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Yields are down for crops of all varieties, harvests have come early and cattle are being sold in high numbers throughout Montana as drought continues to grip the state.

“(The low yields) are definitely impactful, and I’ve been hearing about it a lot over a very widespread area,” said Nicole Rolf, senior government affairs director for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. “There are areas where farmers were not even able to get a crop in.”

On Tuesday, all of Montana was in moderate to exceptional drought, with portions of southwest and eastern parts of the state experiencing exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Under exceptional drought — the worst drought classification issued — pasture loss is widespread and fire risk is extremely high. The dry conditions have hit farmers and ranchers hard, especially cattle producers on rangeland in eastern Montana, according to Rolf.

“A lot of people have been forced to sell cows just because of the shortage of forage, and that’s going to impact them far down the line,” she said. “Like, you can’t just make the grass grow, you can’t just bring your cows back.”

An August forecast shared at a Montana Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee meeting last week showed that total yields of wheat, barley, alfalfa, hay across the state in 2021 are on track to be the lowest in decades.

Forecasts indicated that winter, spring and durum wheat yields could be the lowest yields seen since 2002, 1988 and 2017, respectively. Yields of barley may be the lowest since 1988.

The yield for alfalfa may be the lowest since 1935.

In total, officials predicted that Montana would produce 2.25 million fewer tons of hay in 2021 than in 2020, according to numbers shared by Eric Sommers, state statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“That means we’re trucking in hay, and we’re probably reducing cow herd and sheep herd numbers. We’re definitely shipping earlier,” Sommers said. “It’s very concerning.”

Susan Duncan, Drought

A yearling steer looks out from his pen on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Susan Duncan and her husband raise Irish Dexter cattle on a property they "built from scratch."

Sommers said August rains helped producers, but didn’t relieve crops much. Harvest proceeded earlier than usual this year, and ranchers are moving sheep and cattle early.

“With the dry conditions, a lot of the hay areas are relying upon irrigation to get a third cutting,” Sommers said. “It’s going to be a heavy insurance year.”

Rolf said that even though yields are low, the quality of wheat produced this year is largely good. Still, it’s not clear to what extent that might benefit farmers.

Rains that arrived in August were enough to green things up and improve peoples’ outlooks, according to Rolf. She’s hoping fall rains will deliver this year.

“This is remarkably resilient country we live in. If we can get some good fall moisture, it’ll give cattle a chance to get caught up and put on some condition before winter hits,” she said. ”It will also give farmers the good ground moisture they need to have a good crop for next year or get their winter crops off to a good start.”

Farmers and ranchers in the Gallatin Valley who were able to irrigate and get access to hay early have been faring better.

Susan Duncan, a board member of the Gallatin Association of Agricultural Irrigators who raises grass-fed Irish Dexter cattle, has spent the summer adjusting where she keeps her animals. In mid-August, when her pastures in Belgrade started drying out, she penned up her animals and supplemented them with hay she’d cut earlier.

Susan Duncan, Drought

Susan Duncan gives Short Stops Red Dragon, an 8-year-old bull, a scratch on the back on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Duncan hoped irrigating her land would help get the pastures growing again, but there wasn’t enough water in her ditch along the Gallatin River to keep the pivots on. After a bout of rain in August, she was able to send her animals back onto pasture.

Fortunately, Duncan has grown an acceptable amount of hay on her own property and was able to secure a source for supplemental hay earlier this year, before region-wide shortages and sky-high prices set in.

A friend of Duncan’s wasn’t as lucky. They are looking for 500 tons of hay and can’t find it anywhere, she said.

Duncan secured buyers for several steers, which should reduce the number of animals she has to feed through the winter. At this point, she sees only two strategies left for livestock producers.

“You either buy hay, keep your cows and feed them out, or you cut your numbers one way or another by selling them off or processing them,” Duncan said. “We are doing both, but not on as grand or as desperate a scale as others have had to do.”

If Duncan and her husband were to sell out all their herd, it would be selling out their life’s work, she said. That would be gut-wrenching, and it’s a choice that many producers in the state are making, she said.

“You have a very personal investment, to the point where if you sell out everything, it’s really wrenching,” she said. “You load them on the cattle truck and they drive away and in a way, you don’t know who you are anymore.”

Susan Duncan, Drought

A group of yearling steers look out from their pen on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. Susan Duncan and her husband raise Irish Dexter cattle on a property they "built from scratch."

Mike Gaffke, who operates a small farm in the area between Bozeman, Belgrade and Four Corners, said the Gallatin River held up better than he expected this summer, and he’s been able to use the water cooperatively with others.

Since Gaffke has very senior water rights along the river, he’s been able to keep his canal flowing all year. He grows alfalfa, raises some cattle and is involved with a ditch company. This year, his yields are the best he’s ever had, but he knows he’s in the minority.

“It’s quite remarkable actually, when you have some people who are barely getting their first cutting, and I’m getting my third cutting done today,” he said. “I’m very fortunate.”

Jennifer Mohler, a local resource conservationist, has some land north of Belgrade where she irrigates and raises three horses. Because she practices rotational grazing and uses a dry lot, Mohler was prepared when the hay shortages hit, she said.

“I am very lucky in that I have water. That makes a big difference. Even through this summer, I’ve been able to irrigate my pastures,” she said. “I’ve found that I have about half production of normal, and most people that I’ve talked to are at a third or less. It’s just been pretty sad.”

Mohler said this year has been a big wake-up call.

“A lot of people don’t like the term climate change, but it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. It’s here,” she said. “Start preparing now for more drought conditions and tougher seasons like this.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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