Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 30 August 2004

Tough harvest: Rains bring harvest to halt

By NICK GEVOCKBozeman Daily Chronicle Staff Writer

Prayers for rain have turned into pleas for a break.

With grain crops mature and ready for harvest, Gallatin County farmers have been waiting for a pause in the rain so they can get combines into the fields. The grain has been too wet to harvest and each day it stays out poses more risk to the crop.

"It's very serious when we get a series of rain like this when the grain is all matured," farmer Bill Wright said. "That's the year's income."

Wright grows wheat, barley and peas north of Bozeman. He has already harvested the peas, but hasn't been able to get into his grain fields.

Farmers throughout the county have had a tough time harvesting their crops. In Wright's area, roughly 10 percent of the grain crop has been harvested, he said.

August has been usually cool and rainy, with 1.53 inches falling at Gallatin Field airport through Thursday evening, according to the National Weather Service.

The 30-year average is .93 inches of precipitation in the month through the same date.

When grain gets wet right at the time it's ready for harvest, it can get bleached and become a lighter color. That's a sign of lower protein content and a factor buyers use to downgrade the wheat and pay less for it.

A reduction of a few cents per bushel can dramatically affect a farmer's bottom line.

"If you take off 20 or 30 cents a bushel, that's past the profit point," Wright said.

In addition, grain can't be stored if it has more than 13 percent moisture content. Wright has a system to dry the wheat, but that, too, costs money to run.

But many farmers in the valley haven't invested in gas-powered drying systems because they're often not needed.

Hay is even more susceptible to problems from the rain, said Dave Pruitt, chief water commissioner and a hay producer. Alfalfa and hay that's been cut and put into rows for baling can rot if it gets wet.

And even if it doesn't rot, the hay fades and loses some protein content.

"That's the first thing (buyers) try to whittle you down on," Pruitt said. "They ask you if it's been rained on."

The lower-grade hay isn't good for horses or dairy cattle, and is used primarily for stock cattle, Pruitt said.

Potatoes aren't affected nearly as much because they are still several weeks from being ready to harvest, farmer Nick Schutter said.

But wet conditions do leave potatoes more susceptible to fungus diseases.

The good news for area farmers is that the coming days are predicted to be warm and sunny -- perfect conditions for drying out fields.

If that happens, farmers will work feverishly to get their crop into the storage silos, working well into the night.

Wright said a field can be combined until about 2 a.m. before the dew sets in, then work can resume around 9 a.m. Farmers will be in the combine every hour between those times.

"We're going to harvest like crazy," Wright said.