Montana wheat farm

Montana farmer Boyd Heilig in his wheat farm

(The Center Square) – Alarming drought conditions that led Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to declare a statewide emergency have farmers losing crops, and in some places, watching grasshoppers eat the kernels right out of the heads of grain.

Drought conditions are much worse than at the same time last year, when approximately 52% of the state confronted similar conditions.

July forecasts project that rainfall will continue to be below normal with a 40% to 50% chance of higher than normal temperatures across the state, a release by the governor’s office said.

Boyd Heilig farms 6,500 acres of spring wheat and winter wheat with his parents and son in central Montana near Lewiston. In June, their farm only saw 10% of normal precipitation in that month, he told The Center Square.

The central portion of the state falls under extreme and severe drought conditions, the National Integrated Drought Information System reported.

Nearly 26% of the state is under extreme drought conditions, in which crops are not harvestable and fields may be bare. Fire restrictions also increased.

For areas under severe drought conditions, hay and crop yields are low with poor quality. The fire count and danger are high, and livestock ponds are low and dry.

The city of Bozeman imposed mandatory watering restrictions beginning July 16, after the City Commission declared a Stage 2 drought.

Lawn watering restrictions were ordered and drought surcharges on water bills become effective Aug. 1, the city said on its website.

The city’s water supply comes from Hyalite Creek, Sourdough Creek, and Lyman Spring, all of which depend on melting snowpack.

Heavy water usage during the drought caused the city of Helena to enact Stage 3 water restrictions, with mandatory lawn watering and irrigation restrictions. These remain in effect until Sept. 1.

In June, the city treated 16 million gallons of water per day, which was 6 million gallons more than normal, a release by the city said.

For Heilig, this lack of rain has stressed the plants.

“So once it gets stressed, it shoots a head and it doesn't go around like it normally does. So that's why it's earlier this year, everything just got pushed to the end,” Heilig said. “The result is a lower yield.”

That has ramifications on the timing and size of the harvest.

“Typically, we don’t start until August for harvest. And I think we’ll be going by the 20th of July,” he said.

Heilig said he and his family won’t have a chance for a second planting as they don’t have irrigation in central Montana.

“Our part of the country, if you don't have irrigation, we can't. We just don't get the rain,” he said.

He said that farmland for 70 miles in every direction has been impacted by grasshoppers.

“Three weeks ago, we sprayed on the edges of our fields for grasshoppers and seemed to take care of them for about a week. We can't afford to do that every week,” Heilig said.

He said some relatives up by the Canadian border tell him the grasshoppers are eating the kernels right out of the heads.

The eastern part of the state was hit hard by grasshoppers in 2020, he said, but the family hadn’t seen this amount for a number of years.

Grain prices are up 60% to 70% from a year ago, the “only saving grace,” he said.

The communities are feeling the drought’s effects as it hits the farmers. Farm equipment dealers aren’t seeing much business.

“People are just trying to get by with what they have equipment wise, and they're not out buying equipment, they're not. They're just patching it up,” Heilig said.

But in trying to find parts, they’ve run into COVID-19’s effects because a parts shortage exists.

“Those guys trying to repair their equipment are having a hard time. They're two or three weeks out from getting the parts they need,” Heilig said. “There was a neighbor of mine that he was ready to cut and couldn't get to parts. So he was about a week late to get to it and he lost a lot of yield.”

Some of his neighbors did come out to help him, but he still lost crops.

The impact of the drought trickles down to everybody, Heilig said, as people aren’t spending money.