The Miltons

The Miltons out with their commercial herd in Musselshell County.

The Montana Leopold Conservation Award was awarded to ranchers Bill and Dana Milton of Musselshell County last November.

According to the Montana Department of Agriculture, the award was given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. Considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the United States' wilderness system, Leopold was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, a conservationist and an environmentalist.

The award recognizes farmers, ranchers, foresters and other landowners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.

It was the first year that a $10,000 award was presented in Montana, along with the award.

The Miltons have a cow/calf near Roundup.

Today, raising commercial Black Angus cattle on 15,000 acres, the Miltons’ pastures are intensively grazed for a short amount of time, before allowing native plants to recover and go to seed.

They have successfully advocated for holistic grazing techniques on federal lands.

Milton Ranch has participated in third party monitoring of the health of their grasslands for over 20 years.

To preserve soil and vegetation during times of drought, they voluntarily reduce their herd’s size.

New water tanks and pipelines reduce disturbance to riparian areas and natural water sources. Innovative fencing and escape ramps in water troughs benefit wildlife.

“We came into Musselshell County in June of 1978, and purchased this ranch. We got a place west of here and a year or two later, we bought part of the Griffin land. We’ve been here 15 years,” Bill said.

The Miltons joined a cooperative to take beef from the ranch to processing to the store.

“In order to do that, you have to keep your calves all the way, so now we are cow/calf operators,” he said. “We keep our calves and we run them as yearlings.”

Dana said to benefit the cattle and the land, “we move them quickly so they are off the grass in a short period of time, which increases the soil health and they increase in the process.”

Cover crops are basically planting a broad diversity of plants and trying to improve the soil.

They plant cover crops for carbon sequestration and keep the biology fed under the ground.

“I believe in science. I love that we collect a lot of data. We have been given this land to take care of and that is really important,” Dana added.

The Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award annually to private landowners in 20 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations.

In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock’s Office, Montana Department of Agriculture, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Rangeland Resources Committee, present the award with Sand County Foundation.  

There were three finalists selected for the Montana Leopold Conservation Award.

The finalists were:

Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree of Havre in Hill County:

At the age of 40, the couple became farm owners.

Doug and Anna broke ground with a tractor they had purchased in spring 2009, with the help of a USDA Beginning Farmer loan for land, equipment purchase, and operating capital.

“Some opportunities opened up for us and in 2009, we bought our farm. Doug began working on the farm full-time, while I worked for the Forest Service and helped out on the weekends,” Anna said.

Doug had a lot of CRP land that he needed to turn back into production. His skills as an agronomist and farm manager gave him the tools to do it.

It was a labor of love building the farm into the highly productive organic farm it is today. Since 2009, Vilicus Farms has grown from a 1,280-acre organic farm to around a 5,700-acre organic farming operation.

It is all organic and they have found markets are widely available for organic crops.

They believe in a holistic approach to farm management that includes farming using soil health practices, such as no-till, keeping the soil covered, diversity of crops, brushes and trees, rotations and cover crop mixes.

Prairie strips between grain fields support pollinators, beneficial insects, grassland birds and wildlife.

Craig and Conni French of Malta in Phillips County:

Craig and Conni use innovative grazing practices at French Ranch to improve soil health and water quality. Temporary, wildlife-friendly fencing for beef cattle reduces barriers for migratory pronghorn, mule deer and elk.

Livestock water tanks and windbreaks have been moved away from Beaver Creek’s three miles of shoreline on the ranch. T

They work with The Nature Conservancy to establish habitat for threatened grassland birds and sage grouse.

Bill and Dana Milton of Roundup in Musselshell County were given the Leopold award. 

“The Montana Leopold Conservation Award finalists demonstrate the many ways in which caring for the health of our land, streams, and wildlife goes hand in hand with maintaining productive farm and ranchland operations,” said Gov. Bullock. “I’m grateful for the contributions of our state’s landowners in sustaining the landscapes and values we care deeply about as Montanans and for inspiring future generations to engage in environmental stewardship.”

Those Montanans wishing to nominate farmers for the 2020 award can fill out an application by March 15, 2020. See