A Cowboy Who Values A Book

Tom Milesnick started college in 1966 and graduated in 2006.

Published on: Jun 27, 2006

When Tom Milesnick started at Montana State University in 1966, he didn't think it would be until May 2006 before he’d graduate. But as he became more active on the family ranch north of Belgrade, Milesnick took a break from school...until 2004.

"It was something I always regretted, that I had never finished," Milesnick says. "I finally decided that if I was going to do it, I just had to do it." There was no question of what school he would attend. The Milesnick's are an MSU family. Tom's father Stan was the first range management graduate from Montana State College in 1942. His brother and three sisters are MSU grads, and in 2005 his son Jeff  graduated in engineering.

With the support of wife Mary Kay, two years ago Milesnick began to work college courses in between working cows. He didn't decrease his work load at the ranch when he started back to school, so he says "the hardest thing has been time management, with running the ranch and the civic organizations I'm involved with."

Civic groups include several water protection organizations, Gallatin Beef Producers, Gallatin Conservation District, and the First Security Bank Bozeman's Board of Directors, among other things. As it turned out, the courses provided instruction useful almost immediately in both his professional and civic work.

Right off the bat Milesnick chose to take an ag leadership class that emphasized parliamentary procedure, which he applied immediately in his civic activities. Another course he enjoyed and has already applied on the ranch was physiology of reproduction.

"It was my hardest class. Even though I've been an (artificial) insemination technician since 1972, it was very beneficial for me," he says. A livestock nutrition class provided information for a cattle feeding program he had already found effective.

He also needed to fulfill a fine arts core requirement, and chose achitecture. "I loved it,” he enthuses.

Rancher became mentor

"One of the neatest things was acceptance by the other students. There were very few nontraditional students in most of my classes. I had a lot of practical experience, and students would ask me whether things were really so. I was a little self conscious to start with, but then I found out that I was an asset to the classes because of my day-to-day knowledge."

Milesnick also had the unusual experience of having previously been a guest lecturer for the grazing ecology class he took. He had lectured several times when students came to the ranch for field trips. In 2001, his grazing practices were recognized when he and Mary Kay received the Montana Stockgrowers Environmental Stewardship Award.

He has since received several commendations for the environmental standards he has set on the ranch. The extended Milesnick family operation includes a cow-calf-hay operation on about 1,400 acres of land near the East Gallatin River with additional grazing land near Livingston, Mont. They use short-duration grazing for wet or "riparian" areas and developed a blue-ribbon trout stream as well as hunting and fishing recreation side-businesses in the process.

Milesnick says that "even though the popular concept is to exclude cattle on riparian areas, we have dramatically reduced our weed problem and improved stream bank stability with a managed use program that includes grazing."

An off-shoot was that as the fishery improved the anglers increased to the point that they had to start managing stream access. "With the improvement of the streams, the number of anglers and hunters increased significantly, so we decided to develop a recreation company to control the numbers and preserve the resource."

In addition, Milesnick says that he and Mary Kay spend a lot of time visiting with anglers from all over the world, as well as the 800 folks in tour groups that visit the ranch. "People visit who don't understand the West and don't understand agriculture. We try to show them how we try to maintain and improve our ranch and live up to our goal of living and working within the environment. But the first thing we have to do is be a viable ranch, because if you can't stay in business, the rest doesn't mean much," Milesnick says.