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Montana ranch keeps the big picture in mind with land stewardship

Anna Slivka for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 February 2022
Hahn family

Just south of Townsend, Montana, the Hahn Ranch has been owned and operated by four generations of the Hahn family. Soon, the fifth generation will take the reins and continue what was started in the valley in 1908.

“We’re primarily a cattle, hay and grain outfit where we’ve been family-owned for all those years,” says Chuck Hahn, who heads the third generation on the operation. “We value the land, the environment around us and the family being able to be involved in the operation right now.”

For Hahn, it is vital to focus on the big picture when it comes to a family-operated agricultural operation. In this case, the big picture is making sure the opportunity to produce quality beef, grain and forage exists for the next generation. By working alongside the Montana Department of Natural Resources; the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Bureau of Land Management; and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, the Hahns have built more efficient irrigation systems that reduce sediment, water flow problems and fish population damage in nearby Deep Creek and the Missouri River. This has improved cattle pastures and wildlife habitats and promoted cleaner water.

“We’ve always been conservation-minded and, through that, along with an operation, you realize how everything fits together,” explains Hahn. “It’s a collaboration of a lot of people here in the county and those who help us out.”

The strong values and hard work ethic of the Hahn Ranch were rewarded in 2018 when the operation was selected as one of six regional honorees of the Environmental Stewardship Award Program. The award honored the Hahn family in recognizing their outstanding environmental conservation efforts for Region V and was announced at the cattle industry summer business meeting, hosted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Integrating values

The Hahn family runs 550 cow-calf pairs on nearly 28,000 acres

Since receiving the award in 2018, the Hahns have continued looking at ways to maintain water quality, build a healthy ecosystem and improve soil health for crops and rangeland. Especially in a time of severe drought, the operation’s management decisions are of the utmost importance. These decisions directly affect the productivity of both the ranch and the farm. In order to gain a higher level of scientific knowledge on riparian zones, the Hahns continue to collaborate with various natural resource organizations.

“We work with different partners through our operation, like NRCS [and] Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other government agencies to continue improving the environment and improve the efficiency of the ranch,” says Hahn. “As far as the farming operation, we do a lot of no-till farming and use cover crops to boost soil. With our cattle operation, we constantly work to find the most efficient animals and improve the herd. We run a moderate-sized cow herd that works for our ranges. We run on some very rough, rugged, dry rangeland, so we have to have cows that fit that, along with smart selection. We primarily keep all of our own heifers and bring in good, registered bulls to put in the herd.”

The Hahns have worked closely with the NRCS and other government agencies to reduce sediment problems

Even as a big-picture thinker, Hahn realizes the importance of the seemingly small details that affect the operation. “I think managing those pastures to try and leave a decent stubble height helps to catch any moisture that we were able to milk out of the winter,” he says. “This year is not looking good either for moisture, as we aren’t getting much snow. What we may have to do is make some tough decisions in the spring. If it stays like this, and we don’t get moisture, we may end up having to sell some pairs this spring, but those will be considerations that are looked at in the next few months.”

For the Hahn family, producing quality goes hand in hand with being stewards of the land and working to leave the next generation with better resources than before. Balancing the values, management details and big-picture mentality is what has allowed the operation to remain successful for such a long time. “That [balancing] is kind of what agriculture is, at least in our family,” explains Hahn. “We look at the value of the land. You know, they say ranchers are cash-poor and land-rich, and we want that land to continue to provide for the lifestyles and needs of our family for years to come.”

Communicating values

Since being honored with their award in the summer of 2018, the Hahn family has had several opportunities to share their story through news reports, school tours and even a Public Broadcasting Service feature. Through their connections with others, the Hahns hope to continue showing the public what agricultural values are and how they are implemented.

Hahn says, “I feel real proud of that fact, that we’ve been able to show the public that [conservation] can be done, that it takes collaboration of a number of people and organizations working together to get it done. The agricultural community as a whole is very interested in maintaining the land, seeing that the environment is left better than what we found it.”

Although he never expected such recognition, Hahn describes his family as being “incredibly grateful and humbled” in response to winning the Environmental Stewardship Award for Region V. Hahn continues, “Agriculture is something more than just a business; it’s a way of life and values in life – that feeling of leaving something better than you got it. Trying to get that across to the public is humbling. Everyone needs to take a bit of time and slow down a little bit. Look at what’s around you. Look at how everything fits together and the whole process. I think if people would do that, they would get a much better understanding of how everything in this world runs together in one big picture.”   end mark

PHOTO 1: Four generations of the Hahn family have owned and operated the Hahn Ranch since it was established in 1908, with the fifth generation getting ready to join the ranks.

PHOTO 2: The Hahn family runs 550 cow-calf pairs on nearly 28,000 acres of public and private land, along with raising hay and grain.

PHOTO 3: The Hahns have worked closely with the NRCS and other government agencies to reduce sediment problems and fish population damage in nearby Deep Creek, a tributary to the Missouri River. Photos courtesy of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Anna Slivka is a freelancer based in Montana.