GLASGOW — The life had been fading from Grant Zerbe's stunted chickpeas for the better part of a month, and now drought’s hot breath was burning through the final green inch of every plant stem.
The Montana farmer’s worst growing season in 30 years was coming to a brutal end. There are few crops to harvest in the region, and with a lack of food and water, unwanted livestock are headed to auction.
“Normally, we’d be getting 1,200 pounds to an acre,” Zerbe said. “The crop would be so thick you couldn’t see the ground.”
Northeast Montana is experiencing the worst drought in the country. On U.S. Drought Monitor maps, the Montana portion branded "extreme" spans 350 miles. Combined with drought in the Dakotas, Montana’s losses contribute to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to be a 64 million bushel loss in wheat production. Durum, a specialty crop for Montana and North Dakota, is expected to be down in bushels 45 percent from last year.
The ground is clearly visible between the scant crop rows of the Northern Plains, right down to the widening cracks in which Hi-Line locals have stabbed rakes and shovels to gauge just how far down the parched earth will open up.
On a recent day, it was 103 degrees. The dirt road to Zerbe’s farm near Frazer is buzzing with farmers in wind-down mode.
There’s a swather pulling onto the road from a durum field that’s just been baled. What should have been a 40-bushels-an-acre crop of high quality pasta grain has been shaved to stubble and cubed into 720-pound feed bales. This durum crop normally wouldn’t have been cut before August, but didn’t make it to mid-July.
There’s a crop sprayer parked on a hill crest, where Zerbe speculates his neighbor has defoliated a struggling crop so there won’t be any volunteers in next year’s field.
A Subaru station wagon pulls alongside the farmer. It’s Zerbe’s crop adjuster, back to appraise another loss.
Montana’s losses are significant. More than 60 percent of the state’s spring wheat crop is rated poor to very poor, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Last year, a drought-free crop brought $349 million to the state. Lentils, 51 percent of which are rated poor to very poor this year, were a $204 million crop for Montana in 2016. Durum, the kind Zerbe’s neighbor has baled for animal feed, was a $129 million crop. More than half the state’s durum crop is in poor to very poor condition.
“We’ve literally had about two-tenths of an inch of rain this spring,” said Travis Nielsen, who raises the wheat for Grains of Montana, his family’s Billings-based commercial bakery and restaurant.
There’s been 1.2 inches of rain since April 1 in Nashua, a community not far from land Nielsen farms, making it one of the driest communities in the state.
Nielsen said his family learned the hard way several years ago that stockpiling bread wheat for Grains of Montana is a must. The family tries to keep a two-to-three-year supply on hand. And if that doesn’t cover the demands of a commercial bakery that not only bakes for the family restaurant, but also Billings businesses and nationally franchised restaurants, the farmer is ready to turn to the wheat he grows for seed. The Nielsens grow seed wheat on acreage near the Milk River where pivot sprinklers keep alive the plant genetics they depend upon.
The difference between the vibrant green farmland along the Milk River and the dryland farm and pasture acres beyond irrigation’s reach is stark. The river country radiates green like parchment freshly colored by a well-inked stamp. On the dryland, the green doesn’t cover much where crops are planted. In some fields, seeds never sprouted.
There are pasturelands that appear monochromatic in their slate grayish-green, save for a ring of weeds circling the shrinking watering hole.
At the Glasgow Stockyards, ranchers turn up every Thursday to sell off an animal or two, usually a heifer who didn’t get pregnant, or a belligerent steer not worth the trouble, or the hay now selling for $180 a ton.
Ranchers will lose the most in this drought, said Ed Hinton, an auctioneer who drives down from Scobey for the weekly sale. There’s nothing like crop insurance for livestock. In times of drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opens up grasslands previously off limits for conservation. After that, there’s low interest, guaranteed loans.
But the last thing a rancher needs is to borrow money as his cows head to market earlier and often lighter than expected.
The Thursday sale the week before the Fourth of July brought a thousand cattle to the stockyards, Hinton said. At a time of year when a few hundred cattle at a sale is respectable, a thousand is abnormal.
“We’re in pretty good shape for grass on our place. It hasn’t been grazed for years, but my neighbors are not,” said Ken Erstad of the Bar L Lazy B near Scobey. Erstad brought 10 steers, two heifers and two bulls to the stockyard last week.
It was 9:30 a.m. and the temperature was approaching 90 degrees already. Erstad emptied his trailer and pointed the truck toward home, 70 miles north.
“We have to get home. The air conditioner doesn’t work in this truck,” he said.
In March, Kermit and Sharon Flom were working a herd of 89 cattle, getting ready for that number of almost double as calving season began. Then, Sharon’s hip started bothering her and doctors told her she’d need a hip replacement.
Retirees who left their town jobs and started out with just two cows 30 years ago, the Floms sold all but 5 head. A month later, the drought hit and they were counting their blessings.
“The girl up the hill said this was about the driest we’ve ever had,” Kermit Flom said.
Tanja Fransen, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Glasgow, is the girl on the hill. She put the drought in historical perspective for locals more than a month ago. She’s discouraged anyone from putting stock in a longer-term national forecast that for weeks suggested things would turn around. There’s been a heat dome over the area for weeks with no real chance of moving.
The Floms took the forecast to heart. Kermit and Sharon were seated in the auction gallery waiting for their prized 2,300 pound bull, Bucko, to walk across the show scale. He’s just too big, the Floms agreed.
Too big is enough to get a bull sold during a drought.
“Our pasture is just bare ground, there’s not a blade of green on it, hasn’t been for some time,” Kermit Flom said.