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Will grain crops be left standing in Montana and North Dakota?
Great Falls Tribune, September 4, 2004
While most farmers in the Golden Triangle have a bumper crop in the bin, those to the north and east are nervously watching the weather report as autumn's first frost threatens to bite their unharvested fields.

Roughly 95 percent of the state's winter wheat is harvested, with local farmers reporting abundant yields for the first time in years.

Despite rising fuel costs, the bounty is expected to spill over to implement dealerships as farmers make long-delayed purchases and repairs. Lush fields have given combines their first good workout in years.

"I actually heard my combine groan once in a while out in the field," said state representative Jon Tester, who grew thick stands of organic grain on his farm near Big Sandy. "It was good."

But continued cool, wet weather may rob many farmers of the chance to cut their crops.

From Cut Bank to the North Dakota border, spring wheat and barley crops that were already in the bin at this time last year are standing in the field, many of them still green.

"The crop has so much potential and it looks pretty bleak that they're going to get it all off," said Dan Treinen, a grain merchandiser with Columbia Grain, which has 19 elevator facilities in Montana.

"The quality, by the time it does come in, is going to be suspect," added Treinen, of Great Falls.

Hurry up and wait

In the Cut Bank, Fairfield, Conrad and Valier areas, some eager farmers swathed irrigated malt barley in late August, then watched it sprout in the field when a rainstorm hit, said Dave Henderson, a Cut Bank farmer and board member of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

"Sprout damage" renders barley worthless for malt houses, who need to sprout it during the malting process.

The damaged grain will be sold as feed, slashing its price in half from $3 a bushel to $1.50, Henderson said.

Fortunately, the majority of barley growers held off the harvest until after the rain.

They scrambled to bring it in during a warm, dry spell late this week.

"The custom cutters have just hit town and they're running hard," Henderson said.

Farmers in Henderson's area prayed for rain all summer and got only three-and-a-half inches. An inch of that fell last week, when it was least welcome.

Overall, precipitation in Cut Bank is only 68 percent of normal since April 1, according to the National Weather Service.

"We were in tough shape," Henderson said. "You watch for those rain clouds all summer long and you finally give up and you've pumped all the water you can with irrigation and you shut it off it rains."

A slow season

But overall, the barley crop looks good.

Only 12 miles north of Henderson, in the Del Bonita area, some 8 to 10 inches of rain fell over the summer.

Some barley farmers hope to cut a whopping 90 bushels-per-acre, Henderson said.

"Rain at harvest is a challenge for most crops, but overall I think we've seen a good crop this year, we've seen good yields," said Dave Tweet, regional manager for Montana seed and elevator operations with Busch Agricultural Resources Inc. in Fairfield.

Montana barley growers expect to harvest 26 percent more barley than last year, according to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service.

They aren't the only ones impatiently pacing the edges of their fields.

In northeastern Montana rain has kept farmers from the spring wheat harvest.

Each passing day raises the risk of color bleaching or sprouting, both of which lower grain value.

Many stands are still green.

On top of the late start, a summer of cool, wet weather made for a late-bloomer crop.

A dry, sunny September could ripen up the kernels and give farmers time to harvest them.

Only about 10 percent of the area's crop was harvested at midweek compared to the norm of 80 percent, Garaas said.

Worth the wait

On the bright side for farmers statewide, there are no long waits for grain trains so far this fall.

Until this week, cars were running ahead of schedule and delays are now only three to five days, compared to waits of up to a month in the past few years, said Treinen, with Columbia Grain in Great Falls.

For now, harvest delays can be blamed only on the weather.

Gambling again

The bounty, particularly with the Golden Triangle's winter wheat crop, has farmers feeling optimistic.

"There's far more people kicking tires this year than there was last year at this time," said Wayne Fischer, parts manager and assistant store manager at Torgerson's LLC in Great Falls.

Although sales aren't up yet, Fischer expects purchases and repairs to top previous seasons by year's end.

"We're seeing more wear and tear on machinery," he said. "...They'll probably put more bushels through their combines this year than they have the last three years combined."

Many farmers have put off non-urgent repairs for several seasons, Fischer said.

But as usual in the grain business, there's factors keeping that optimism in check.

Prices have slipped to roughly $3.

The $3.75 to $4 range would be more palatable, Waldock said.

If frost does bite crops in northeastern Montana and North Dakota, prices could rally but aren't likely to rise more than 25 cents a bushel, Waldock said.

Meanwhile, diesel prices continue their ascent.

Tester, of Big Sandy, is paying $1.43 this fall compared to $1.07 last year, Tester said.

On his place, that adds up to almost $1,000 in extra costs.

"When you combine that with other increases like health insurance and liability insurance and just the cost of replacing equipment it all adds up," Tester said.

And farmers will have to keep spending at the pump as winter wheat seeding season gets underway.

Thanks to late summer and fall rain, producers are already seeding around Great Falls, more than a week earlier than usual.

Early-seeded wheat runs a higher risk of disease and can mature too quickly before its winter dormancy.

But for many farmers, the best fall seeding conditions in years are worth the risk.

This is farm country, where almost every decision is a gamble and even the weather forecaster can't see all the cards.
MGR Archive 5.9.2004
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