Havre Daily News
A combination of wheat, dust and straw hung in the air as a John Deere combine ripped through rows of winter wheat at dusk this week. Karl Verploegen has farmed all of his life. As the sky darkened he kept an eye on a rain cloud that hovered over his field and understood that his workday might have to be cut short. Still watching, he pressed on, cutting everything in his path.
Verploegen began working about 10 a.m. on Tuesday. He's usually in the fields earlier in the morning. His late start was on account of rain Monday night.
"It all depends on the weather," he said. "Sometimes you go as long as you can stay awake. Sometimes you go until 2 o'clock in the morning. Sometimes you'll do that for four or five days."
The rain gave Verploegen a brief, if unwelcomed break. A wet field makes it difficult to knock the wheat heads out of their sheaths.
Nature determines the length of a farmer's workday and is a main factor in the outcome of the field's prosperity.Verploegen is content with his winter wheat crop and the dry weather this week is giving him and area farmers plenty of time in their fields.
As local farmers sit in their combines or walk through their fields, they have time to think about what has gone well - June rains - and what hasn't - low wheat prices and a sawfly infestation.
"This year was just about perfect. Everything was dry in the spring, but then we got that rain in June and that made it pretty good for winter wheat," Verploegen said.
The general rule is that by July 4, farmers know how their winter wheat crop will do. An extra push of rain during the holiday is the icing on the cake, but even without it this year, local farmers are happy with what they see.
Winter wheat harvesting in Hill County began this week and most farmers look forward to above average yields, Hill County Extension agent Joe Broesder said Thursday.
Farmers credit June rains as well as chance. The Havre area received 6.36 inches of rain since April, with a lot of it falling in June, but that rain was patchier than normal, Broesder said.
"We haven't had a lot of rain in this area, where I'm at," Mark Peterson said from his farm north of Kremlin. "We've only had about 3 inches in the growing season. The crops are just amazing for the amount of moisture we've had."
Peterson said he's seen wetter years produce lower yields.
"We don't understand, to this day, the interaction between the amount of moisture and the timing of rain," he said. Soil moisture also played a role, he said.
The eastern third of the county tended to get more rain compared with the western two- thirds, Broesder said.
Les Kaercher, who farms 10 miles west of Havre, saw plenty of rain at his farm - more than 5 inches in June.
"Up until then, things didn't look too good," he said. "We were gearing toward a below normal crop at that point."
With the rains, and a mild winter, "It has the potential of being one of our best if not the best" in the 25 years that Kaercher has farmed, he said.
Jon Stoner, who farms north of Havre and is vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, is happy with his crop.
"Which is really pretty amazing, given the conditions it has gone through," he said. A late frost and a dry spring seemed to have pronounced doom, he said.
"We had almost written the crop off because it had been so dry," he said. Now, Stoner is expecting about a 50-bushel yield of heavy wheat with a high protein content.
Local farmers may have been lucky with rain, but they have two other challenges to deal with this year. The first was the sawfly, a small yellow and black wasp that weakens wheat stems, often causing stems to fall over.
Many local farmers have reported significant damage from sawflies, Broesder said. Until the wheat is harvested, there's no telling how much wheat is actually lost, he said.
Wanda McIntosh, who farms near the Canadian border, said her family's fields are 20 percent to 70 percent sawfly damaged.
"It's made it all the more urgent to get the crop off," Stoner said, adding that he hopes to get the wheat off before more plants fall.
At Peterson's farm, 90 percent of the wheat has sawfly damage, he said. Peterson's farm was the location for an experimental release of parasitoids, wasps that should combat the sawfly.
The Montana Department of Agriculture, along with a donation by BNSF, is responsible for the experiment that Peterson hopes will work.
Otherwise, he said, there aren't a lot of options.
Many farmers try a solid stem wheat which is more sawfly resistant, though tends to have a lower yield, Broesder said. Solid stem spring wheat addresses the problem, but the solid stem winter wheat is less resistant to deep freezes.
McIntosh said that at her farm two miles from the border, it's far too cold for solid stem winter wheat. She uses an attachment on the combine to lift the fallen plants. It requires regular rock picking in the fields though, because rocks can damage the equipment.
Stoner said he tries crop rotation both to replace nitrogen in the soil, and also to stave off the sawfly. He planted peas in about 15 percent of his fields this year, which he said he's also harvesting now.
Reuben Scheuerman Jr. , who farms southeast of Kremlin, has not had much sawfly damage because he uses a solid stem winter wheat. Most years he finds it hardy enough to withstand the cold, he said.
Scheuerman said he helps protect the wheat by planting directly into the stubble of last year's crop without tilling. "It creates a little microclimate," he said.
Despite the damage, farmers are optimistic until they look at prices.
"Abysmal," one said. "In the pits," said another.
Imagine it this way, Peterson said. You go to work every day, year after year, but some years you are told you will get $5 an hour, another year $7, and maybe, every 10 years, you'll get $9 or $10.
"You never know what you're going to be paid from year to year, but you've got to do the same work," he said.
Many local farmers will store their grain, waiting and hoping that prices improve, but storing grain adds to expenditures, Broesder said.
Stoner hopes that higher quality wheat will bring in a bit of a premium. The market is flooded with wheat, but companies are often looking for wheat with a higher protein concentration to blend with other grain.
"It's something the world looks for," Broesder said.
The drought in the Midwest may help the prices, Stoner said. But along with the price of fuel, with combines burning 100 gallons a day, it may be a break even year for farmers, he said.
Havre Daily News reporter Nikki Carlson contributed to this story.