Conditions improve but more rain needed for winter wheat crop


Cooler weather and rain showers this week came too late to help the spring wheat yields, but could be good news for farmers planning to plant winter wheat.

"This should be a pretty good year for winter wheat," Scott McIntosh, manager of the Columbia Grain International Inc. elevators in Havre and Harlem, said Monday.

The winter wheat yield in north-central Montana this year was above average, although heat and lack of rain over the summer reduced what had been expected to be a good yield for spring wheat.

At least the farmers were able to raise some crops this year, McIntosh said.

"We could have cut nothing. We cut something," he said. "It was a pretty good crop for what we were dealt."

Brian Britt, manager of the Columbia elevator in Rudyard, said about 70 percent of the wheat planted in Hill County was winter wheat this year, with yields of 40 bushels to 50 bushels an acre.

"If we can get rain in the next two weeks we'll have a lot of acres seeded again," he added.

Peggy Stringer, statistician with the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service, said the conditions for planting winter wheat this fall depend on precipitation. The soil conditions last fall were excellent.

"We're really devastated right now," she added.

The National Weather Service predicts much lower temperatures this week, with a chance of showers through tonight and again later this week. Highs are forecast in the 60s and lower 70s for most of the state, with lows in the 30s and 40s. The eight- to 14-day forecast is for below normal temperatures with near normal precipitation.

Areas of the state received some precipitation Monday and this morning, although the National Weather Service reported that most major accumulations were west of the divide. Most of north-central Montana received only a trace of precipitation, if any.

The Montana Agricultural Statistics Service will report grain yields Sept. 30. Estimates made based on conditions Aug. 1 show high yields on winter wheat crops, but spring wheat yields were low. The estimated average yield statewide for winter wheat was 37 bushels an acre, with spring wheat at 24 bushels an acre.

Good planting conditions last fall and precipitation in the spring led to a rebound in winter wheat yields. The averages in the state had ranged from 29 bushels to 42 bushels an acre in the 1990s, with most yields in the mid- to upper-30s. The average yields dropped to 22 bushels in 2001 and 28 bushels in 2002.

Spring wheat this year yielded about as much as it has during the prolonged drought. Yields were predicted in June to be close to or above average if precipitation continued, but the summer weather changed hat.

"It was pretty disappointing. The potential was huge," said Randy Olstad, Havre Archer Daniels Midland-Cenex Harvest States elevator manager.

Olstad said the winter wheat crop helped more farmers to the west, but in the areas of Chinook, Hogeland, Turner and Harlem the farmers planted mostly spring wheat.

"They were definitely hurt by it," he said.

The local elevators report most spring wheat yields in the mid-20s. A few farmers got higher yields, but others had even lower yields, Olstad said.

Rick Dittmann, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said Monday that the forecast for the winter is up in the air. The Climate Prediction Center in Washington, D.C., has nothing to indicate an above-normal or below-normal winter as far as precipitation.

"There's equal odds we could have a normal winter," he said. "Being as we haven't had a normal winter for so long, it could be a surprise for some people."

Jess Aber of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said that this fall and winter are the keys to recovery. Getting a good snowpack over the winter is especially important, he said.

"We'll be watching that like a hawk," said Aber, who is a member of the governor's Drought Advisory Committee.

With the ongoing drought, the state has built up an enormous cumulative water deficit. From 1996 through 2002, areas ranged from 8 inches to 18 inches short of their normal accumulation. Havre's cumulative deficit is 10.77 inches, just short of its average annual, about 11.5 inches.

Aber said the combination of heat and lack of rain put areas that were starting to recover right back into drought.

"Everything kind of coalesced in a bad way," he said. "We were ready for a dry spell but the heat really exacerbated things."

Havre hit the 90s and 100s almost the entire second half of July. Highs continued in the 80s, 90s and 100s until the end of August.

The Montana Agricultural Statistics Service reports an extreme drop in the soil moisture statewide. As of Friday, 99 percent of topsoil was reported short or very short of moisture, compared with 51 percent last year and a five-year average of 71 percent short or very short .

Only 1 percent of topsoil was reported with adequate moisture and none with a surplus, compared with 49 percent last year and 29 percent on the five-year average with adequate or surplus moisture.

Subsoil was the same story. The ag statistics service reported 79 percent is very short or short of moisture, compared with 74 percent last year and 79 percent on the five-year average.

Only 1 percent was reported with adequate moisture and none with a surplus, compared with 26 percent with a surplus or adequate moisture last year and 21 percent on the five-year average.

The entire state, along with almost all of the western half of the United States, is listed on the national Drought Monitor as in abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions.

Some help may be available to people hurt financially by the drought. Aber said at least 40 county governments have requested that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman make a natural disaster determination for their counties.

If the counties are declared disasters, it could help farmers and businesses by allowing programs that include extending loan grace periods, deferring capital gains from sales of livestock, allowing low-interest business loans, and making assistance available for drilling new water wells, Aber said.

After two years of debate, Congress in February passed $3.1 billion in disaster relief for ag producers. Part of that was for producers with losses of at least 35 percent incurred either in 2001 or 2002.

Hopefully, this autumn will be wetter than the summer and enough snow will fall to recharge streams' headwaters and the groundwater, Aber said. But it's too early to say.

"We don't know how it will all shake out," he said.

On the Net: Montana Drought Monitor:

National Drought Monitor:

Great Falls National Weather Service office:


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