Every spring, with an entire growing season ahead, the first thing to rise from a farmer’s field is potential, but potential is withering in southern Montana’s lingering drought.

“Our drought started, I believe, at the end of June in 2011, and we just haven’t had anything to speak of since then. So it’s been pretty tough,” said Dave Kelsey.

The Molt farmer’s fields are greening up with hard, red winter wheat, a crop that in Montana is mostly in good to excellent condition, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Winter wheat farmers who dodge the drought this year are likely to benefit from poor weather conditions elsewhere that have dimmed the crop’s outlook in other hard, red winter wheat states. Montana is the only major hard, red winter wheat producer with more than half of its crop rated at good to excellent.

But Kelsey’s fields will need rain, and lots of it, to escape what is shaping up locally to be an extremely dry start to the growing season. He held off planting the crop last fall, hopeful that some late-season moisture would come, but none arrived.

The U.S. Drought monitor shows all of Yellowstone County and parts of Big Horn, Carbon, Stillwater and Treasure counties in extreme drought. The extreme drought on the government’s map spills out across Wyoming and into southern Montana like a red wine stain on a linen tablecloth. A secondary beige ring signaling severe drought surrounds the crisis area. The farmers in the northern half of Montana seem to be in decent shape.

Farmer Greg Matthews, of Buffalo, is on the dry side of central Montana. Like Kelsey, his hard, red spring wheat is up, but moisture has been scarce and the T-shaped soil probe he pushes into the earth to test moisture hasn’t been delivering good news.

“Normally, in the spring we can push the probe clear to the handle, which is about 3 feet,” Matthews said. “It’s a little better than a third of that.”

Matthews had six to 18 inches of subsoil moisture when he planted his crop last fall, but snow has been light since then. And winds blowing over this high plain halfway between Great Falls and Billings sucked up what little moisture Matthews did get. Crop conditions on farms 10 miles from Matthews in either direction vary dramatically, which is why the state outlook as a whole is the best in the country.

In Montana, half the winter wheat crop is rated good to excellent in this week’s crop weather report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s compared with just a 24 percent good to excellent condition rating a year ago. About 42 percent of this year’s crop is greening or growing. The remainder is dormant.

Montana’s rating is tops among the nation’s seven winter wheat states. Winter wheat states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and parts of Colorado suffered crop damage from freezing. Drought has also been a problem in those states, as well as South Dakota and Nebraska.

Winifred farmer and rancher Bob Bold said he was surprised at the crop conditions he witnessed during a trip through west Nebraska and South Dakota. Areas where the winter wheat crop is usually three weeks ahead of Montana had little to show, he said.

Even the driest parts of Montana are doing better than wheat-producing areas of other states. In Nebraska, just 11 percent of the crop is rated good to excellent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In South Dakota, wheat rated good was just 3 percent of that state’s crop.

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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