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Montana Ag Network: producers 'optimistic' during warm El Niño pattern

Posted at 8:31 PM, Jan 07, 2024

GREAT FALLS — A large portion of the agriculture industry is reliant on the weather. A wetter and cooler 2023 offered agriculture producers the opportunity to dig out of what appeared to be a never-ending drought, although shifts in the weather, industry and beyond were positive. It still leaves the 2024 farming season with some unanswered questions regarding a warmer and drier El Niño winter weather pattern.

"It was the warmest December either since 1999 or for a few locations since 1939 and a lot people know that was back in the dust bowl era," said Ryan Dennis, KRTV Chief Meteorologist.

Scripps News and MTN have reported that 2023 brought record inflation across the board for consumers and Montana farmers and ranchers. What was known as "Black Sunday," April 15, 1935, much of the Great Plains were plagued with high winds, mountainous dust and sand storms, and on top of that, navigating finances of the Great Depression. Though, many consumers and Ag producers aren't navigating a Great Depression, the thought of "Dust Bowl" weather conditions had weather professionals concerned.

"We’re still in good shape in terms of precipitation and drought conditions aren’t too bad, they’re starting to worsen a little bit but right now we are still in good shape, and wetter weather is in the forecast so it’s not looking like too big of a concern." Dennis added.

A late October snowstorm offered enough moisture to get much of Montana through the recent spat of warmer and drier temperatures.

Overnight Saturday, by noon on Sunday, nearly three inches of snow fell in the Great Falls area, reported by Chief Meteorologist Ryan Dennis on his Facebook page.

With cooler and wetter temperatures in the forecast, Kent Kupfner, Executive Vice President of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee remains in high spirits over the progress of the fall planting season.

"You have a fighting chance of having a good crop if you establish good crop in the fall and we’ve done that. There are some areas that are drier, there are some areas with light wind damage, some areas with light freeze damage, but at this point there is no reason to not be optimistic."

North Central and Eastern Montana is know for its subzero winter temperatures. For Winter Wheat farmers, a snow blanket is crucial to protect an already resilient crop from bitterly cold temperatures. Kupfner told MTN that because we haven't had the snow cover we normally do, it's unusual to see Winter Wheat fields as far along as they are in the Cascade Area.

Across the aisle, Montana Cattle ranchers are experiencing some highs and lows of the industry.

"Cattle prices are up; calf prices are great. After 2014-15 and I don’t want to call it a crash in the market but a definite valley in the prices. We never thought we’d see these prices again in the foreseeable future," shared Megan Van Emon, MSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist.

Numerous questions have been brought to her attention from ranchers including building back a hay inventory.

"If you can find hay that's feed-able, we will help find a way for you to pay for it."

Including a growing stable fly population. One that was more concerning and is still being researched as to why, is troubling pregnancy numbers in certain cowherds. She speculates that it could be because of the recent drought, low hay quality, and water, caused some issues in bred-heifers and heifers. It's still to be determined how to navigate that issue in a herd. If you have any questions, it's best to contact your vet or County Extension Office.

With weight and hay concerns from above, ranchers have sold off herds at lower prices than desired, leading to a low cow inventory.

"On the other side of that you unfortunately sold in the past couple of years. You’re going to have to buy back at 2-3 times what you sold for." Van Emon added.

Somewhat of a "Catch-22" for cattle producers looking to build back a herd in an already challenging time.

One issue that both the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee and MSU Extension Office are forecasting to be a problem, grasshoppers.

"They just put out the new I guess, grasshopper forecast for 2024. And it’s not looking good for the east side of the state, it looks like it’s going to be much wider spread," said Van Emon.

Kupfner continued, "The key is, cool wet conditions in the Spring, will help reduce and eliminate that pressure from grasshoppers. But make no mistake, statewide grasshoppers are having an impact, we’re in the middle of winter and look out six months it’s a concern."

Van Emon recommends that you're a rancher looking to buy back cattle, to speak with your financial adviser before doing so.

To contact your MSU Extension Office, click here.