July 21, 2008

Northeast Remains Very Dry

By Lutey, Tom

Last month, as Montanans teetering on the edge of drought were suddenly singing in the rain, folks in Raymond Wang's parched northeast corner of the state were singing the blues.

For the most part, the late May rain that dropped 3 to 5 inches across much of Montana never reached the farms and ranches along the borders of North Dakota and Canada. Along a 120-mile span from Savage to the Port of Raymond, landowners are on the verge of serious drought. Stock ponds have dried up. Crops that should be knee high stand less than foot tall. And hot, dry summer weather is just around the corner.

Ranchers like Wang who usually don't have to haul water anywhere are suddenly hauling 1,000 gallons or more to thirsty cattle in parched fields with dry watering holes.

"It's like cutting firewood, the first tree isn't a bad deal, but after that it gets pretty damn boring," Wang said. "They say a cow drinks 20 to 40 gallons a day depending on the weather, but the guy that figured that out never hauled water to a cow."

Wang's ranch between Westby and Plentywood is located in Sheridan County, which last week was singled out by the Governor's Drought Advisory Committee as the only area of the state in severe drought. The two counties immediately south of the area. Roosevelt and Richland, were placed on drought alert. But agricultural officials and weather experts on the ground say the dry conditions are more widespread.

Roosevelt County stretches more than 100 miles from west to east. The west end has received more rain than the east, where Extension Agent Gina Snyder's office is located. The county average makes drought conditions look better than they are. The local Farm Service Agency filed for drought assistance recently, based on the dry conditions on Roosevelt's County's east end, Snyder said. The west end conditions thwarted the attempt.

"Typically our winter wheat would be headed out and tall, 2 to 3 feet tall depending on the variety," Snyder said. "It's about a foot tall."

Farmers are hopeful wheat will rebound as temperatures pick up. Northeast Montana isn't far removed from its last 35-degree evening, which stunts plant growth, but also keeps the ground moist from scant, localized showers. The gamble with warmer temperatures, though, is that rain might not follow. The difference between wet weather and drought in the next few weeks could be a 10 or 30 bushel per acre crop. The former would be devastating.

"We have received some rains off and on the last two weeks and that helped," said Terry Angvick, Sheridan County extension agent Our biggest issue right now is our lack of subsoil moisture, but our crops look good in spite of it. We're probably between 40 and 50 percent of normal rainfall."

Subsoil moisture is like rain in the bank. It's the moisture from fall rains and winter snow that sinks deeper into the ground, giving crops something to drink during dry times. Much of northeast-ern Montana had no snow cover last winter. As a result, crops are living from rainfall to rainfall.

That lack of winter snow cover has a much larger area of Montana on the edge of thirst despite late spring rains. The U.S. Drought Monitor lists portions of 16 Montana counties as abnormally dry or in moderate drought, a swath that cuts through 23 percent of Montana's land area in a Nike-shaped swoosh that includes not only northeastern Sheridan County, but also Yellowstone County closer to Billings.

Many of those counties are forecasted to experience above- average temperatures in the months to come, but not necessarily above-average rain, which is what drought-affected areas are going to need to pull out of their dry spell.

For a five-county stretch along the North Dakota border, average rainfall isn't going to be enough, said Tanja Fransen, meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Glasgow. The long-term moisture outlook for those counties stretching southward from the Canadian border calls for an equal change of either above-average rain or normal precipitation, which isn't a good sign for the drought forecast.

Earlier in the spring, as rain washed over other parts of the state, there was moisture in the clouds over northeast Montana, Fransen said. Much of that rain fell in a virga, that is, evaporating before it reached the ground.

It's going to take regional moisture to make summer rain, Fransen said. If the terrain continues to be dry, it isn't likely that thundershowers will follow hot July days.

Across the border in North Dakota, the western part of the state is in an extreme drought resulting from scant snow cover and poor spring rains. The federal government is opening Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, land to grazing in 26 North Dakota counties to help drought-stricken ranchers with livestock.

Ranchers on the Montana side of the border are also looking forward to exceptional grazing on CRP land, but the land probably won't be opened up until Aug. 1, which means Wang and others could soon be hauling expensive hay along with water to their thirsty livestock.

Copyright Billings Gazette Jun 27, 2008

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