Drought on the horizon? Dry May and June worrying growers

Managing Editor

A map prepared for the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee shows precipitation for May was only 79 percent of normal.

Map courtesy of Lucas Zukiewicz, USDA


Slightly dry is the official designation for Fergus and most surrounding Central Montana counties, but farmers and ranchers in the area are already talking about the possibility of drought.

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Coulston, Lewistown’s June precipitation total so far is running about a third of an inch below normal.

“There have been some significant storms recently but there have also been fairly long periods between storms,” Coulston said. “In May the storms were all rain, not snow, so the moisture either rain off or soaked in already.”

For the year to date, Lewistown has recorded 7.49 inches of precipitation, measured at the airport, which is over three-quarters of an inch below normal.

“May and June are usually the wettest months for Lewistown and most of Central Montana,” Coulston said. “What’s happened this year is the wet storms coming in from the Pacific coast have dropped their moisture before they got here, or they went south. Mostly what we’ve received from these storms has been wind.”

With less moisture and wind drying things out even more, farmers are noticing a difference.

“Grass and hay crops were headed out the beginning the May, which is quite early,” said Katie Hatlelid, Judith Basin County Extension agent. “Many are cutting their hay already, instead of in July which is more normal.”

Hatlelid said the past few years, spring weather has been warmer than average in Central Montana, but soil moisture depends on where in the area one farms.

“Right now, Geyser, Stanford and Denton are doing OK,” Hatlelid said, “but Grass Range is running 3 inches below normal precipitation. From Lewistown east, they missed the rains and it’s much dryer than usual, but spring crops are looking pretty good on the Judith Basin County side.”

 In fact, the entire northeast corner of the state is listed as moderately dry in a June 8 map produced by the Montana Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee.

“It’s really difficult to monitor drought conditions,” said Ada Montague, a water planner with the Department of Natural Resources Conservation and a staffer for the Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee. “Drought can come on quickly, with just a few unusually dry weeks, or it can develop over the long term.”

Montague said the best source of information regarding impending drought comes from measuring snowpack.

“The snowpack in the Judith and Musselshell watersheds is low,” she said.

A well-used saying in Central Montana is “we are only two weeks away from a drought.” Montague said although the current situation is dryer than normal, it’s hard to say what the rest of the summer will bring.

“NOAH’s forecast shows a 33 to 40 percent chance of above normal precipitation for the summer months,” she said. “But it also shows a chance for warmer than usual weather, so if the precipitation doesn’t show up, two weeks of warm, dry weather could put Central Montana in drought conditions.”

The northeast corner of the state is already seeing impacts from the dry conditions, with some crops struggling and farmers selling off livestock, Montague said.

“Producers should stay in touch with the Governor’s committee or their local officials,” she added. If there is a drought developing, there are tools available for local drought mitigation efforts.”

The Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee meets monthly during most of the year. Information about the committee is available on the website http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/water/drought-management/drought-committee-....



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