By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
High temperatures have been hindering more than firefighters' attempts to put out raging wildfires in Montana. The temperatures are destroying what might have been some of the best spring wheat yields in five years.
"If we had gotten rain instead of heat, we probably would have had a pretty good spring wheat crop," Gary Meland said. "Some of this stuff could lose up to 50 percent of its potential. Possibly more if this continues."
The National Weather Service reports that Montana will have a slight respite from the heat this weekend, but that it will probably return early next week.
Meland, who farms north of Havre, is not alone in his losses.
"It's pretty much affecting the whole area," said Bob LaSalle of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency office in Havre.
LaSalle said the heat's impact is compounded because it's coming on top of a shortage of subsoil moisture caused by several years of severe drought. If there was more subsoil moisture, the wheat could put roots farther into the ground and survive better, he said.
The National Weather Service reports that from 1996 through 2002 the Havre area received cumulative precipitation 10.77 inches lower than normal.
Larry Hill, Phillips County FSA director, said his office is receiving reports that crops are being hurt, but hasn't heard by how much.
"A farmer told me, 'I've got 60 bushel straw and 30 bushel wheat.' I thought that pretty well summed it up," he said.
Hill said areas in Phillips County that draw irrigation water from the Milk River, about 50,000 to 60,000 acres, seem to be doing better, but the heat isn't helping those yields either. Most of that is planted in alfalfa or hay, he added.
The hay yields are a definite improvement over the last three years, he said.
"There's some producers that haven't cut hay for three years who are cutting hay," Hill said.
Farmers who planted winter wheat are also doing better, although Hill said most of Phillips County's 150,000 acres of wheat is spring wheat.
LaSalle said the heat is helping some winter wheat crops. The heat is increasing protein content, and is actually better for harvesting, he said.
Lisa Passon, who farms southeast of Havre with her husband, Dave, said their winter wheat yield is pretty good, 40 bushels an acre or more. The Passons finished harvesting Tuesday.
"We harvested through all the hot days. It affected the cutters," she said.
John Maatta, Liberty County Extension agent, said Chester-area farmers are seeing the same results. Spring wheat will probably be hit pretty hard, but about 50 percent of the acreage was planted with winter wheat, and the harvesting is going well, he said.
The spring wheat is also being hit hard by grasshoppers, he added.
Cattle ranchers are seeing decent hay crops, especially in the Sweet Grass Hills. Most of the cattle ranching and hay production in Liberty County are centered on the hills, Maatta said.
Meland said crop insurance will help those farmers who have it to recover some of the losses on their crop, but that the insurance rarely covers the cost to plant and raise the crops.
Crop insurance benefits are based on an average yield over a period of time, he said. Since the yields have been down because of the drought for five years or more, the benefits have dropped, he said.
Meteorologist Rick Dittman of the National Weather Service's Great Falls office said the heat is unusual, even for north-central Montana.
"We hit 90 degrees (in Havre) on the 15th of July and aside from an 87 on the 14th we've been 90 and above through yesterday," he said. "It's been quite prolonged and quite intense even by our standards. Here in Montana we expect a heat wave, but to have that degree of temperature for that extended period is unusual."
Most of the West is in the same heat wave. Salt Lake City Thursday broke its previous record for consecutive days with 100 degree heat or higher, set in 1960. Salt Lake City hit 100 for 10 days in a row Thursday.
The heat is centered over the four corners of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and over the Western mountains, Dittmann said.
"The interior sections of the Rockies have really been baking," he said.
The temperatures have not helped the drought. The drought status of much of Montana had been forecast to improve, but is back to severe or exceptional status on the National Drought Monitor. Only the northeastern fifth of the state is listed as being out of drought conditions, Dittmann said.
Dittmann said the drought extends over much of the West, especially over Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon.
"About one-third to one-fourth of the country in in extreme to severe drought," Dittmann said.
A weather system from Canada is pushing into Montana and the Dakotas, Idaho and interior Washington, he said. That will bring lower temperatures, cloud cover and potential precipitation probably through Sunday.
The higher temperatures will probably be back next week, but the indications are that the wind won't be as high and the system probably won't last as long, he said.
Meland, who said he didn't plant winter wheat because of a high number of grasshoppers last fall, said cooler, damper weather might help a little.
"It would probably help what is there. (The heads) would probably fill a little better. It couldn't recover but it would probably help."