Flooded fields, broken roads. Spring flooding already damaging Montana agricultureNews Type: State Source: Great Falls Tribune
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As the flatland flooding around northcentral Montana begins to recede, counties, road departments and ag producers are assessing the toll.
At this point the basic assessment is that spring seeding is about a month behind where it should be at this point, and it could be two or three weeks before the ground dries out enough for full-scale planting to take place. That could have serious implications for the variety of crops put into the ground, and anticipated yields at the end of the 2018 growing season.
“We’re basically a month behind where we’d expect to be at this time of year,” said Tyler Lane, MSU extension agent for Chouteau County. “If we don’t get spring wheat in by May 1, we lose about a bushel a day for every day it’s not seeded.”
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That could mean millions of dollars in lost profitability for crops like spring wheat, lentils, field peas and barley. All are Montana staples that depend upon significant plant development before the summer heat arrives.
“Peas and lentils especially.,” explained Jesse Fulbright, ag extension agent for Liberty County. “You can plant those things, but it’s the heat that really does them in. About the time they’re blooming, if we get hot heat, the blooms stop. It would not be cost effective to plant peas and lentils this late.”
At this point, edible field pea production in central Montana will likely be non-existent during the 2018 season. Lentils are questionable as well. Combined, these two crops accounted for about $163 million in statewide agricultural revenues in 2015.
Winter wheat, hay and possibly chick peas appear to be in good shape and may actually benefit from the excess spring moisture.
“We will not seed any peas, and we’re probably bumping too late for lentils too,” said Larry Hendrickson, whose farm lies in Liberty County about 15 miles north of Chester. “We’re two weeks from being in the fields. Every coulee’s full of water yet; the low spots are wet. It might be closer to three weeks depending upon what the weather does.”
Snowmelt is causing severe spring flooding along the Hi-Line region of Montana. Sarah Dettmer
“Spring wheat is the fail safe,” Hendrickson added. “If everything else goes sideways, we’ll seed spring wheat and barley — then you just make that work.”
Further complicating the matter is road access. Throughout northcentral Montana just getting equipment to the fields is a complicated matter. Getting equipment stuck is nearly a given.
Rising temperatures have turned snow into floodwater on the Hi-Line. Wochit
“A lot of the roads are washed out, so you can’t even cross them anyway,” said Cary Kolstad, whose family farm lies south of Lake Elwell near Ledger.
“It’s slowing everything down because it’s hard to get anywhere,” Kolstad said. “Sometimes you have to backtrack a long ways just to get to a field.”
It’s nearly impossible to draw a single conclusion about growing conditions across northcentral Montana. Micro-climates, slightly warmer temperatures, slightly less snowfall can have a major impact on the viability of any field and any individual crop.
“It varies so much by area,” Lola Raska, executive vice president of Montana Grain Growers Association, observed. “I talked to a farmer this morning who was out spraying by Carter. Another one down in the Broadview area was out planing last week. There’s some spotty areas where they’re starting to do some field work, but up north where they had so much snow … it’s going to be a while before those guys get into the field.”
However, its far too early to draw a red line around the 2018 farming season. Producers note that field conditions can change dramatically in just a few weeks and that profitability can flip with a single summer storm or a political decision made in Beijing or Washington.
“Once we’re able to actually drive around some fields and do some scouting; see how much mud we’re actually dealing with, then we’ll be able to make a more informed decision,” Colstad said of the factors his family can control. “There’s going to be a lot of water holes we have to farm around. That’s not fun. We’re prepared to be pulling a lot of equipment out of the mud. It’s just going to happen.”