June 16, 2008

State’s Wheat Crop Wobbly

By McKee, Jennifer

HELENA - More than half of Montana's wheat fields are withering in an early-season drought, putting $671 million worth of wheat at risk new state agriculture statistics show.

Ranchers in the affected area, which stretch-es across much of central Montana and a sliver of Eastern Montana, are already buying up hay and looking at selling off herds for want of forage and stock water

"It's dismally dry," said Peggy Stringer, director of the National Agricultural Statistic Service's Montana office at a meeting Wednesday of the Governor's Drought Advisory Committee. "This is a big deal."

Stringer was referring to the Golden Triangle, a productive wheat- growing area that stretches north from Great Falls to the Canadian border, expanding west to about Cut Bank and east to around Havre.

While the Triangle is especially hard-hit, the dryness is hardly confined there. About 34 percent of the wheat crop statewide is struggling to survive in severe drought, while another 25 percent is classified as "moderately dry."

The bleak wheat future was part of an unusual snapshot of moisture - or lack thereof - that emerged at Wednesdays meeting.

With the exception of the Red Lodge area, Montana's mountains generally got good snows over the winter and early spring. A cooler- than-normal spring has delayed runoff in many parts of the state, leaving many river basins with above-normal snowpack for this time of the year, said Roy Kaiser, with the National Resources Conservation Service and a member of the drought committee. Snowpack in the Yellowstone Basin is at 107 percent of normal, he said.

The Columbia River Basin, in Western Montana, is at 120 percent of normal.

When that snow melts, as it did during a warm spell this week, rivers and streams have surged with water. Three western rivers - the Fisher, the Bitterroot and the South Fork of the Flathead - saw historic high flows on Wednesday, said Wayne Berkas, with the U.S. Geological Survey in Helena and a member of the committee.

So far, the floods haven't been particularly hair-raising.

"We're finally getting what we should have been getting," Berkas said.

Unfortunately, Stringer said, Montana didn't get much snow in the valleys, where farmers grow wheat and ranchers feed cows. A long finger of Eastern Montana, from Sheridan County to Custer County is already moderately dry, she said. Carter County, which saw an enormous spring snow dump in May, is the lone exception.

Most of Montana's interior - stretching from the Rocky Mountains to Saco and south to Wheatland County - is either moderately or severely dry. At a time when ranchers are typically letting stock graze on nutrient-rich wild grasses, about a third of all cattle and sheep are now eating some kind of supplemental feed, typically hay.

Stringer said she has heard from hay growers who are not selling their hay, despite high demand, for fears they may need it for theft own stock later in the year.

Ken Evans, a Choteau County commissioner who farms and ranches in the Fort Benton area, said he's looking at selling off about 75 head of stock because the animals don't have any feed or water. His winter wheat sprouted last fall but is now dying due to a dry winter and spring Evans said he has already re-seeded his fields in spring wheat, which is less hardy than the winter variety, in hopes that something might survive.

The whole ordeal is risky and costly, he said. As wheat prices have spiked, so too, has the price of wheat seed. Plus, seeding twice burns up expensive diesel fuel.

"We haven't really had any moisture since last June," Evans said.

On the upside, said Gina Loss, with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, most of the state is expected to get some moisture out of a storm front that moved through Tuesday night. Parts of central Montana could get particularly soaked.

Copyright Billings Gazette May 22, 2008

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