Storm damage grows with crops

Jenny Gessaman
A barbed wire fence encloses a crowded field of hay bales against a blue Montana sky.

Newly baled hay sits in a Coppedge Ranch field near Denton last Friday.
Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Broken windows and shattered siding were obvious after Central Montana’s mid-June storms, but for ag producers, the worst property damage could be in the fields.

Bob and Betty Taylor farm wheat, barley and lentils near Bear Springs. The lentils avoided damage, according to Betty, and the barley was early enough to bounce back. However, 80-90 percent of the winter wheat was destroyed.

“This is why you take crop insurance out,” Betty said.

After the storm, the Taylors reached out to their insurance agent. A subsequent visit from an insurance adjustor released the crop, or allowed the couple to use it. Deciding the damage was bad enough to make combining a waste of time, Bob hayed it. One field yielded three bushels per acre.

“And then we had another field that adjusted to eight bushels per acre,” Betty said.

She added the couple gets 50-80 bushels per acre depending on the year.

The Taylors have crop insurance, and are expecting some insurance money, but know it will not make up for lost harvest.

 “It just means that you can’t buy or fix something up,” Betty said. “You have to cut back somewhere and you just learn to do that. That’s part of the farming game: A farmer is a big gambler.”

Crop insurance: stacking the odds?

Kerry Simac, a crop claims adjustor with Rural Community Insurance Services, pointed to the monetary amounts involved in Montana’s fields.

“Within the towns, you get the dinged-up roofs and the siding, and there’s a lot of value and economic loss,” he said. “But when you’re talking about taking crops out, it’s in the millions of dollars.”

Simac is the person who physically visits farms and ranches to evaluate fields. While crop damage can be obvious when fields are flattened, his work involves more than a passing glance.

Simac does counts and surveys to determine what is and is not salvageable. He will inspect individual plants, noting the state of each. Different crops have different indicators: Stripped foliage, or tiny branches, means less value for hay because it lessens the protein available for animals. Wheat is ruined when the top breaks off.

“It gets down to counting seeds in a head,” he said.

 The June storms had a lot of adjustors counting, according to Simac.

“It’s been very busy: One of our adjustors put in an 85-hour week a couple weeks ago,” he said. “I put in 75 hours two weeks ago.”

Despite busy adjustors, Baldy View Crop Insurance Owner and Agent R.J. Waggoner said clients do not always get fast answers. Agencies wait several days to evaluate storm-damaged crops.

“It takes days for the plant damage that occurs from the hail to show,” he explained. “As the plant matures, it’ll try to grow, but wherever it’s been damaged, it won’t be able to grow.”

Even when farmers and ranchers do receive insurance money, it may only just cover basic costs, according to Co-owner and Agent Scott Wichman.

“It won’t make up for a good crop,” he said.

Mouths to feed

Coppedge Ranch near Denton does not sell hay, but the crop is still vital to its operation. The summer bales feed the ranch’s cattle in from late fall to early spring.

Lorri and Jeff Schafer consider themselves fortunate, especially after counting five different hail falls in one night.

“We were lucky and had minimal damage,” Lorri said. “It was going to be phenomenal, but now it’s still going to be good.”

Even with luck, the couple is still left crossing fingers. Although their grain hay was salvageable and produced a high number of bales per acre, it may be worthless. Lorri explained hail could stress the crop and raise its nitrate levels. High nitrates make grain hay inedible for animals.

The couple will not know if the bales can be used until the hay is tested.

Damaged crops on neighboring farms could make up any shortfall if they were hayed, a practice not uncommon after large storms. It offers a way for farmers to remove debris from a field while salvaging some of the price by selling the residual hay, at a reduced price, to the parties doing the haying.

Even that is not ideal for Jeff.

“It’s an emotional, stressful thing,” he said. “You don’t want to call your neighbor and ask ‘Did you get hailed out?’”

Lorri pointed out the situation was not economically ideal, either.

“It’s requiring a cash outlay you normally wouldn’t have to spend,” she said.

She sees Montana’s ranchers and farmers all in the same boat.

“To me, there’s three things that really impact a ranch’s profit: One is the death loss, another is the conception rate and the third is the ability to produce hay for your cattle,” she said. “And those are all weather related.”



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