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Water in spring wheat

Water stands in Chris Christensen’s spring wheat near Hinsdale as residents recover from recent flooding on the Milk River.

Bruce Wright knew this year’s wheat crop wasn’t going to be one of his best. An unprecedented late August rain had literally washed away some of the grain’s profit.

Down the road, at the Columbia elevator in Belgrade, truckloads of wheat were being turned away for signs of sprouted grain, a problem all too common in parts of Montana where unharvested wheat actually started to grow in the hull after the freak August drenching.

But reaping and sowing are like death and taxes to Montana’s farmers. So, Wright fired up his combine last week and began cutting his way out of a harvest farmers would like to forget.

“It hasn’t been too bad. There’s a little bit of sprout damage,” Wright said. His Columbia Grain elevator is drawing the line at 5 percent sprout damage.

Wright was sure he was beneath the cutoff, but other farmers aren’t so lucky. The damage wrought by rains that fell the weekend of Aug. 24 stretches hundreds of miles from Bozeman to Plentywood, with some farms along the way suffering little to no damage, while others were devastated.

Damaged market

The damage is likely to break Montana’s streak of wheat harvests valued at a $1 billion or more. In five of the last six years, high market prices and reasonable growing weather have pushed value of Montana Durham, hard red spring and hard red winter wheat above $1 billion. The only year to miss the mark was 2009 when a price drop stole wheat’s economic thunder and sales fell to $917 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Economists credit those high- earning years for helping Montana survive the Great Recession better than most states.

This year is going to be different because prices have fallen dramatically

and grain severely damaged by rain may not even be marketed for human consumption. Feed wheat, marketed for fattening livestock, is as cheap as it gets, and Montana, which rarely has any, seems to have a lot.

“A lot of them have had damage, and they’re figuring out what they’re going to do with it,” Wright said of his fellow farmers. “Some of them have taken it and just piled it on the ground. It’s going to be hard to find a home.”

At Solaris Feeders outside Miles City, the phone has been ringing with farmers looking to unload rain-damaged grain. At its busiest, Solaris has about 10,000 feeder cattle to fatten up. Wheat has always been part of the daily ration. Farmers calling out of the blue to sell grain isn’t normal.

“We’ve been inundated with calls from farmers selling wheat,” said Ann Wilson, of Solaris. “We feed some. We’ll buy what we normally feed, maybe more.”

At grain elevators, farmers are being asked to submit test results before rolling up to the scales in grain trucks. Elevators have to know exactly what they’re dealing with so they find buyers, who wouldn’t normally be looking at Montana wheat, which in better times is shipped oversees for making general-purpose flour, Asian noodles or Mediterranean breads.

This year’s weather-damaged crop might be more suited for making crackers, or just livestock feed, said elevator managers like Sparky Dreesen.

“The wheat really is one of the lowest qualities we’ve seen in a long time. It’s going to take a little time to work through it,” said Dreesen, who oversees Eastern Montana elevators for CHS. “I think the big thing is guys need to take good bin samples, bring the samples to us and we’ll find a market for it.”

Good Montana wheat

There are basic characteristics of Montana wheat that farms hit by late rain just don’t have. A key characteristic is what’s known as a “falling number,” which is lower in wheat with sprout damage. As the number falls, the enzyme activity in the flour increases and the wheat’s ability to make quality dough deteriorates. The dough can be too sticky, might not mix well, and can’t produce good bread or pasta.

“For falling numbers we do a quick-and-dirty baking test, make a little ball of dough. It should be stiff, but contract,” said Jeff Rumney, Montana State Grain Laboratory Director.

Montana wheat is usually a superstar when it comes to clearing the falling numbers test. The minimal number most grain buyers want is 330. The state five-year average is 390, well above buyer expectations, Rumney said. Only about 2 percent of Montana’s wheat doesn’t make the grade in a normal year. But this year, 35 percent of what the grain lab has tested isn’t passing muster.

Rumney is reluctant to put the 35 percent figure as a statewide average fail rate because so many of his tests are for crop insurance claims that they distort the average. However, when he looks at where the test samples come from, there is a clear connection to the late August rains.

“In some counties, you can almost overlay the precipitation received from that big storm and that drop is falling numbers, one to one. This is where it happened,” Rumney said.

The Montana State Grain laboratory has been flooded with test requests from individual farmers, both trying to determine the marketability of their grain and also submit damage reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.

Rumney said farmers have driven across the state with grain samples on the seats of their pickups, hoping for a quick turnaround so they can sell. The laboratory will do more than 20,000 tests this year and the backlog is starting to build.

It’s not all gloom and doom for Montana grain, Rumney said. Wheat tests for parts of the state that weren’t clobbered by August rain have been really good. The state’s winter wheat crop in southern Montana is well above average. Spring wheat missed by the rain is above the five-year average for protein and very marketable. The amount that grades high is probably not enough to secure a billion-dollar marketing year.

“We’ve had a lot of damage to spring wheat, mostly. Spring wheat is what’s normally going to receive the best price,” said Gary Brester, Montana State University agriculture economist.

A less profitable year for spring wheat will most certainly pull the overall price of Montana wheat down, though it will be hard to determine exactly how low. Grain sold at bargain prices to feedlots will probably not be added to the total, simply because sales between a farmer and a feedlot are rarely reported to the USDA. Farmers have been able to pay off a lot of debt in recent years because of higher prices, which should make weathering the bad crop year easier.

“They’ve had four or five pretty good years in a row,” Brester said. “People’s balance sheets should be in good shape.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.