MALTA, Mont. – Up in the northeastern region of the state, the Merrimans recently finished seeding their spring crops under blazing hot temperatures.
“It has been up to 100 degrees here,” said Cliff Merriman, who owns 4M Farms with his wife, Anna, and kids, Beau and Courtney.
Cliff said their Montana Organic Association (MOA) farm tour is coming up quickly on July 6, and they are busy finalizing speakers.
“One of our speakers will be Bill Pelton. He will be speaking on low-stress livestock handling at our farm tour,” Cliff said.
As Cliff drove the tractor pulling the chisel down the rows, he noted they have had several warm days at the start of June. The weather is quite a change from the end of May when there were freezing rains and temperatures that dropped into the 30s.
“The plants didn’t get any freeze damage from the low temperatures, but we had some nice rain that fell here at the farm – about 1.5 inches. Our farm fields 60 miles away got about three-fourths of an inch, so we were pleased with that,” he said, noting the difference of having farm fields so far apart. “We catch different weather patterns at each place.”
Anna finished planting the rest of the spring wheat and safflower the end of May.
The Merrimans now have those crops plus their grazing cover crop mixes and mustard in their farm fields.
“The safflower and the mustard have come up, but they don’t take off yet. What is happening is they are putting down long tap roots,” he said. “Safflower goes down deep and we call it a ‘nitrogen miner.’ It is a good crop to have in your rotation – of course, you don’t want to have it all the time – but when it is there, it will go down, grab that N, and pull it back to the surface. A lot of it stays in the residue to help the crop next year.”
Cliff and Anna have been trading off spring work. With their farm fields 60 miles apart, one stays at the home farm with a tractor and chisel, while the other has been seeding with a tractor and air seeder on the other fields.
The Merrimans have some 2,000 acres of summer fallowing to finish in the fields this year, which makes for some long days.
“If both tractors are running, we can cover 400 acres a day,” Cliff said.
Because it is an organic farm, tilling is the only way to take down the weeds for planting into next year. In addition, the Merrimans farm in a region where rainfall averages 11-12 inches annually, so every bit of moisture counts.
“The reasons we summer fallow are to help kill weeds ahead of planting and to conserve moisture for next year’s crop,” he said.
They have more fallow acres than usual to cover this year.
“The clover we planted last year for green manure was devastated by grasshoppers,” he said.
Grasshoppers were all over the region last summer.
“APHIS came out and surveyed and said there was more than 80 hoppers per square foot when the economic threshold for grasshoppers is 8 hoppers per square foot,” he said.
Usually the Merrimans would have the clover coming up in the spring for grazing or swathing it and baling it for their cattle.
“We didn’t have it this year with the grasshopper damage, so we are plowing it under,” he said.
In the mornings, the Merrimans have been helping with brandings at ranches in the region.
The neighbors in the region get together at each farm/ranch and help with brandings, and that means rising early to finish in the morning with the heat too stressful for the cow/calf pairs in the afternoon.
While every family does their brandings a little differently, Cliff said they usually sort the calves off.
“We’ll go back for the cows. The calves are branded and get their vaccination shots, and the bull calves are castrated,” he said.
There are about 8-10 families in this region that work together to brand their calves.
“It is one of the things that really drew me to this area. All the neighbors help each other, so you don’t have to hire a bunch of people,” Cliff said. “Some of the families have been doing it back for generations when this area was first homesteaded. It is neat to hear the old stories. It is great to live in a place where neighbors still help each other.”
Currently, the Merriman’s cow/calf pairs are out grazing on cover crops.
“Our cover crops are all up and the pairs are out grazing it,” he said.
The Merrimans don’t have to worry about water in their pastures, which is nice with the intense heat of the last week.
“We are actually pretty fortunate on the water situation. We have the well and we have a spring-fed reservoir. When it was first dug, they hit ground water, so it is ground water fed, which is great, ” he added.
With their pigs, Cliff said they are making sure they have plenty of water and mud in the heat. The kids go out frequently and hose the pigs down to keep them cool.
In addition, the Merriman’s sow will soon have piglets.
Meanwhile, Cliff said they have been working with other members of the MOA on their farm tour.
The Merrimans will host the event at their farm on July 6, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MDT). Sponsors are the MOA, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, AERO and Organic Montana.
“Everyone is invited to come to the tour,” Anna said.
For more on the tour, see: https://montanaorganicassociation.org.
Cliff and Anna are glad to have all their crops in the ground, and while they are finishing their spring tillage, they will be watching the crops this growing season.
“We’re excited to see what the year will bring. Every year is different,” Cliff concluded.