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Stunted wheat stalks grow in standing water

Stunted wheat stalks grow in standing water at the end of a field as a thunderstorm looms on the horizon near Billings.

That iconic Montana image of combines trundling through winter wheat in July may have to wait because of cool, wet weather in May and June.

Timely rains have most wheat farmers optimistic about a good 2014 crop. That rain is good news for Montana, which benefits from a wheat economy that, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, surpassed $1 billion a year in six of the last eight years. One in five Montana jobs depends on the agriculture economy.

Cool spring conditions mean that wheat might be coming out of the field later than usual, either in late July or possibly August.

“Overall, everybody is pretty happy. It’s been awfully cool, which is why we're behind,” said Cassidy Marn, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee marketing program manager. Marn said there’s a debate in her office about whether the winter wheat harvest will begin in July. Typically, foreign wheat buyers bound for Montana in July get to see some of the state’s early harvest.

“I think we’ll catch up when we get some hot weather,” Marn said.

The outlook isn’t the same for everyone. Central Montana farms haven’t received the rain that’s benefited northeast and southern Montana. Weather data for Denton and Grass Range indicate the center of the state is about 2.5 inches below average for rain since April 1. In that time, Niehart is about 3.72 inches short, the biggest rain deficit in the state. Jordan, which had a 1,300-acre brush fire erupt to the west on Monday, is 1.3 inches below average for rain since April.

“It has varied throughout the state,” said Tom Chard of Montana NASS. “Here in the Helena area, we’ve been starving for rain until recently.”

Helena rainfall since April is 1.5 inches below average through last week. Most Montana communities have average or above-average moisture since Oct. 1, which is the start of the weather year.

Chard said those dry pockets of the state are probably pulling down the statewide ratings for wheat. Roughly 62 percent of Montana’s winter wheat crop and 59 percent of its spring wheat is rated in good to excellent condition. Pulled down by isolated dry areas, those ratings are lower than the five-year average.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.