When the rain doesn’t come . . .

In early May, the U.S. Drought Monitor classified neither the Dakotas nor Montana in a drought. Eight weeks later, drought covered 47 percent of North Dakota, 34 percent of South Dakota, and the eastern third of Montana. The suddenness of the drought’s onset and expansion has been remarkable and disheartening.

By Angel Wyrwas

In early May, the U.S. Drought Monitor classified neither the Dakotas nor Montana in a drought. Eight weeks later, drought covered 47 percent of North Dakota, 34 percent of South Dakota, and the eastern third of Montana. The suddenness of the drought’s onset and expansion has been remarkable and disheartening.

“There’s not a lot of smiles among the agricultural circle,” said rancher Dean Wang of Baker. “Everyone is feeling the weight of the weather, it’s stressful.” In eastern Montana, hot and dry weather continues to deteriorate pasture, rangeland, and crop conditions as temperatures soar and stay above 90 degrees with no significant rain in the forecast. Not having any rain would be problematic on its own but combine that with strong winds and extreme temperatures in recent weeks that have accelerated the evaporation process, stripping the ground of its moisture and it becomes insurmountable.

An insurance adjuster sets out a can of soda in the field to see what percentage of the can the plants cover. “He said you know when you can see the whole can, it’s bad,” said Mike and Dorinda Gunderson, owners of Gunderson Farms. But producers don’t have to be told how bad it is, they’re out looking at it every day, wondering what their next move is.

“My family has been farming and ranching this land for many generations. And this year I don’t know how we are going to make it,” said an area producer that wished to remain anonymous as his family discussed the all too real possibility of bankruptcy. “It is devastating to look at my fields and see that what little did come up is withering away now too.”

On July 19, Montana Governor Steve Bullock declared a drought disaster for 28 eastern counties including Fallon, Carter, Custer, Powder River, Prairie and Wibaux. Being classified D3 for extreme drought has triggered a lot of different disaster programs that may help producers get through the season. But some nearby farmers have already called it quits on this year’s crops.

“Winter wheat is worth more as hay,” said Wang, “so producers are baling it up to feed cattle. But it’s not a win because they’re still losing revenue.” Typically during a poor hay year, producers would look to purchase hay from nearby western North Dakota, northeast Montana or southern Canada but those areas are dry this year too. Producers end up looking farther for the hay they need and have to pay higher transportation costs.

Gundersons had asked some landowners if they could swath their winter wheat fields for hay and were told the landowners would get back to them. Not long after, Gundersons noticed other producers cutting those same fields for hay. “There is even some competition for what’s available close by,” said Gunderson.

But luckily they ended up selling five acres of land for money to purchase hay and found what they needed in Belgrade and Great Falls. “It’s better than having to haul it from Texas,” said Gunderson. “And now we’re getting calls wondering if our supplier might have enough to sell to others around here.” Better to buy now than a month or two down the road when prices will be even higher.

“I think the grass is adequate enough to get the calves through until fall and cattle prices are still alright,” said Wang, “but then producers wrestle with difficult decisions. Do you winter the cattle at a feed lot and bring them home to calve, or buy hay and try to make it or sell them all off? What if they have food but no access to water because the dams are dry? What if you gamble only to have a third bad hay year in a row? There is no easy answer, it’s an impossible decision.”

The lack of rain is not only felt by farmers and ranchers but every retailer and supplier as well. Area stores report a sharp decrease in sales, fighting to also weather the drought. Samuel Johnson said, “Rain is good for the vegetables, and for the animals who eat those vegetables, and for the animals who eat those animals.” There is no dispute that rain is good. We pray fervently for it, desperately for it.

But when the rain doesn’t come, what then? When the rain doesn’t come, we pray for our neighbors. When the rain doesn’t come, we support our neighbors. When the rain doesn’t come, we must care for each other. Because when the rain doesn’t come, we are all in this together.

      



GAMES

Add Comment