Extreme drought hits northeast Montana, has farmers praying for rain

Extreme drought hits northeast Montana, has farmers praying for rain

Source: Billings Gazette
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Northeastern Montana is in extreme drought as one of the state’s largest wheat-producing regions sees little rain.

Farmers across a 200-mile swath of the northeastern part of the state have seen just a half-inch of rain in the past two months. This trend after scant winter snows has farmers from Jordan to Plentywood nervous about the 2017 harvest.

“It looks like August and September here already,” said Tanja Fransen, meteorologist for the National Weather Service station in Glasgow.

In these parts, August and September range from harvest gold to parched brown. Drive by any field currently and you can see between the crop rows, farmers say.

Near St. Marie, there are fields seeded late this spring where nothing is poking up from the soil because there hasn’t been enough water for seeds to germinate.

There’s nothing green to nibble on in the south Valley County grazing land near Glasgow.

“We’ve had probably about an inch of rain since April first and the last one was under a quarter-inch,” said Terry Angvick, who farms near Reserve, about 31 miles south of Canada and 25 miles from the North Dakota line.

The drought is a complete reversal from where the northeastern region of the state was last fall when rivers were flooding with unseasonable rains. Many farmers waited to plant this spring because they thought holdover soil moisture from November would allow them to clear up some vomitoxin blight problems, Angvick said.

Farmers who waited planted into the worst of the emerging drought.

There was good moisture in the soil from the fall — as much as 8.6 inches below the surface, Fransen said — but dry weather and wind wicked that moisture away by early May.

Rob Davis farms near Larslan in Valley County, which anchors a region where 45 percent of Montana’s spring wheat is grown. Hard, red spring wheat has been responsible for pushing Montana wheat sales over $1 billion annually for multiple years over the past decade. Montana is the nation’s third largest wheat producer. In an average year farmers around Larslan would expect to cut 40 wheat bushels from every acre. This year that seems unlikely, Davis said.

“We’re holding on, but if we don’t get any bigger rains soon, everyone will be cutting a pretty low yield crop,” Davis said.

Better farm practices are preventing the worst results, Davis said. Farmers who plant into untilled soil are seeing more moisture than they might have in past years. But with little moisture in reserve, they’re living from rain cloud to rain cloud.

Fransen doesn’t think there’s much rain in the region’s future, although national long-term forecasts have suggested there could be improvement.

There’s a persistence to drought, Fransen said. It takes existing moisture to make rain, but there hasn’t been any. In wet years like 2011, when tractors sank up their axles in mud well into June, there’s enough moisture that the slightest stir in the air can prompt a cloud. That’s not where northeastern Montana is currently, Fransen said.

In Westby on the North Dakota state line, there’s been 0.59 inches of rainfall since April 1. The normal amount for the same period is 4 inches. The same is true for Fort Peck. In Culbertson, an inch of rain since April has left the community 3 inches below average.

Fransen said farmers need to report their weather conditions to their county extension office, the National Drought Mitigation Center or the Montana Drought Advisory Committee. Those reports determine how long northeast Montana has been in drought and will be used to determine later this summer if the region qualifies for federal drought assistance.