HELENA — Hay is trading at some of the highest prices it has been in recent years, but that’s not stopping a few Helena-area farmers and ranchers from giving it away to help those in need.
The West Wind Fire ignited on December 1, burning more than 10,000 acres around Denton in Fergus County and destroying more than 30 structures.
Several ranchers lost hay and grazing land, including one young rancher who lost all his haystacks and his barn.
Upon hearing the news, and a group of Helena-area farmers and ranchers decided to put together some loads of hay to help out.
“Altogether we have three loads going down just to help the young guy get going. Keep him on his feet, especially on a year like this,” said Lewis and Clark County Farm Bureau President Karl Christians.
Christians, Joe and Julie Dooling, John Novotny, Jim Dusenberry and Casey FitzSimmons all decided to donate hay to the cause.
Joe Dooling says he was contacted by FitzSimmons shortly after the fire who knew a Denton-area rancher that needed help.
“I just couldn’t imagine being in that situation myself, I wouldn’t know what to do. It would be hard to get your head out of bed to be honest with you,” said Joe Dooling. “We’ll give what we can, help out and hope it matters… They got a long road ahead, it’s a long time before spring.”
He then contacted Christians to see if there was anything the Farm Bureau could do to help out. Little did he know, Christians was also putting together a hay load to help people out in the area.
“So we kind of all just got together and decided we’ll get it all there at one time,” said Christians.
Christians is originally from Denton and still knows families in the area. He says the Helena agriculture community is fortunate to have not been as impacted by this year’s drought as other areas of the state.
“We were blessed this year with being all irrigated and it feels good being able to help out. I just wish we could do more,” he added.
In total, the group is donating more than 60 tons of hay. Dooling, Dusenberry and Andrew Gould from Ulm donated their trucks and time to haul the loads to Denton. Dave Brown, Snowy Mountain Marketing and the Lewis and Clark and Fergus County Farm Bureaus helped cover the cost of fuel.
Hay was loaded up Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning before making the 170 mile trip to rural Fergus County.
As a result of the drought, feeding cattle this winter will be an expensive endeavor for many Montana ranchers. Alfalfa hay has been trading around $300 a ton due to the shortage.
A single cow eats two percent of its body weight, around 24 to 30 pounds on average, of hay each day in the winter. That means it costs over $100 a month to feed each cow, more than $5,000 for a modest herd of 50 animals. Ranchers also need to factor in that snow cover on the ground sometimes doesn't melt until April in Big Sky Country.
“Not every time there is a disaster do you have time or money or the resources to help people out and we just happen to be in a really good spot right now to have the extra hay to donate and help some others out,” said Julie Dooling who also serves as a Montana State Representative.
With what hay is currently trading for in Montana, there is no denying these farmers and ranchers could have made a tidy sum by selling their extra hay. However, they say that’s not the Montana way. Someone is in need and they have the ability to help out.
“Yeah we would have made more income, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about helping our fellow neighbor and to me that is more important,” noted Christians.
Those impacted by the West Wind Fire still have a long road ahead of them. More information about ways to help out can be found here.