Grain crops wither as drought deepens in eastern MontanaSource: Great Falls Tribune
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An enormous red blob of desiccating heat is pressing down upon eastern Montana, and with each passing day of cloudless skies and temperatures rising into the 90s its impression grows wider as crops wither and livestock becomes more stressed during what some describe as the worst drought to plague the area in nearly 30 years.
Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor released on July 13 reports extreme drought conditions extending across 15 counties from east of Havre to Miles City. National Weather Service Statistics show that April, May and June were the driest on record at 12 reporting stations across the northeast; including Glasgow where only 1.24 inches of measurable precipitation has fallen since April 1.
“I try to be optimistic, but at some point you have to be realistic,” commented Terry Angvick, a third-generation farmer whose operation lies in Sheridan County south of Plentywood.
Spring wheat, durum wheat, dry edible peas and lentils are the major crops where Angvick lives. Like nearly all the other producers in Sheridan County, each day Angvick looks out on upon deteriorating fields that may not produce a harvestable yield.
“June was the backbreaker,” he said with a measure of stoic resolution. “We usually receive three to three and a half inches of rain in June. This year we received 0.07 inches.”
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that 65 percent of Montana’s durum wheat crop is now listed as poor or very poor compared with 5 percent in a similar condition just one year ago. Spring wheat is nearly equally bad. Sixty-one percent of Montana’s spring wheat crop is now in distress.
“Some growers are cutting their winter wheat for hay because the quality is so low, the yield is low and it’s a lot more valuable to feed livestock because the pastures are in really tough shape,” said Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association. “The spring wheat crop has been really damaged, some of it won’t even get cut. It will be very low yielding. The pulse crops (peas and lentils) are flowering and the heat is damaging them quite a lot. They will be very short, very difficult to cut.”
“It’s not going to be pretty up there,” she added.
All of this marks a surprising reversal of conditions from just four months ago.
“When we were looking early on this year the real concern in northeast Montana was flooding,” said Michael Downey, water planning section supervisor for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “They had all this moisture in the fall, the ground was saturated, then they were going to get the spring rains and all hell was going to break loose.”
“We had good moisture last fall,” Angvick said. “We had anywhere from 4 to 6 inches of moisture in late September and August. It filled our soil moisture profile, but we didn’t have a lot of snow. Spring came and most of the guys were able to hit the fields by early May.”
Then there was nothing. The highest rainfall total Angvick has recorded on a single day this year came on April 19. Just shy of a quarter inch of rain fell on his fields that day. The Plentywood area hasn’t seen more than a couple of tenths of an inch on any single day since then.
On June 23, Gov. Steve Bullock issued an executive order declaring a drought emergency in 19 eastern counties and on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations. The order’s effect was primarily limited to compelling state agency collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to lifting state highway department limitations on the transport of baled livestock feed.
More significantly, on July 11 the USDA authorized emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program lands beginning July 16 and extending through the end of August. The USDA also opened up its emergency loan program, which offers producers access to low-interest loans to help them recover from production and physical losses.
Opening up haying on eastern Montana’s CRP fields will have the most immediate effect on area ranchers. The poor condition of the region’s pastures and a shortage of hay is already forcing some livestock producers to sell off portions of their herds for a lack of feed. Ranchers looking to buy more hay are going to have to fork over premium prices.
“I’ve heard of some of it going for $150 to $175 a ton,” said Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “That may be on the high side, but for the areas of the state that do have some pretty good hay production that hay crop is going to be bringing a premium.”
CRP grass should ease the hay shortage in eastern Montana, but comes with its own set of issues.
“A lot of the CRP acres are not developed with good water,” Rice said, “so in any of those types of scenarios folks are probably hauling water onto the CRP areas where they’re able to graze.”
If there is any silver lining to the current drought conditions, it’s that they appear to be placing upward pressure on grain prices. Worsening crop conditions on the northern plains, in Australia and in Argentina have pushed September wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade up to $5.36 a bushel, their highest price since 2015.
Of course, high grain prices offer little benefit to producers without a harvestable crop.
All of this needs to be taken into some measure of perspective. Raska noted that at least one area of Montana finds itself in some level of a drought situation nearly every year.
“We had really severe droughts in Montana in 2000 and 2001,” she said. “2008 was another dry year. That’s the state that we live in. We’re in the high desert dryland cropping area.
“Northeast Montana has had about 15 years of very good rainfall,” Raska added. “They’ve had a higher average rainfall that we have here in the Golden Triangle. It’s such a change for them up there over the past 12 to 15 years. That’s where our pulse crops have expanded, and they’ve moved to more of a continual crop rotation.”
“It came on very, very quickly in eastern and northeastern Montana this year,” she said of the current drought conditions. “They had good moisture this spring and their recent memory is of good moisture years. For this to come on this fast and this strong is pretty dramatic for those guys.”