Eastern Montana History
The eastern part of Montana is often ignored when it comes to someone looking to purchase a ranch. Those that are looking for a Montana ranch are shortchanging themselves if they don’t make a trip and look at some Eastern Montana ranches. Eastern Montana ranches and Eastern Montana land can be beautiful, less expensive and offers ample hunting opportunities and is good cattle land.
First of all, let’s define Eastern Montana. Some view it as anything east of Billings is Eastern Montana. Others will say anything east of the Continental Divide and some will say Eastern Montana starts a ways east of Billings. I’ll let you pick your own definition.
Eastern Montana land is more classic western prairie town and badlands. It is beautiful land in its own right. It is less populated and more conservative. The land is semi arid with an average of 13-14” of annual precipitation. Temperatures are going to be more extreme with summer time highs getting into the high 80s to even 100s occasionally. It will cool off fast at night though. In the winter, you will have periods of 0 or below 0 for short periods of time. The spring seems to always have a major snowfall storm that can create havoc for Eastern Montana ranchers. Some of the badlands have to be accessed by horse because it is just too tough of territory for motorized vehicles. This is one of the reasons that Eastern Montana is still true cowboy country. Miles City, which is the hub for most of Eastern Montana ranches, is known as the Cowboy Capitol!
Eastern Montana land was originally inhabited by Plains Indians. Primarily the Sioux, Blackfeet and Crow. Lewis and Clark came through Eastern Montana following the Missouri River on their trek so word started to spread. Eastern Montana became populated by whites once the railroads pushed through the country. It enabled towns to pop up at rail road stops and prosper around ranching. Easter Montana land is classic cattle and dryland wheat country with some corn, barley and alfalfa farming that goes on.
Eastern Montana Rivers
Rivers that flow through Eastern Montana lands are the Big Horn, Tongue, Powder, Yellowstone and the Missouri. The Big Horn is known for its incredible tailwater fishery in Crow lands near Hardin, Montana. The Tongue river is known as a mile wide, an inch deep and runs uphill. The Powder river is named for its soil along parts of its banks that is so fine it looks like powder. The Yellowstone and the Missouri speak for themselves. Both are great fisheries but become more warm water fisheries in Eastern Montana. Then there are the few creeks with great Montana names like: Hanging Woman Creek, Swimming Woman Creek, Dirty Woman Creek and Kill Woman Creek. I’ll let you Google the backgrounds behind the names if that interests you.
Eastern Montana Cattle
Eastern Montana ranches are primarily cattle operations and specifically, most times are cow/calf operations. Cattle is what Easter Montana is known for. Out of 14 counties that comprise Eastern Montana there are over 700,000 cattle and that number is probably low since that was the latest number I could find. Eastern Montana is known for its short grass prairie grasses that offer good protein and puts the weight on cattle. The beef sales from Eastern Montana cattle ranches will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, although, in 2016 with cattle prices depressed there are a lot of Montana ranchers hurting.
Eastern Montana has been one of the nationwide leaders in improving genetics and quality breeding of cattle. This can be a decades long process of improving genetics for weight, birthing, temperament and other factors. In the last decade there has been significant breakthroughs due to the use of very sophisticated genetic modeling on computers. The data is kept and compiled and it is nothing but astounding the increase in efficiency while using less land than 20-30 years ago. Most of America has no clue what it takes to put beef on their table and Eastern Montana ranches have been a big part of doing that. Eastern Montana ranches are usually larger due to needing more land to support one AUM. Ranchers are constantly trying to improve their efficiency. Popular improvements in Eastern Montana land involve fencing to improve grazing, pasture rotation and water availability. This allows the Eastern Montana rancher to be a good steward of the land. Something they don’t get enough credit for doing.
Eastern Montana Wildlife
Another thing that Eastern Montana Ranches and Eastern Montana land don’t get enough credit for is the wildlife resources. There are hunters that would still like to keep this secret. In fact, a number of them come out and hunt it and then they contact us to buy an Eastern Montana ranch. First of all, you have incredible upland bird populations in Eastern Montana. Grouse and pheasant are in very good numbers. Maybe, not to the point of South Dakota on pheasants but not far behind and the hunting crowds are a lot less. You have good public access and if you ask nicely you will usually find access to private bird hunting land. Make sure and take care of the land and the people that are allowing you to do it. They are very kind. I encourage Eastern Montana ranchers to create that additional revenue to support their farm or land but many view it as neighborly to allow someone to take a bird.
The waterfowl hunting on Eastern Montana ranches can also be very good. When you drive Eastern Montana there are parts of it that will have thousands of geese either wintering or passing through. Hunting pressure is minimal. Ducks can be found in sloughs, creeks and rivers in good numbers.
The deer hunting situation on Eastern Montana land is some of the best part of the wildlife resources. Whitetails are along the riparian lands around creeks and rivers and will get a little bit into the badlands. The mule deer is what Eastern Montana ranches are known for. Trophy mule deer are taken every year all over Eastern Montana. Big, wide horns with long days of glassing coulees and badlands. Long shots are going to be the norm. This and the pheasant hunting are what usually bring buyers to purchase Eastern Montana ranches.
Antelope hunting is also very good on the prairie lands of Eastern Montana. There is also good populations of turkeys with what appears to be an improving population. They have the land, food and water to continue to prosper. There are also pockets of heavy timber in Eastern Montana that hold good populations of Elk. You just have to know where to look.
Eastern Montana Oil
The other thing that has been affecting and impacting some of Eastern Montana ranch real estate is the Bakken oil formation. The Bakken goes into Eastern Montana and although it has calmed down after being scorching hot and busy. It is still a factor in part of Eastern Montana and if/when oil prices rise again, the mineral part of the estate will be a factor in any real estate transaction whether a purchaser can get mineral rights or not.
Eastern Montana Land Values
Eastern Montana land values have seen substantial increases in the last couple of decades. I believe the land values still have quite a ways to go. Part of this is the remoteness of Eastern Montana. There are no major airports close by and so you have to be trying to come to Eastern Montana to get there. While that has been a detriment to values in the past, I believe at some point that becomes a strength in our crazy world we live in now. Another factor is that the land has been valued strictly on agricultural basis and at some point as more and more people discover the unique beauty and abundant wildlife there will have to be a recreational input in the value of Eastern Montana land. We have seen big buyers come into Eastern Montana in the last 10 years with people like the Wilkes Brothers purchasing several ranches. They now own well in excess of 300,000 acres of Eastern Montana ranches.
Eastern Montana ranches remind me of where I bought my ranch in Texas. I purchased it 15 years ago and we have worked to improve wildlife habitat but it was valued strictly on agricultural value when I purchased it @ $700/acre. The recreational value has slowly creeped in and as we showed improvements in the wildlife resources in the area it has steadily creeped up to where the area is now valued at @ $4000/acre. I believe with our governments inability to reduce deficits we will still see the stealth inflation of real land. Doesn’t mean it will be in a straight line but I do believe long term, Eastern Montana ranches hold a intriguing investment idea while being able to make some great memories along the way.
If you are looking at buying or selling a ranch in Eastern Montana or in Montana, in general, I would love to help you either maximize sale price with a good solid plan or buy the right piece of land that we can then improve and increase the value of. I can be contacted here.
If you enjoyed this article I would suggest you might read Women in Montana Ranching or Cattle Ranches for Sale in Montana-Buy vs Sell Side. You can also check us out on our Facebook page where we post relevant things as it pertains to Montana Cattle Ranching and give us a Like to follow us for more good information.
Buzz Tatom is a Partner at Venture West Ranches. He moved to Montana 6 years ago and still owns the 5T ranch in Texas. He has a BBA from Texas Tech and an MBA from SMU. He and his wife, Kathy are involved in a number of business ventures. He also enjoys being a part time professor at MSU in the business school and mentoring students.