Formed in 1928, the Western Montana Stockmen’s Association (WMSA) represents cattle producers in the six counties that make up northwest Montana – Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Flathead and Sanders County.
This area of Montana, known for its stunning scenic value, also happens to be prime cow country. Producers involved in the organization cherish the lifestyle they hold so dear and they wanted to find a way to get young people involved in the business of raising cattle.
Three years ago, the WMSA decided to start a live heifer scholarship program. The organization acquired a single heifer and eight youth from the area filled out applications with their fingers crossed.
“At our yearly banquet in January, when we got ready to award the heifer, one of our producers came forward and said, ‘I would have donated a heifer, too,’ so we decided to auction off that heifer as a means to make money for the heifer scholarship program,” explained Paul Guenzler, rancher and WMSA member.
Little did that one producer know, but his single heifer donation was a major catalyst for WMSA’s heifer scholarship program. That first heifer was turned over many times during the course of the auction and when the final bid came in, several thousands of dollars had been raised.
With the money generated, WMSA was able to actually purchase some heifers from local producers. Between purchased heifers and donated heifers, the program awarded eight deserving youth with a heifer calf in 2019.
Even after experiencing such an exponential leap in support between its first and second year, the WMSA heifer scholarship program still had room to grow and grow it did. Guenzler reported a heifer was again donated to be auctioned off this past January with the proceeds benefiting the heifer scholarship.
The heifer was again turned over several times before a final bid. After it was all said and done, this year’s donated heifer generated a whopping $15,850, with every penny coming from individuals who truly believe in the future of youth in agriculture.
The auction heifer, if finally purchased by a youth, is treated like a scholarship heifer with the youth/heifer combo adhering to the same requirements and showing opportunities as the others.
“This year the association bought 10 heifers from producers and seven were donated,” Guenzler said. With the addition of the auction heifer, 18 youths received heifers in 2020.
The scholarship program has really exploded in its three short years and it only hopes it can continue to grow. Any youth between the ages of 10-16, as of Jan. 1, that reside in one of the six counties represented by WMSA is eligible to apply for a heifer. Interested youth must also be members of either 4-H or FFA.
Youth must submit a detailed application, offer two letters of reference and they must name a mentor, someone already well-established in the industry, who will offer them insight throughout the year. The mentor plays a key role in the success of the program and the youth are required to keep in contact with their mentor throughout the project year.
Awardees take physical possession of their heifers around the first of February, and from that point on the youth are solely responsible for the care of their heifer. Additionally, participants must maintain records and check in with the WMSA board periodically. Youth are required to show their heifers at their respective county fair and there is the option to show the heifer at a futurity show held specifically for scholarship heifers.
The following January, at the WMSA annual banquet, youth will give a presentation with pictures and records, highlighting their experiences with the heifer. After their presentation is complete, the WMSA signs over the bill of sale and the heifer is then owned in full by the youth.
Guenzler says nearly every breed is represented in the scholarship program.
“This year we had a Shorthorn heifer, a Hereford, a couple of Sim-Angus and the rest were predominantly Black Angus. One heifer had the potential to be registered, but this is really a commercial-based program,” he emphasized.
The WMSA heifer scholarship program aims to be representational of the beef industry. Although the youth are required to show their heifers, much more weight is put on the production side of things. The hope is that youth exit the program with a good grasp of what it actually takes to be successful in the cow/calf industry. And with a new producing heifer, youth gain a leg up.
The continued support offered by WMSA producers is humbling, as well as inspiring. Area ranches open their arms and their herds to aspiring cattlemen and women. All heifers in the scholarship program proudly receive the WMSA freeze brand, which often ends up displayed right next to the ranch’s brand from which the heifer came. The side-by-side brands visually display how a community of ranchers came together in an effort to support the next generation of agriculturalists.