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With dry soil and continued drought, Montana wheat farmers could face tough choices

Due to high temperatures and low water supply, farmer Kurtis Dykema says his wheat crop is not as "full and thick" as he would like.
Olivia Weitz
Farmers who planted winter wheat into dry soil last fall may face difficult decisions this spring.

Recent rain and snow improved drought conditions slightly in some parts of Montana. But it may not be enough to green up winter wheat fields that were planted last fall.

Farmers who planted winter wheat into dry soil last fall may face difficult decisions this spring, says Montana State University agroecology professor Bruce Maxwell.

“They planted into dry soil with the expectation that they would get rain and when the rain didn’t come and the snow didn’t come, those seeds just sit in the ground,” he said.

Charlie Bumgarner, who planted around 3,000 acres of winter wheat at his farm in central Montana about 10 miles east of Great Falls, says some parts of his fields are looking spotty.

“It’s really, really struggling right now," he said. "It was just super dry when we put it in last fall."

Bumgarner says he’s hopeful warmer spring temperatures will bring more of his crop out of the ground, but reseeding some fields in the coming weeks is possible.

“You can just see a little bit of green coming, so we’re just kind of hoping that it’s going to fill in,” he said.

Maxwell says for wheat farmers to have decent yields this year, it’s going to take precipitation that sinks down to the root level. Montana currently has some of the driest top soil conditions in the country.

More than two thirds of winter wheat growing areas across the country are now experiencing drought.

According to historical data the USDA sourced from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the amount of winter wheat grown in areas in extreme drought is up 8-fold compared to last year.

Montana Wheat and Barley Committee executive vice president Cassidy Marn says wider-spread drought this year will likely reduce the overall U.S. wheat supply.

“The winter wheat states look really, really poor right now," she said. "Oklahoma is in very bad shape, Texas is in very bad shape. Just drought wise, [we're] kind of in the spot that we were last year looking at half of a crop."

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.