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A perfect storm dries up hay supply


Last updated 7/21/2021 at 11:25am

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

A grasshopper rests in the sun. High levels of grasshoppers in the area are causing severe damage to crops, just one of several major problems local agricultural producers are facing this season.

North-central Montana is in the midst of a serious hay shortage, the result of a perfect storm of severe drought conditions, a population explosion of grasshoppers and blister beetles, and the effects of last year's drop failure at the St. Mary Diversion.

Montana State University Hill County Extension Agriculture and 4-H Agent Colleen Buck said the drought conditions and less-than-ideal nitrate levels in the soil have made it difficult to grow much of anything and a lot of people have had trouble finding the hay they need to feed their livestock.

"The plants aren't growing, and everyone is just doing what they can to get hay," Buck said.

Unfortunately for those producers, the shortage has is so severe that it has caused some to have to sell cattle younger and earlier in the season because they don't have enough hay to winter them.

Buck said no producers she's spoken to in Hill County yet have talked about needing to sell cattle, but recent sales she's observed in Lewistown saw quite a few yearlings being sold, and it appears some producers are trying to get rid of replacement heifers as well.

She said this appears to be more common the further east in the state one goes. But they don't need to go far to see the difference, as the situation just one county over seems notably worse.

Montana State University Blaine County Extension Agriculture and 4-H Agent Juli Snedigar said things in her county are very serious both for cattle and hay producers.

Snedigar said she has seen a few producers have to sell off cattle they couldn't afford to keep, and the state of the hay market is such that even those who do have hay to sell are worried about how to price it.

"We've got people who are hesitant to even price hay because they don't know what it will be later into the summer and fall," she said.

She said the general drought conditions and hot weather have been further exacerbated by last year's drop structure collapse at the St. Mary Diversion which supplies water to the area's irrigators.

The diversion is one of the most important infrastructure projects in the region. Unfortunately, the catastrophic drop collapse in May of last year was the culmination of years of warnings that were not followed up on in time.

The diversion, one of the first projects the Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build after it was created in 1902, was completed more than a century ago to provide irrigation water to Milk River Valley farmers and ranchers, and last year's failure meant they could only do one irrigation.

Patchwork repairs have been done to the system over the years, paid for primarily by the users, and more than 20 years ago Milk River water users began campaigning to find funding to rehabilitate the system to prevent catastrophic failure, which led to the state establishing the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group in 2003. The group has been working to plan and find funding for rehabilitation ever since.

Emergency repairs to the diversion were completed last year, and efforts by Montana's congressional delegation to see the project funded continue.

Snedigar said all of this has further compounded this year's population explosion of grasshoppers which has plagued hay producers.

Buck said these are the offspring of last year's grasshoppers who had a population boom of their own.

Snedigar said the grasshoppers are are especially worse to the east.

Producers feeling the effects

Henry Gordon of the Gordon Cattle Company said he and his fellow producers are really feeling the effects of the shortage.

Gordon said he'd normally have put up around 2,000 tons of hay by this time of year, but this year has been a struggle.

"I don't think right now I have 200 ton," he said. "I haven't seen this bad a drought I don't think since way back in the '80s."

He said, due to how his operations are set up and the fact that he still has some hay from last year, he hasn't had to offload any cattle, but he still needs to find hay to get his cattle through the winter.

Unfortunately, he said, other producers haven't been so lucky, with many of them having to sell pairs of cattle they bought separately, at a reduced price, because buyers are so scarce.

"I mean, who's going to buy the pair, because there ain't nowhere to go with it," he said.

Gordon said he's still on the lookout for ways to get hay whether that means growing it or buying it, though neither avenue is easy at the moment.

"I'd take any moisture I can get right now," he said.

He also said the man he'd usually buy straw from has absolutely nothing to sell this year.

Gordon said he is having some luck getting hay out of Canada, but the prices are high.

He said he's paying between $185 and $220 a ton, but he's heard of some procedures having to pay around $300, far higher than it would normally be.

Gordon also said, while some of his land has been spared, the grasshoppers are really becoming a problem for other parts.

A long list of problems

Despite all of these issues, Gordon said his main concern at the moment is the potential for fires.

He said everything is still so dry that what little can be grown could be gone in hours if a fire occured.

"Everything is just kindling, and things would go fast," he said.

Gordon said these issues are obviously a big concern, but ultimately producers like him have to keep on keeping on like they've always done and hope for the best.

"We're kind of at Mother Nature's mercy," he said. "... I mean who knows, we might get into September and it may start raining and never quit."

This increase in the grasshopper population that has plagued folks like Gordon has brought with it an increase in blister beetles as well. These beetles feed on grasshopper eggs and are very dangerous to livestock if eaten.

A release from Hill County Extension says while the insects usually are found in alfalfa, their numbers this year have caused them to move into grass hay.

Blister beetles have cantharidin fluid in their bodies that causes blisters when it comes into contact with skin or is ingested. They mainly affect horses fed hay, but they can be toxic to other livestock as well, the release says. When the beetles are consumed livestock can suffer from blistering of the esophagus and stomach and kidney and heart function can be impaired, in severe cases, death can result.

Extension recommends that producers monitor their fields for black, grey, brown, striped or spotted type of beetles that are up to one inch long, and points out that self-propelled swathers without condition rollers but with windrowing attachments are safer than mower conditioners and sicklebar mowers.

They also said raking hay before baling also allows the beetles to leave the windrows and people should let hay dry down before baling, so that the beetles have a chance at getting out of the windrows.

More information can be found in the MontGuide MT200209AG, Blister Beetles of Montana, or by contacting MSU Hill County Extension Office at 406-400-2333.

On the other hand, to the west in Liberty County, the situation isn't quite as dire, though MSU Liberty County Extension Agent Jesse Fulbright said his county doesn't have as many hay and cattle producers as Hill or Blaine counties.

Fulbright said he hasn't heard much from local cattle producers, but hay producers in the area have been asking for nitrate tests on some of their other crops like winter and spring wheat because they want to bale them for potential hay.

He said many of them have been using the Montana Department of Agriculture's hay hotline, an online portal where producers can donate, buy or sell hay, pasture available or pasture wanted.

The hotline's website says producers who need donated hay can find it there at https://ext.services.agr.mt.gov/Hay_List/ .

More information about the Hay Hotline program can be found there as well.


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