MALTA, Mont. – With very little precipitation and temperatures continuing to be hotter than normal, the Merrimans and other producers in north central to northeastern Montana are continuing to deal with drought conditions.
“It’s pretty dismal around the area. It seems to have settled in for the long haul and we may not be starting the combine this year,” said Cliff Merriman, who operates 4M Farms with his wife, Anna, and kids, Beau and Courtney.
The crops have deteriorated due to a “trifecta” of issues in the area: hot temperatures – as high as triple digits – dry weather, and a massive grasshopper influx.
Anna, during the first week of July, said there had been no rainfall over the prior two weeks.
“We haven’t had any rain at all. It is very dry,” she said. There was a chance of rain in the forecast following their report, but even with rain, the Merrimans doubt the crops could come back as grasshoppers have impacted nearly every field they have.
Weather conditions, however, weren’t expected to affect the Merriman’s organic farm tour, which they were very excited to host.
“We’re wrapping up details for the farm tour and getting stuff ready. We are just about there,” Anna said.
She explained attendees would hear from a soil microbiologist and learn about Montana State University organic research from Pat Carr, superintendent at MSU’s Central Ag Research Center. In addition, Cliff, an agronomist himself, will be talking about the cover crops and how they have integrated livestock with different crops on their farm.
“We’ll have the farm tour in the morning and then we’ll have lunch catered by Smokin’ Ox BBQ, a local gal that smokes meats, at the Milk River Pavilion. We’ll stay there for the afternoon where Bill Pelton will hold the low stress livestock handling clinic,” she said.
Agri-Feeds has a salt mine in Utah and they will give a talk on high-quality organic pink salt and the all-organic lick tubs that the company offers.
According to the Montana Organic Association, the farm tour will also include discussions about grasshoppers – with most operations experiencing damage from the hoppers this growing season.
Cliff said the National Weather Service captured the migration of the grasshoppers on radar in the area and posted it on their website.
“When the hoppers run out of feed, they start migrating. They will fly up and move on. The hoppers were big enough to be caught on radar,” he said.
On the website, the NWS posted an expansive blue mass hovering over a large area, with the NWS reporting, “It is not rain, unfortunately – just countless grasshoppers flying as high as 10,000 feet above the ground.”
In fact, conditions are severe enough this year that the Merrimans called their crop adjuster to come out and drive around the farm.
“Our wheat is short, about six inches tall. All the leaves have been stripped off and it is starting to head. When I looked at it yesterday, it had turned a light blue color, which is a drought stress color. It is just running out of water,” Cliff said. “When I was out in the wheat, there were about five grasshoppers per stalk chewing on it.”
At the lease property 60 miles away, Anna said the wheat was in better condition.
“The wheat is still green at the lease property, but it hasn’t received rainfall. Some grasshoppers are in it, and I don’t know if they will take it all or not,” she said.
Cliff added that their mustard has burned up and is turning brown.
“The safflower never came up because before it emerged we got a really hard rain on it and it crusted the soil and it never came up,” Cliff explained.
The cover crops are short this year.
“They ran out of moisture and the hoppers are in there, as well,” he said.
The Merrimans would never consider just spraying the hoppers and waiting three years to be recertified as organic.
“There’s a philosophical reason, too. There are people that farm organics for the added value, and then there are people, like us, who farm organically because we truly don’t want to use chemicals on our farm,” Cliff explained. “We just have to take the licks as they come. Like my Dad used to say, ‘One day closer to a rain; drought can’t last forever.’”
Anna added that, “With the drought and grasshoppers this year, I don’t think it would matter economically if we sprayed with organic spray.”
However, their livestock are making it through the conditions well.
“They are good grass managers out at the Matador Ranch. Our yearlings are doing good. We just turned the bulls out and we just did a whole herd health check,” Cliff said.
At home headquarters, the Merrimans are having to move their cow/calf pairs frequently due to reservoirs drying up faster than normal.
“That is predicting our (cattle) movements more than the grass,” Cliff said. “With our little herd, we are thinking we will be able to ride this drought out.”
The sow and her piglets are doing well. They have plenty of shade, water, and the kids go out every hour and hose them down, Cliff said, so the sow gets special treatment in this summer of intense heat.