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Severe Drought Conditions Impact Montana Ranchers

About 16 miles West of Winnett, Nick Schultz turned his hay field into forage for his cattle after the drought deteriorated grazing conditions in pasture areas.
Olivia Weitz
Yellowstone Public Radio
About 16 miles west of Winnett, Nick Schultz turned his hay field into forage for his cattle after the drought deteriorated grazing conditions in pasture areas.

Low rainfall and high temperatures during this year’s drought damaged hay crops and grazing pastures. Because of this, some ranchers in Montana are facing difficult decisions.

In his 15 years ranching just west of Winnett, Nick Schultz says he’s never seen a year quite like this one.

“This is our hay meadow—and a lot of time the hay here right where we stand would be up to our shoulders and it didn’t get up to our ankles this year,” he says.

For the first time, Schultz turned his hay field into forage for his cattle. He brought cows down pasture when grasses there dried up. He says now they can eat what little is left from his hay crop.

“We generally take about five weeks to hay and it took us about three days, didn’t take very long and so we’re done haying,” Schultz says.

Schultz says yields on his hay crop were down 85% this year. Ranchers across Montana also saw reduced yields and that leaves them with a tough choices, says Jim Steinbeisser, President of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

“You have two choices: bite the bullet and buy expensive hay, or the economics are likely going to say to you 'You’re going to have to liquidate some livestock,'” Steinbeisser says.

Steinbeisser says even the best prepared ranchers had to confront this in 2021.

“No matter how good of a manager you are, no matter how well you planned ahead, you are being impacted in a major way," he says.

During drought years when there’s hay shortages the Montana Department of Agriculture opens up the hay hotline. It’s like Craigslist for finding hay. You can post a "hay wanted" or a "for sale" ad. Some listings are asking more than $200 a ton.

Steinbeisser says because of high hay prices many ranchers across Montana have been forced to sell off between 20 and 80% of their cattle herd.

Mark Sande, who lives in southwest Montana, says if the forage he has doesn’t hold out he is looking at reducing his herd by more than half this fall. He recently sold 13 cows at the Headwaters Livestock Auction in Three Forks.

“We usually don’t sell them this early, but we’re short of grass this year so we figured we’d just sell them,” Sande says.

Drought conditions dried up the soil and made it hard for hay crops to grow this year. Troy Blandford, a water system information manager for the state, relayed drought impacts to the governor’s Drought & Water Supply Committee.

“The central part of the state there, particularly Petroleum County, Musselshell County, little to no growth in pastures, selling cows. Crops, a lot of the crops instead of harvesting them are being grazed and just used as forage now for cattle,” Blandford says.

Blandford says this year’s drought is the most sweeping, statewide, in 20 years. According to the US Drought Monitor, 98% of Montana is experiencing severe drought.

Paul McKenna is a brand inspector for the Montana Department of Livestock and has worked in the ranching business since the 80s. He’s seen how drought can destroy livelihoods that took generations to build. He says drought impacts last longer than you might think.

“It’s a different impact because it’s not as immediate—you don’t see the immediate impact like you don’t see the immediate impact of a fire or flood. The impact of the drought will go on for years,” McKenna says.

What happened during this year’s drought is a preview of what’s to come, says Bruce Maxwell, professor of agroecology in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University.

“Farmers might hope for a wet year next year—and that’s fine. And they might get it; they might get lucky. But increasingly we’re going to have summers like this is what the projections say,” Maxwell says.

Maxwell co-authored the Montana Climate Assessment Report. Since 1950, annual average temperatures in Montana have increased between 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Maxwell says by 2040 it’ll be common to have more than 30 days a year with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The ranching community, in particular, needs to really sit back and examine what the situation is and how they can deal economically with these kinds of conditions. I’m just afraid that they’ve been sort of unrealistic about what the situation is,” Maxwell says.

Rancher and brand inspector McKenna says, by nature, people who work in agriculture and ranching are optimistic about the future. Back in Winnett, Schultz echoed that optimism when asked about the future of the drought.

“Well, this isn’t gonna last. There’s never been a year the same and it will always get better. And the challenge will be different next year,” he says.

Schultz adapted this year, but he worries it’ll take years for ranchers to build back what they lost. He says his herd will never be the same.

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.