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Wheat prices are high, but Montana farmers are planting more barley

Wheat and barley fields south of Manhattan, Montana, April 27, 2019.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio/File photo
Wheat and barley fields south of Manhattan, Montana, in 2019.

With wheat prices rising, some experts anticipated farmers in Montana would have planted more of it this spring. But a newacreage report shows farmers decided to plant less spring wheat and put more land into barley.

This spring Golden-Triangle based crop consultant Lyle Benjamin got a lot of calls from farmers wanting to plant barley instead of wheat. Back in May, he predicted this would show up in the statewide acreage report released Thursday.

“If I was going to throw a dart at the map we’re probably going to see barley come up 10 percent," he said. "We will see wheat acres down a little bit because of the high input cost."

Benjamin was right. In fact, farmers planted 16% more barley than last year — the most planted in Montana since 2003. Spring wheat plantings were down 5% compared to 2021.

Montana State University economist Vince Smith says high input costs — including fertilizer — are big factors when farmers look at per-acre profits.

“So if the difference between revenues from harvest and input costs are larger for barley, he’s going to plant barley for feed rather than spring wheat,” Smith said.

The USDAsays some farmers who purchased fertilizer last year avoided the price surges that happened after Russia invaded Ukraine. But, as global demand for fertilizer remains strong, it will likely impact decisions when it’s time to plant winter wheat later this year.

Dry planting conditions due to drought were also at play this spring, says Cassidy Marn, executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.

She says conditions have improved since then in eastern Montana and look good for spring wheat quality — but she says the Golden Triangle is still a “wildcard.”

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.