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Eastern Montana: Hail clobbers some farmers, spares others

Eastern Montana: Hail clobbers some farmers, spares others

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Before Sunday’s hail storm shredded Terral Balzer’s crops, the Worden farmer had a feeling things were going just a little too well.

All spring, the rain had been falling at the just the right times. The cold temperatures never dipped to freezing. His crops went into the ground a couple weeks later than usual, but not too late. Spring had been so calm Balzer was uneasy.

“It seemed pretty normal. Everything was going so good,” Balzer said. “Someone even asked me in church, they said ‘Man it looks good.’ That kind of scared me.”

Calm periods always seem to be punctuated by storms. Sunday’s was an emphatic exclamation point.

Hail, in some places larger in diameter than a golf ball, mowed a 3,000 acre patch quilt across sugar beet farms from Billings to Hardin. In some instances the distance between farms decimated and farms spared was only a mile.

“I got lucky and missed it,” said Leroy Gable who farms near Huntley, roughly two thirds of the way between the Billings Heights and Balzer’s place West of Worden. Both Worden and Billings Heights were clobbered. “We got the wind and the rain and some real small hail for about five minutes. It wasn’t too bad really.”

From Worden to Pompeys Pillar, farmers took it on the chin.

Winter wheat, 64 percent of which had been rated good to excellent in the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture crop weather report, took a beating, as did malt barley.

Corn seemed to receive little damage, said Tom Robertus, who sells corn seed for DuPont. Along the Yellowstone River from Park City to Glendive, corn and sugar beets are often grown side by side, but the corn crop has yet to poke through the soil in many places. The crop should be fine, Robertus said.

Sugar beets, with broad leaves that make easy targets, seemed to get the worst of the damage, but it will be days before farmers can determine if they need to replant.

“The heaviest damage was found north of Hardin, west of Billings and north of Worden/Shepherd,” said Randall Jobman, Western Sugar Cooperative agricultural manager in Billings and Lovell. “Most of the hail damaged beets were in the four to six true leaf stage prior to the storm. It is too early to tell if stands were reduced to levels which would require replanting.”

Jobman put the locally affected sugar beet acreage at 3,000, or 12 percent of the beet acres committed to the sugar factory in Billings. Within those 3,000 acres, after a few days some of the crop will begin to green up and recover. Whatever turns pale, will have to be replanted.

For the next several days, Balzer will look upon his sugar beet field from his shop window, hoping for a comeback. It’s the same window from which he watched the calm spring come to a thunderous end, with 59 mph winds and pea-sized hail blanketing the formerly green earth.

“When it was done, it was like snow on the ground. It covered everything,” Balzer said. “It was three feet up on the door.”

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