Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Improved crop yields and soil moisture are painting the best picture farmers and ranchers have seen since drought spread its gloom in north-central Montana, but the problems caused by drought are not over yet.
"We had a better crop this year than in recent years," said Gary Meland, who farms and ranches north of Havre. But, of course, he said yield depended on the amount of moisture and when it fell, factors that vary greatly from field to field and farm to farm.
"There's yields here that are setting records and yields that aren't so good," Meland said.
He said his spring wheat had bushel-an-acre yields ranging from the teens to the 30s.
Following years of deficits, parts of north-central Montana already have received more than their average annual precipitation, with 2 months to go in 2004. That increases soil moisture content.
The National Weather Service this morning reported Havre's total rainfall at 11.28 inches, compared with an average of 10.33 inches. Last year at this date Havre had 9.11 inches of precipitation.
Meland said it's a good start, but "we're going to take quite a few years to recharge our soil moisture."
Local grain elevators are reporting better yields.
"We're not getting rich but we're paying the bills from the last two years," said Scott McIntosh, general manager of the Columbia Grain International elevator in Harlem.
McIntosh said most farmers in Blaine County saw yields of 40 to 50 bushels an acre for spring wheat.
Blaine County's spring wheat harvest totaled about 24 percent higher than average, said Tracy Harshman, the federal Farm Service Agency's executive director in Blaine County.
"It was a good year for spring wheat," she said.
Harshman said the spring wheat did better than winter wheat in Blaine County, but not many people planted winter wheat.
The opposite tended to be true in Hill County. Farmers saw higher yields on winter wheat, although spring wheat also had better yields.
Randy Olstad, general manager of the Archer Daniels Midland-Cenex Harvest States elevators in Havre and Big Sandy, said he thinks the conditions for next year's winter wheat look very good so far.
"We still have to get the grain up and get it through the winter," he added.
The state is not out of the drought, which has persisted for six or seven years in some areas.
Jesse Aber of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, a member of the governor's Drought Advisory Task Force, said earlier this week that the drought designations of counties in Montana are in a state of flux. Hill, Blaine and Phillips counties have been assigned a "no-drought" status, and Liberty and Chouteau counties have a "slightly dry" status. The task force moved other counties, especially in eastern and central Montana, into "severely dry" status, he said.
The southeast corner of the state still has extreme drought conditions, he said.
Harshman said north-central Montana needs to receive several years of above-average precipitation to make up for a moisture deficit created by years of drought. There is not much of a reserve in the soil.
"Everything good that happened this year was just on this year's moisture. Subsoil moisture is still a problem," she said.
Recent precipitation has helped that. The weekly crop weather report issued Tuesday by the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service said 41 percent of topsoil in the state has adequate or surplus moisture, compared with 10 percent in this week last year.
The report said 26 percent of subsoil has adequate or surplus moisture, compared with 5 percent last year.
Olstad said winter wheat yields in Hill County typically ranged from 40 bushels an acre to 60 bushels an acre or higher, a little higher than the 40 to 50 bushels an acre many winter wheat farmers in Hill County saw in 2003.
Most of the land planted with winter wheat in Montana was harvested this year, with farmers abandoning 270,000 acres of 1.9 million acres planted statewide in 2003, or 14 percent.
Several factors can kill winter wheat, including lack of moisture and lack of snowcover through the winter.
The 2004 winter wheat yield was much higher than in the severe drought year of 2001, when farmers were lucky to break 30 bushels an acre and abandoned more than 33 percent of 1.3 million acres planted statewide with winter wheat in the fall of 2000.
Olstad said spring wheat yields in Hill County averaged 30 to 45 bushels an acre this year, which was good but not as good as many farmers hoped earlier in the year.
"The potential was even better," he said.
Spring wheat planted in 2003, which looked like it could produce bumper crops early in the year, had disappointing yields after extreme heat in July, intermittent and poorly timed rain, hail and pests like sawflies decimated crops. Hill County elevators reported in 2003 that many farmers had yields of 6 to 18 bushels an acre, about the same as in 2001.