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Rain buoys farmers but muddies waters


Getting about three inches of rain in the last week has raised some cautious optimism in local farmers and ranchers.

"I think they're going to cut a crop, which is a good feeling," said Elizabeth Woods, who farms near Joplin with her husband, Greg.

Richard Jackson, who has a cattle and grain operation near Rudyard, agreed.

"(The rain) was really good for agriculture. I would say, give us another three weeks and we'll need something on top again. This won't get us through for a real good year, but it goes a long ways toward it," he said.

The National Weather Service reported 3.49 inches of rain falling at the Havre City-County Airport from 6 a.m. Friday through 6 a.m. today. That compares with a total for the year of 2.42 inches on June 1, 1.59 inches of which fell in May.

The rainfall brought Havre above the yearly average to date 1.22 inches above normal this morning for the first time this year.

The levels of the Milk River, Fresno Reservoir and the St. Mary Diversion irrigation project that feeds the Milk are well above the levels they were last year at this time. But that doesn't mean water restrictions in the area will end.

Jeff Jensen, superintendent of the Havre water plant, said the city hasn't had time to decide whether to end restrictions. Havre residents can only water on alternating days.

The restrictions were put in place for conservation, not because Havre didn't have enough water, Jensen said. Communities downstream from Havre also depend on the Milk for municipal water, and ag producers depend on it for irrigation water.

Havre officials voiced concerns when the city put the restrictions in place on April 24 that using too much water could hurt communities downstream.

Bob Painter, supervisor of the Chinook water plant, said Chinook has gone from having too little water to having too much muddy water.

"I'm having trouble making water right now, there's so much dirt in the water," he said.

The plant is using three times as many chemicals to treat the water as it normally does, and is having to shut down to clean filters twice as often as normal, Painter said.

The conservation restrictions Chinook has could continue, he added. While the rain is helpful, there could still be a long, hot summer, Painter said.

Jensen also said a huge amount of sediment is expected to hit the Havre water plant, which will slow down water treatment.

How much effect the rainfall has on springs, wells and reservoirs is still to be seen. Local water-well drillers were extremely busy last fall and over the winter replacing water supplies that had dried out.

Producers at the time said wells and springs that had never dried up in several generations were giving out last year.

The rain has helped some with reservoirs, Jackson said. Some on his land are now between a third and a half full much better than last fall.

"There was nothing in there then," he said.

The precipitation from April on has had an effect on crops and pasture, Jackson said. How well the crops turn out depends on the weather in the next month or two.

"It looks nice now, everything is green. I think we'll get something," he said. "It depends on the wind and how hot it gets."

Part of the need for future moisture depends on how early people planted their crops, Woods said. If the crops were planted early and sent roots deep into the soil, the moisture this recent rain put in the subsoil will help, she said.

If crops were planted later and haven't sent roots deep, it won't help as much, Woods said.

The effect the rain has on grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land has yet to be seen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began May 22 to allow grazing on CRP land in many Montana counties.

Mike Zook, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Hill County, said the local CRP committee will review grazing at its meeting Monday. The committee is required to review the need for grazing on a monthly basis, he said.

There are some problems with ending the grazing now, Zook added. Producers who have already paid the fees would be required to stop grazing, and the summer could still have limited forage, he said.

"Just because we've had some wonderful showers that are likely to help, we aren't out of the woods yet," he said.

Jackson, whose operation concentrates on cattle, said the CRP grazing was a lifesaver.

"Our cattle are in that (CRP land) right now. If it hadn't been for that, I don't know what we would have done," he said.

The need for CRP grazing through the summer remains to be seen, Jackson said, adding that most pasture grass usually is done growing by June.

The native grasses depend on cooler weather for full growth, so the shape of pastures will depend on how hot the next few weeks are, he said.


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