Watching the wheat wither

Moffat County farmers worry low rainfall might mean low-yield crops this season

Gordon Grandbouche at Craig Grain Company is expecting this year's wheat yields to be under last year's mark, partly because of lack of moisture Moffat County has received this spring.

"We have some crops that have experienced winter kill this year," Grandbouche said. "They're planting spring grain now and the moisture level is low. It's very hot and dry for this early in the year."

Moffat County wheat crops usually produce about 25 to 28 bushels per acre in a normal year, Grandbouche said. Anything over 30 bushels per acre is a good crop.

This year, a late frost in early May did some damage to hay and alfalfa crops, he said.

"This spring was so dry that some wheat and barley crops didn't even emerge," Grandbouche said. "It's going to take a lot of rain to get those crops to mature."

Rain too late

He said the sub-soil moisture is worse farther west.

A good crop to grow in Moffat County right now is winter wheat because it doesn't depend as much on spring moisture, he said.

Jerry Thompson has been growing wheat in Moffat County for 40 years. He said a crop of winter wheat gets some moisture from the spring's melting snow.

"In a year like this, that's pretty important," Thompson said. "A lot of what people that planted late won't even produce this year."

That lack of moisture is what has Wayne Counts worried. He farms on land west of Craig, as well as south by Axial, and he's afraid this year's crop is already lost.

"It's terrible. It's almost too late now for rain," Counts said. "It might help for next year. I take it one year at a time."

Processing seed

Counts comes from a long line of farmers. His grandparents homesteaded in Great Divide and he farms with his father, Wesley. He said the lack of rain this spring has been hard on everyone.

"Everybody is having a bad year," Counts said. "The wheat is doing better than the hay. There's always next year."

Thompson has 400 acres of winter wheat that he put in the ground in mid-October, and plans to harvest in early August.

He agrees with Grandbouche about yield amounts.

"If you beat 30 bushels an acre around here, you had a pretty good year," Thompson said.

After planting in the fall, the seed lies dormant, waiting for the moisture of spring to begin growing.

Combines harvest the wheat in autumn, and the product is hauled to the local elevators by truck.

Thompson said the elevator operators are helpful, storing the wheat and watching the market prices.

When sold, the wheat leaves town on train or by truck. The farmer will often hold some of the cleaned seed for planting in the fall, and the process begins again for the next year's crop.

'Twice the land'

Thompson held 500 bushels of wheat cleaned by the elevators for planting last fall.

"The interesting thing about farming is you need twice the land that you have planted," Thompson said. "Half sits fallow, while the other half is growing."

The fallow land also needs to be worked in the summer for weed control, either by discs, by sweeping, or plowing, Thompson said.

Once a year, Thompson applies weed control to his field, with the help of Mountain Air Spray Company.

Most farmers lease a portion of the land on which they grow crops. These leases are either on a cash or percentage basis.

On a cash lease, a figure is agreed upon that the farmer will pay the landowner, regardless of the harvest.

On a percentage lease, the landowner will take between 25 and 30 percent of the crops' value after the harvest. The farmer is responsible for all the costs involved with raising the crop.

Future of farming

Counts worries about the future of farming in Moffat County, not because of lack of rain, but because of growth.

"People want houses in the country," Counts said. "All these houses west and north of town, that was wheat fields once."

He said farming has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Most of farmers do some sharecropping, Counts said.

Thompson said it's possible to make a living by farming in Moffat County, but it's not easy.

"If you figure in the depreciation of your equipment, it's awful tough," Thompson said. "If you came in and bought land and equipment, you couldn't make it. It's not a possibility."

He said unless prices change and the cost of fuel drops, fewer and fewer people will be farming in the county.

Counts said he will continue to farm wheat in the county. It's what his family does.

"It's not the strong that survive," Counts said. "It's the dumb and the too dumb to quit."

Thompson agrees that people who farm are not out to get rich.

"Most people that farm do it for the love of the lifestyle, not to make any money at it," Thompson said. "That's why I do it."

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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