BILLINGS - Winter wheat farmers are expecting better yields and far more production - nearly three times that of last year - as drought conditions appear to be easing in much of the state.
The Montana Agricultural Statistics Service on Monday estimated this year's winter wheat production at 61.2 million bushels, a result of expected higher yields and an increase in acreage planted last fall. Production hit just 21 million bushels last season after dry conditions devastated crops in areas and forced many producers to either abandon them or reseed to spring wheat.
Harvest is months away and weather still could take a toll on the crop, as it did last year.
But Richard Owen, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said recent spring rains and growing moisture totals give farmers reason to be "cautiously optimistic." Some farmers have indicated that this is their best-looking crop in the past three to five years.
"This is nothing like last year," Owen said.
Thomas Chard, an agricultural statistician, said the report, based on condition as of May 1, is an indicator that this could be a decent crop year. The wheat broke dormancy earlier than it did last year and the weather has created more favorable growing conditions, he said.
"This is just one good sign, but weíre not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Farmers last fall seeded 1.85 million acres of winter wheat - 400,000 more acres than the previous year - under wetter conditions than many had seen in the recent years marked by drought, the service said.
Of that, farmers expect to harvest 1.7 million acres, which compares to just 750,000 acres harvested last year, the service said. Yields are projected at 36 bushels an acre, which is up 8 bushels an acre from last year.