure:

Heavy machines can compact the soil that plow blades cannot reach, compressing the earth and making it difficult for rainfall to trickle into groundwater supplies.

Loosened surface soil is prone to erosion; when irrigation and precipitation push sediment into rivers and streams, it can cloud the water and limit the amount of sunlight that can reach underwater plants.

Livestock Manure and Poultry Litter

Livestock manure and poultry litter are often applied to cropland as a form of fertilizer, providing crops with the nutrients needed to grow. But when more manure is applied to the land than a crop can absorb, or when large amounts of manure are improperly stored, the nutrients and bacteria that manure contains can:

Be carried by runoff into rivers and streams

Seep into groundwater supplies

In nearly every subwatershed throughout the 24,000 sq. miles of the Upper Missouri River Basin there is excess, agriculturally-based nitrogen and phosphorous entering waterways. These excess nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight, cause eutrophication and rob the water of oxygen that plants and animals need to survive. At worst nutrient pollution can create toxic algal blooms making waters poisonous to drink or use for domestic or agricultural purposes.

Chemical Fertilizers

Like manure, chemical fertilizers can provide crops with the nutrients needed to grow. But when more fertilizer is applied to the land than a crop can absorb, these nutrients can:

Be carried by runoff into rivers and streams

Seep into groundwater supplies

Excess can fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight, cause eutrophication and rob the water of oxygen that plants and animals need to survive. At worst nutrient pollution can create toxic algal blooms making waters poisonous to drink or use for domestic or agricultural purposes.

Pesticides

Chemical pesticides can protect crops from weeds and insects. Some pesticides target just one or a few species, while others are considered “broad-spectrum” and target a group of similar species. Like livestock manure and chemical fertilizers, when pesticides are applied in excess, they can:

Be carried by runoff into rivers and streams

Seep into groundwater supplies

According to a 2012 report from the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pesticides are frequently present in our streams and groundwater. While pesticide concentrations in local waterways are seldom high enough to harm human health, pesticide concentrations in a number of streams can impact aquatic and fish-eating wildlife. Scientific studies have discovered potential links between pesticide exposure and:

The suppression of behavioral and immune systems in fish

The development of intersex conditions in fish

The impaired reproduction of fish-eating birds

How can we reduce pollution related to agriculture?

Conservation practices—often called “best management practices” or “BMPs”—can be implemented on area farms, and watershed states are counting on the expanded use of these practices to help them meet the goals set forth in waterway “pollution diets,” or Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). The key to using BMPs to protect and improve water quality per the requirements of these TMDLs is making sure they are used in transparent, accountable, and enforceable manners.

What are some common best management practices?

Best management practices are tools that farmers can use to reduce agricultural runoff into groundwater, creeks and rivers. These tools can reduce a farm’s operational costs and improve a farm’s production. Some best management practices are voluntary or incentive-based, while others—like nutrient management planning for all agricultural operations in Montana—are mandatory.

Conservation Tillage

Conservation tillage leaves one-third or more of a farm field covered with crop residue or vegetation throughout the year. When tillage is reduced and soil is left undisturbed, a field is less prone to erosion. Continuous no-till and minimum-till farming are two forms of conservation tillage.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are grown to provide soil cover and prevent erosion. Cover crops can be annual, biennial or perennial plants grown in a single or mixed stand during all or part of the year, including the non-growing season. Common cover crops include legumes (like cowpeas or clover), forage radish and cereal grains (like wheat, rye or barley).

Planting cover crops uses living plants to fill in bare soil in a field. This can occur when a main crop has been harvested, when there is a niche in a season’s crop rotation or when there is a need to interplant a cover crop with a cash crop. Cover crops can:

Provide ground cover

Reduce erosion

Suppress weeds

Reduce insect pests and diseases

Absorb excess fertilizer and reduce nutrient leaching after a main crop is harvested

Enrich soil with organic matter

Forest Buffers and Streamside Fencing

Grasses, trees and shrubs planted along the edges of farm fields and along rivers and streams can reduce the amount of pollutants flowing from the land into local waterways. These “buffers” can slow and absorb polluted runoff, stabilize stream banks, curb erosion and serve as habitat for wildlife.

Streamside fences exclude livestock from local waterways. Livestock exclusion fencing can reduce the amount of nutrients and pathogens entering the water, prevent stream bank damage and erosion, and improve animal health. Fences can be woven wire or electric, and permanent or moveable.

Nutrient Management Planning

A nutrient management plan is a written, site-specific plan that reduces nutrient pollution while maintaining crop production and, in some cases, increasing farm profits. By developing a “nutrient budget” for a farm and applying nutrients at the right time, with the right methods, a farmer can limit the amount of nutrients available to run off his land and into local waterways. While all farms will contribute some nutrients to the surrounding environment, those operating under nutrient management plans should contribute fewer nutrients than those farms that are not.

Most nutrient management plans focus on nitrogen and phosphorous and contain:

A field’s crop production potential and the amount of nutrients needed to achieve this level of production

Recommended application amount, form, source, rate, placement and timing of animal manure or commercial fertilizers

Livestock Manure and Poultry Litter

Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering waters of Southwest and West Central Montana. In particular, agriculture contributes the majority of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment entering our waters. Improving the health of waterways in Southwest and West Central Montana will require:

Properly applying manure to cropland

Developing and using animal waste storage systems

Transporting excess manure to areas in need vs universal application

Excluding animals from streams

Locating or moving livestock facilities away from streams and creeks

There are four specific opportunities to better manage manure-related nutrient loads in Montana:

Adjust animal diets to reduce the amount of nutrients in manure

Foster alternative uses for manure by building markets and technologies that use the livestock byproduct for energy, fertilizers, soil amendments or compost

Develop a comprehensive inventory of manure nutrient surpluses in watersheds

Coordinate manure management programs across the state to address regional manure imbalances or surpluses

What We’re Doing

We use grassroots activism and legal tools to protect and restore wetlands along the Upper Missouri River and its major tributaries.

We engage in land-use permitting to prevent damage to ecologically important wetlands.

We engage in rulemakings and administrative advocacy to improve programs addressing agricultural land use, with emphasis on fertilizer, manure, and riparian zone management.

Take Action!

For the restoration and protection of Southwest and West Central Montana’s waters to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring and protecting our water and rivers for future generations to use and enjoy.

To support agriculture in the Upper Missouri River Basin consider purchasing products from a local farm. Buying local can reduce the pollution associated with transporting goods over long distances and the packaging needed to transport or store fresh produce. A number of area farms have even become involved in “agritourism,” which invites visitors onto farms to learn about local land and agriculture.