By Tim Leeds
Parts of north-central Montana have had plenty of rain too much at the wrong time, in many cases but crop yields are still low in many areas.
"It's pretty sporadic from area to area," Hill County Extension agent Clay Sewell said. "It seems like if it's not one thing it's another."
Area farmers have reported problems ranging from extreme heat in July, hail damaging crops, large amounts of weeds, and sawfly infestations.
"We've lost hundreds of tons of hay in the county, lost due to the timing of the rains," Sewell said.
North-central Montana has been in severe drought for at least three years, and received the highest drought rating given by the U.S. Drought Monitor in May, the earliest any area of the country received the exceptional drought rating.
Since then, the area around Havre has been one of the wettest in the state, National Weather Service meteorologists say. The Weather Service reporting station at the Havre airport had recorded 11.68 inches of rain for the year this morning. The Havre precipitation by early August had beat the annual average of 11.16 inches.
Other areas in north-central Montana haven't received as much rain. Judee Wargo, Chouteau County Extension agent, said that county is still at about 50 percent of its normal precipitation.
The National Drought Monitor shows most of north-central Montana still abnormally dry or in moderate drought, although the soil moisture is much improved from last year.
Regardless of the precipitation, most crops are not at their best.
"Most of the crops got hit pretty hard when it got to be 100 degrees," Wargo said.
Local grain elevator operators say the yields have varied, but are below average in most areas. Blaine County has had fairly good yields so far, although problems are still hitting the crops.
Scott McIntosh, manager of the Columbia Grain elevator in Harlem, said yields have been about 30 to 35 bushels an acre, a little lower than average.
"That heat in July kind of smoked us out," he said.
Kay Blatter, chairman of the joint board of Milk River irrigation authorities, said water has been available from Fresno Reservoir for irrigation. But since so much rain has fallen and water was going over the Fresno Dam spillway, the irrigators haven't needed to order much water from the federal Bureau of Reclamation, he said.
Other areas are having much lower yields. Merlin Wolery, a state representative who farms near Rudyard, said he expects to average about 15 bushels an acre, rather than the norm of 30 or more.
"There's little pockets of better wheat in the county, but there's pockets of worse wheat too," he said.
Jim Briden of Agri Air in Chester said the yields have been minimal so far, although much of the northern part of Liberty County has better wheat that is yet to be harvested.
In the southern part of the county, yields seem to be about three to 18 bushels an acre, Briden said. Closer to Chester, most crops have yielded about six to 18 bushels, he said.
John Maatta, Liberty County Extension agent, said the crops have been hit with a multitude of problems. After the severe heat in July, about three weeks ago hail devastated some crops from north of Chester to the Hill County line, and sawflies are hurting crops. Areas from Cut Bank to north of Joplin have a severe infestation of grasshoppers, Maatta said.
"You don't dare go down the road with your arm out the window," he said.
Crops north of Havre also were flattened by hail.
"That was 100 percent (loss) for some families," Sewell said.
The wheat has some weed problems, and a tremendous sawfly problem, Wolery said. The heat in July also has hit the yield hard, he said.
"The hot weather negated the rain," he said.
Then the later rain brought the weeds back. Most farmers sprayed for weeds, he said, but more grew back later.
Sewell said drought-resistant weeds, like kosha and Canadian thistle, survive the drought, then prosper when the drought is over.
"They're a drought-tolerant weed that do very well when they get moisture," he said.
The sawflies are another major problem across the state, not just in north-central Montana, Schuldt said.
The larvae of the insect mature inside hollow grain stems. As they eat the inside of the plant, it fills with a substance that looks like sawdust. Finally the insect eats its way out of the stalk in a circle, leaving it looking like it was cut with a saw.
Sawflies don't generally damage the head of the grain, but since it is lying on the ground, farmers can't harvest it.
Wargo said about the only way to stop sawflies is to plant solid-stemmed wheat. The stem crushes the eggs and larvae before they can damage the grain, she said.
Solid-stemmed wheat is becoming more common in winter wheat, Wargo said. But there's still a lot of hollow-stemmed spring wheat being planted.
North-central Montana received rain again Monday night, although most areas reported very light showers.
"It's just enough to dampen things down to keep the guys out of their fields," Maatta said.
In order to get crops harvested, the area needs a temporary return to the weather of the last three years, Sewell said.
"Right now we don't want any more rain. We want about two more weeks without moisture," he said.