Heat, Drought Portend Low Grain Harvest

Flathead farmers reporting low hay crops, potentially no second cutting

By Molly Priddy
Beacon file photo

It’s been a whirlwind year for farmers in Montana, with extreme weather and market prices dictating what will likely be a tough harvest for those in the agriculture business in the northwest corner of the state.

Drought and extreme heat have hindered grain production, and prices for grains have been on a steady decline since the end of 2014. Around the world, farmers are raising near-record levels of wheat, clocking in at 722 million tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some areas of the state have been lucky, getting the precipitation needed to produce wheat, canola, and hay. But in areas with drought, such as the Flathead Valley, dry-land farmers – those who don’t use irrigation in their fields – are hoping to at least reap half of a normal harvest.

“With the forage, the hay and alfalfa, if it’s irrigated we’re doing OK,” Pat McGlynn, the Flathead’s extension agent, said. “But the dry-land farming is really taking a hit.”

According to a report from the Kalispell CHS Agronomy Department, the upcoming harvest for grains and hay in the Flathead will most likely be about 50 percent of normal levels.

May this year was the driest on record, and June was the warmest on record. Adding those together means incredibly tough conditions for the valley’s grains and canola, because the all-important seeds that grow on the top of the canola and wheat don’t thrive in such heat so early on in the growth process.

Farmers reporting to CHS said their dry-land fields are short and sparse, with one farmer reporting his hay yield so far at just 33 percent of normal, while other farmers are considering cutting their wheat early to sell as forage.

Instead of waiting it out to see if the rain falls and saves the wheat crop, some local farmers would rather cut their losses and harvest the wheat while it still has nutritional properties, instead of waiting and having it turn to straw, McGlynn said.

Most consumers in the Flathead won’t feel the repercussions of a tough local wheat harvest, CHS reported, because the global market is producing at a level only second to the highest year on record, which happened to be 2014.

There’s plenty of wheat in a global sense, CHS reported, so locally, the biggest hit will likely fall under the lack of hay.

Unless the weather takes a dramatic turn and produces much more rain, there probably won’t be a second hay cutting in dry-land fields, which make up at least half of the fields in the valley, CHS reported.

“Hay is in short supply, and a lot of our people already had contracts to have hay go out of state,” McGlynn said. “They needed to meet those contracts first. Many of these people they sell the first cutting, and the second cutting they sell locally.”

As a horse owner herself, McGlynn said she has concerns about hay availability in Flathead County, and that even if there’s a need to import it, she’s unsure where it would come from, since most of the western U.S. has suffered a similar drought.

George Haynes, a professor with the Department of Agriculture Economics and Economics and an extension specialist, said some recent “substantial” rebounds in wheat prices could help local farmers, and cattle prices have remained strong.

“So that’s good news for producers up there, it’s an important part of (the) economy,” Haynes said.

Still, Haynes acknowledged the potential hardships for the Flathead economy, with agriculture playing such an important role.

“Any time you have these production issues in any county, there’s money that is spent by producers that doesn’t end up spent,” Haynes said. “There’s some local impacts that are important.”

And with cattle prices maintaining at solid levels – though they did drop to the lowest levels in a year on July 10 at $1.47 per pound after pressure from an increase in grain prices, which makes it more expensive to feed the cattle – more people are raising them, which leads to more demand for hay.

“For anyone who can and has the storage, they’re going to want to get that first cutting (of hay),” McGlynn said. 

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