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Drought plagues Montana's Golden Triangle

Drought conditions in Montana as of Aug. 18
U.S. Drought Monitor
Drought conditions in Montana as of Aug. 18, 2022

The agriculture-rich Golden Triangle in central Montana continues to be in severe or extreme drought.

After facing an extreme drought in 2021, the area's soil moisture has continued to decline.

“Because it's our soils that are our moisture bank, our bank was empty going into 2022," said Montana Farmers Union president Walter Schweitzer.

He says extreme drought this time of year is especially bad as farmers are finishing up harvest and preparing to plant next year’s crop. With more high temperatures and no precipitation in the forecast, Schweitzer says many farmers are being forced to make difficult decisions.

“Some farmers will choose not to plant the fall crop. Other farmers will plant a fall crop and if they have to, deal with the weeds and hope they get a rain or some rain event that will bring their crop up," he said.

And the drought isn’t unique to Montana — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor, much of the west is facing similar conditions.

For ranchers, the drought means a lack of hay and feed. And that, Schweitzer says, leads to cattle producers selling off some or all of their herds — something he understands all too well.

“I sold a third of my pairs in the spring, in anticipation of, because, you know, I was going into the spring 10 inches behind and, and no relief in sight," he said. "And now I'm, you know, I usually sell about 1000 tonnes of hay a year. I'm going to struggle to have enough hay for my own cows.”

According to Northwest Farm Credit Services, hay prices throughout the region are $100 higher than in 2021 and can cost as much as $300 per ton. All of this is exacerbated by supply chain issues and ongoing inflation driving up the cost of everything from fertilizer to fuel.

Ellis Juhlin is YPR's Statehouse reporter based in Helena.