Although some areas of Montana have experienced sufficient moisture, eastern Montana as well as the Dakotas are seeing severe drought conditions. One of the farmers affected by these devastating conditions is Gil Gasper of Circle.

“This drought runs all across eastern Montana and into Canada and the Dakotas,” says Gasper. “The crops are short this year, the grass is short and because of that, the hay situation is short. A lot of guys are selling cows or sending the animals to another state to find pasture. It seems everyone has been hit by this.”

Gasper, who serves as the Montana Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Chair and is McCone County Farm Bureau president, says the drought has hit hard. “We’ve had no rain to speak of. Maybe an inch two weeks ago, but we’re so dry and the other day we were at 102 degrees,” he explains. “Our hay crops are so bad we might just turn the cows out on our hay fields. Right now almost anyone with winter wheat has cut it for hay. The spring wheat is either headed out or flowering, so it’s up in the air what we’ll do. I’ve heard the peas have been hit hard, as well. Even with crops that are drought tolerant, if it’s very dry and very hot, they call it quits!”

As of July 6, 2017, counties recently meeting qualifying drought ratings that ‘trigger’ eligibility for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) included:  Daniels, Dawson, Fallon, Fergus, Garfield, McCone, Petroleum, Phillips, Richland, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Sheridan, Valley and Wibaux.  Eligible pasture types include long season small grains, native pasture, improved pasture, annual ryegrass or forage sorghum that is produced on dryland acres and used for grazing.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has opened up Conservation Reserve Program land (CRP) for grazing to help ranchers deal with poor forage conditions. (CRP is a voluntary program administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) available to agricultural producers to help them safeguard environmentally sensitive land and, when needed, provide emergency relief to livestock producers suffering the impacts of certain natural disasters.)  On July 10, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue gave the go-ahead to conduct emergency haying on Conservation Reserve Program lands to help provide feed for livestock in drought-stricken areas of Montana, North and South Dakota.

Perdue notes, “Due to reduced availability of forage, ranchers in the hardest hit locations have already been culling their herds. Without alternative forage options like grazing and haying CRP lands, livestock producers are faced with the economically devastating potential of herd liquidation.”

Eligible CRP participants can use the acreage for grazing their own livestock or may grant another livestock producer use of the CRP acreage. There will be no CRP annual rental payment reductions assessed for acres grazed.

“That might help some producers so they don’t have to sell cattle,” Gasper notes. He says the drought hurts not only farmers and ranchers but commerce in small towns. “Usually this time of year, town is busy with people running in and out for parts. I had one shop owner tell me that if anybody says if you live in a small town the drought doesn’t affect you, they’re crazy.”

Jim Bowman ranches near Hinsdale and says there were no spring snow storms. “Around calving time, you always expect you’ll get a snow storm. We never got one to get our grass growing. Even the rain was really spotty.  Further east of us, they didn’t get anything.”

The former Montana Farm Bureau District Director says his ranch is relying on last year’s moisture to get them through. “We have water in our reservoirs and we have some old grass and a little new grass came up, but how long that lasts, I just don’t know,” he says. “I remember the 1986-1988 drought when it was so hot and dry with no grass and lots of grasshoppers. We feel a little better off than those years, but that can change quickly.”

“A lot of cattle east of here are being sold,” he adds. “We will hang tough and see what happens.  I think we’ll have some of our crops, but they will be lighter and we just have to keep the hail away.”

Brady Liles is making hard management decisions on his ranch in Prairie County—which to date has not been opened to emergency grazing. This is frustrating to the rancher who has seen all of the surrounding counties being declared a disaster and being allowed to graze the CRP.

“I’ve called Governor Bullock’s office, I’ve talked to my county commissioners, I’ve talked to the people in Washington, D.C. who make the drought map, but Prairie County is not getting recognized,” says Liles. “I don’t want a handout, but I would like to be able to graze the CRP. We got a little rain a couple of weeks ago, but the damage to the grass was already done. We have very little hay to cut. We’re cutting our winter wheat hay and getting a bale and half an acre.”

Liles is making some tough choices. “Early on we saw the writing on the wall and on May 10 sold 50 younger and short-term cows. We artificially inseminated our heifers, and we’re only going to put our bulls out for one heat cycle. We’ll ultrasound our cows a month earlier than usual so we can sell dry cows and keep the pressure off our land. We plan to sell our calves a few weeks early. Obviously, those calves will be lighter.”

Other management plans included putting protein lick tubs in outlying areas so cows better utilize the grass. “We’ll end up taking 250 head of cows to an irrigated corn field near Fallon for the winter. That way they can pick through the corn fields. We planted 250 acres of millet which we’ve never put in before, hoping for a little rain and we haven’t had any real moisture since mid-March.”

The Prairie County Farm Bureau president says just when the grass was starting to grow in March a succession of nights hit 15 below zero with additional wind chill. “Our crested wheat looks like it’s been sprayed. I think that weather took the grass and said, ‘you’re done.’” Meanwhile, Liles has some CRP land lined up to do limited haying and is hoping the millet and the drought designation will come.

“We generally put up 2500-3000 bales of dryland hay. We’re looking at getting 100,” Liles laments. “We live three miles away from Dawson County, and my neighbor there is able to graze his CRP, but I can’t. Hopefully, they get something figured out. I’ve been making a lot of phone calls, but I’m not getting any answers.”

To take advantage of the emergency grazing or limited CRP haying provisions, producers should contact their local USDA Service Center.  To find your local USDA Service Center visit

Cutlines: Gil Gasper in his hay barely field. “I really should call it a hay barely field,” he says.

Cows looking for grass in Prairie County.

Source: AG News Wire

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