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Montana wheat

Broadview-area farmer Mitch Auer examines a spade full of soil from a wheat field he harvested last year to test the moisture content of the soil.

JAMES WOODCOCK/Billings Gazette

BROADVIEW — On an afternoon when the air presses against his face like a hot iron, Mitch Auer grabs a shovel from his pickup and lumbers into an old wheat stand that hasn’t seen 3 inches of moisture this year.

It’s the last day in July and the National Weather Service has just confirmed that Yellowstone County is experiencing one of its hottest summers ever. A couple of weeks earlier, the same meteorologists were declaring the first six months of the 2012 the county’s driest on record. The misery in farm country is palpable across the southern third of Montana, with multiple counties seeking disaster declarations for drought, fire, or both, which makes what Auer unearths remarkable.

“There it is,” the young farmer said, moist, cool loam just beneath the surface. From the shovel, Auer takes a handful of earth, squeezing it until it bears the creases of his palm. “That was 4 inches maybe, just down a little bit.”

A meat thermometer pulled from Auer’s pocket and thrust into the ground puts the temperature at 78 degrees, this as the warmth of the air creeps into the high 90s. Using every trick he can conjure, Auer is surviving in a brutal climate, which is what farm economists say producers will have to do to survive the next 18 years.

From now to 2030, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects hotter and more unpredictable weather to challenge farmers. The USDA accepts that global climate change is occurring and expects increases in average temperatures worldwide with wide-ranging impacts on local temperatures and rainfall. Precipitation, not temperature, is the climate issue that most concerns the USDA. Changes in rain and snowfall are likely to vary, and farmers’ ability to react to those changes by altering crops and managing soil will make or break most in the next 18 years.

In July, analysts at the USDA Economic Research Service estimated that net returns to farmers could vary from increases of $3.6 billion a year to losses of $1.1 billion just related to the weather, while losses to insects and weeds benefiting from more favorable climate conditions could reduce returns $1.5 billion to $3 billion a year.

The winners among farmers, according to ERS will be the adapters, able to reap rewards when precipitation is good, or hunker down when the rain doesn’t come.

The Auer family — Mitch and his father, Les — are some of the best adapters in the county, according to Steve Lackman, Yellowstone County extension agent. Mitch and his father became coffee-counter legends two years ago when they seeded corn in their dry, unirrigated Broadview acres in northwest Yellowstone County.

The corn idea came to Les Auer a season earlier while driving home from Kansas. He’d traveled to the nation’s Corn Belt to visit the owners of a custom combine crew that had traveled to Montana to cut Auer’s wheat for years. On the way back, Auer couldn’t believe how far north and west corn was being grown. Much of the corn he saw was resistant to the powerful herbicide Roundup.

Les figured that if his fields went into corn every other year, the Roundup would kill off the weeds the Auers had never been able to eliminate by growing wheat year in and year out. Getting wheat out of the field for a year would also help get rid of wheat stem sawflies, a wasp-looking insect that plants its eggs inside wheat stems. The young destroy the stem, causing the crop to fall over. Each year, sawflies damage more than $100 million of Montana wheat, according to the Montana Grains Foundation.

Even this year, the Auers are growing corn. Though it’s not the knee-high by the Fourth of July kind they’d like to have, the crop is poking along in fields gray with the tall stems of previously planted wheat.

They way the Auers harvest wheat is crucial to keeping the moisture in the ground. In 2011, with record rains, the Auers' wheat crop grew armpit high in places and produced 55 bushels an acre, an unprecedented amount for much of Broadview. At harvest time, the father and son used a stripper rather than a conventional combine head to remove the grain. The stripper took only the very top of each plant, pulling off the kernels, but leaving the stems behind. Sun bleached, the previous year’s crop looks like a tall, gray ghost. This year’s winter wheat, recently cut, stands high enough to fool you from a distance, though the heads are gone.

“The advantage with the stripper header is that it leaves all the straw. So, you shade the ground so it’s cooler. It catches more snow and when it does rain it holds moisture,” Mitch Auer said.

This fall, the Auers will plant winter wheat in the tall gray bristle where Mitch Auer found June-moist soil on the last day in July. If the drought breaks just once, giving Broadview a decent rain, the winter wheat should be off to a good start before the snow falls.

Phillip Sandoval, soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a big believer in what the Auers are doing, both by leaving more than 90 percent of their harvested wheat plants standing, and by rotating corn into their crop cycle. Farmers who aren’t doing the same are getting clobbered by the drought, he said.

“In this kind of weather, if you’re a conventional farmer growing wheat on wheat, or corn on corn, it’s a severe hit to the soil,” Sandoval said. “It’s a severe hit to the soil primarily because of the heat. If you take a soil thermometer to a fallow field, it might be a 20-degree difference and at a high temperature kills all living organisms in the soil. What they’re missing is the diversity.”

Sandoval is trying to sell area farmers on having a living root in the field every growing season; even if the plant attached to that root is a cover crop of no cash value, though there are plants that keep life in a field that can also be profitable.

Living roots keep the soil cool, keep the microorganisms alive and keep pushing carbon, pulled from the air by the plant, back into the soil.

“Even in an irrigated valley, when a farmer is raising malt barley, that barley comes off and now, it’s off. Nothing is growing on the land and nothing is feeding the microorganisms in the soil,” Sandoval said. “It’s a shift in thinking.”

Subtly, over a few years, having a living root on the soil every season will recharge the soil. A crop like sunflower seeds, which has a market, can send deep roots down toward the hardpan and bring up nutrients that shallow rooted crops like wheat or barley never find, Sandoval said.

The Auers haven’t crossed into the living root practices that Sandoval encourages. Driving through dry fields in his pickup, Mitch Auer explains that “cover crops” still take time and fuel to look after, which without a sale by late summer don’t get paid for. He likes the idea of sunflowers pulling the nutrients up to the surface for small grain crops, though.

And as he looks at to the future, he’s convinced more has to be done to not just surrender to the drought. There are more states affected by drought this year than in any other time, and while news outlets cover agriculture’s withering chances, it’s frequently pointed out that crop insurance and disaster payments will cover a significant portion of the loss.

Auer doesn’t like the sound of that.

“A lot of farmers are looking for a handout when, in fact, they could be making changes on their farm and conserving more moisture and doing something different,” he said.

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