Drought taking a toll: Crop and livestock producers very concerned

Managing Editor

The drought status map as of August 1 shows the entire state is dry, with Fergus County in the Extremely Dry category.

Photo courtesy of Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee


A serious drought is impacting crops and livestock across central and eastern Montana, including Fergus County. All it took was one month of July’s high temperatures and lack of moisture to push Fergus County from Moderately Dry (Drought Level 1) to Extremely Dry (Drought Level 3). 

Fergus County joins 11 other counties mostly in the southeast corner of the state, at Drought Level 3.

Nine counties in the northeast corner of Montana, including neighboring Petroleum County, are at the highest level, Drought Level 4, Exceptionally Dry.

On July 19, Governor Steve Bullock issued an executive order declaring drought in 28 Montana counties, including Fergus.


Families, local economies around the state suffering

The impact of ongoing drought is serious, as livestock producers and farmers struggle with losses.

“Livestock is requiring additional water…It hasn’t rained since June 10. Wind is drying and dangerous. Creeks and stock ponds reaching dangerous levels here,” posted a Judith Basin County rancher on Aug. 4. The rancher was reporting through the United States Drought Monitor website, maintained by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. The site allows farmers and ranchers to enter information about specific impacts in their geographic area.

“Very poor crops, no forage. Will result in large operating losses. What little we had was hailed on this past week as well. Will have to wean calves early and sell cows this fall as it is too late for any grass production now,” a McCone County rancher wrote on July 20.

“Today is Aug. 15 and still no rain. Our fields and pastures are in worse shape than I can ever remember…Dams are dry,” reported a Musselshell County rancher.

In the northeast, producers have been struggling with drought conditions since the spring.

"The drought conditions here started early,” said Marko Manoukian, MSU Phillips County Extension agent. “In May we usually get around 2.7 inches of precipitation and this year we got only .66 inches. We had enough wind and warm temperatures that within two weeks we went from having tow ropes on the tractors to the ground dried out 8 inches down. It’s like we got an extra three to four weeks of summer.”

Manoukian said the result has been devastating.

“Our spring wheat is well below average in most of Pillips County. Some are getting in the 20s [bushels per acre] but a lot are only in the teens. From a dryland perspective, there’s very little native hay. Hay is significantly down. Some producers turned their annual crops into hay rather than harvesting them. This is the first year in 15 years we had to turn the [irrigation project] water off early.”

Now water quality issues are beginning to cause problems.

“We are seeing high levels of sulfates due to lots of evaporation and no recharge,” Manoukian said. “We’ve also had some cases of blue green algae reported.”

According to Manoukian, elevated sulfate levels cause diarrhea in cattle and interfere with mineral function. Higher levels lead to polio symptoms and even death.

“It’s recommended not to use water with over 4,500 parts per million of sulfate,” Manoukian said. “Some of our samples are well over that.”

Manoukian fears there won’t be enough moisture to even plant a winter wheat crop this year.

“Things are looking dry through October. That kind of outlook means no winter wheat crop, although you couldn’t even get a drill into the ground at this point,” he said.


Local producers concerned about next year

According to Lorna Philps, District Conservationist with the National Resources Conservation Service in Lewistown, cattle producers in Fergus County are paying close attention to the condition of their pastures and hay supplies.

“Monitoring is critical when it’s so dry. Protecting pastures is key to protecting the resources,” Philps said. “Don’t keep the cattle on them too long.”

Area producers are beginning to look for other feed sources, although Philps said she believes most will be alright.

“Locally the hay [crop] was down, but the ranchers I’ve talked with have enough left over from last year to be OK,” Philps said. “But if the drought continues, there could be problems. The majority of producers here are more concerned with what’s going to happen next year.”


Forecast not looking good

Megan Syner, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said the outlook going into the fall is for a better than average chance of above average temperatures, and, for the next month, a better than average chance for lower than average precipitation.

In other words, drought conditions continue.

“I wish I had better news,” she said, “but we are not seeing anything in the short term that shows we’d get out of the situation any time soon. Even if we get a couple of inches of rain, the impact wouldn’t be felt for a while.”

Normal precipitation for the Lewistown area in August, Syner said, is 1.73 inches but the area has received only .23 inches so far.


Considerations for drought affected ranches

A press release from the National Resources Conservation Service has the following suggestions for producer’s struggling to deal with the impact of drought:

• Be careful when feeding hay imported from elsewhere, as some may be contaminated with weeds or unknown plants. Feed in an area that can be monitored and managed.

• Review grazing management strategies in light of pasture and range conditions, and make adjustments as necessary. Avoid overgrazing and keep as much residual stubble as possible going into winter.

• Monitor moisture levels of cropland and decide whether a cover crop is possible.




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