MILK RIVER BASIN, Montana — The round hay bales in the Saco flats have turned dark with mud and mildew.
The high-water mark rises halfway up these slumping, soggy bales — thousands of which dot the fields along U.S. Highway 12 — bearing the ruin of a rare August flood.
For five days, rain washed over the Musselshell and Milk River basins, dropping as much as 8 inches in an area stretching from Winnett north to the Canadian border. August rainfall records were broken in 20 towns. In many places, those records were shattered.
The flooding damaged fields, roads and bridges in three counties and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, prompting the Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a state of disaster. The havoc wreaked on farmers' nerves was just as swift.
Three weeks after the storm, Glasgow farmer John Lacey picked up a wad of stinking alfalfa and put words to his crop and the outlook for producers on the Hi-Line.
"It's a bad deal," he said.
Just how bad, the farmers don't yet know. They have been paralyzed by the wet conditions, as the area's major crops begin turning to mush in the fields.
That's the trouble with this storm: While the plains residents are no strangers to flooding — the Hi-Line was underwater for several months during spring 2011 — not since 1986 has such heavy rain struck at this time of year, when a sizable fall harvest was just getting underway.
As a result, the livelihood the farmers were preparing to take to the bin and to the bank has been exchanged for uncertainty that will linger long after the puddles dry up.
"The timing was absolutely horrendous," said Dick Cotton, who grows spring wheat and barley on the Milk.
"It's junk," he said of his crop. "I think it's all lost."
As of last week, one-third of the state's spring wheat remained in the ground. In northern areas like Valley County, Montana's top producer of spring wheat, the proportion of unharvested crop is much higher.
Fields have yet to dry out, so producers can't get their combines to crops that weren't harvested before the storm.
"I might take up drinking because I have time now," Chris Christensen, of Hinsdale, joked.
Christensen was among the 30 or so farmers and ranchers who spent a cold, rainy morning last week at the Elks Lodge in Glasgow to find out how much of their crop yield may be covered by insurance.
Insurance representatives described the basics of grain quality and outlined rules that govern crop protection.
Heavy rain near harvest time affects wheat by causing it to germinate while still in the soil. It's called pre-harvest sprouting, and it degrades the quality of the wheat by breaking down the protein and starch content.
Poor-quality wheat makes for sticky dough not suitable for baking. It's typically destined for livestock feed and is sold at a fraction of its former value.
A "falling numbers" test, performed by the State Grain Lab in Great Falls, is used to gauge the crop quality by measuring the thickness of a sample mixture of flour and water. Undamaged grain will yield a high number; lower falling numbers indicate a discounted market value.
The State Grain Lab typically sees less than 1 percent of grain with low falling numbers, said bureau chief Jeff Rumney. But as samples from affected areas start to trickle in, the discounted proportion has already jumped to 20 percent.
For those who have it, insurance will cover a portion of the discounted grain sales, but the profits that seemed within reach likely are gone.
The financial picture won't emerge for the farmers until they are able to get combines into the fields and harvest what they can.
"When will we know?" one farmer asked presenter Jenifer Hansen, a senior claims supervisor for Rain and Hail LLC.
"When's it going to quit raining?" Hansen replied.
At this point, more harsh weather may actually be the best option for producers, Hansen said. The worry, for farmers with insurance, is having a crop whose value is diminished but not so severely that their policies help with the loss.
"If I were them, I'd pray for more rain," she said.
As Hansen clicked through her slideshow, Lacey, the Glasgow farmer, was inside the local abstract office. He and his wife, Kim, have had enough of this flooding; he wants to build a dike.
Their farm is located at a spot where a large drainage area meets the steep banks of the Milk River and is pinched between rushing and rising water.
With a couple of inches in his rain gauge on Aug. 23, a Saturday, Lacey took a sleeping aid to help him through the night — an unusual step for someone who said he doesn't like any drugs.
By Sunday morning they had bigger problems: Rain was pouring over the gauge and floodwaters were rising toward the enclosure for his 488 sheep.
The sheep were herded onto trailers and moved to higher ground 12 miles away, Lacey said.
Lacey said he and Kim aren't looking forward to pulling tree limbs from fences, disposing of dead alfalfa or patrolling for an invasion of thorny weeds that tend to take root after flooding and stick to the wool of his sheep.
"This is what two-and-a-half tons of alfalfa looks like when it's underwater for 10 to 12 days," he said as he stood in a brown field adjacent to the river. "It just screws up your management."
Christensen, wearing a cowboy hat, paisley shirt and belt buckle, does some mental math as he drives his truck between fields of hay, his biggest product.
The rain dumped just before he and son Chisholm could bale their second cutting. The harvested alfalfa instead is growing white mold as it lies in the field.
The Christensens are assuming everything covered by floodwaters is a loss, and like most hay producers, their hay isn't insured.
He figures around 200 acres are trashed and will need to be reseeded and leveled before they can return to production, at a cost of around $350 per acre and a lot of work.
The events, Christensen said, "pulled the rug out" from what would have been an excellent year.
He noted how recurring floods are compounding earlier damage and changing the local landscape. In the town of Hinsdale, the steep banks of the Milk are eroding in broad sections, threatening some homes at the water's edge.
As in 2011, water seeped into basements and crawl spaces in homes along the Hi-Line, and some sandbags were filled. But this time residents seem to have taken the impacts in stride, as many already had sump pumps on hand.
The roof on Hinsdale school, where Christensen serves on the school board, was being replaced when the storm hit. Water flowed into the kitchen and poured through trophy cases, he said. Class was canceled for a day, as in Saco, but community members pitched in and got the school running the next day.
And county officials are relieved that no injuries were reported and the flash floods didn't strand anyone with a medical emergency.
The 2011 flood season is the reference point for disasters in the area, but the two events are quite different, said Tanja Fransen, NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist.
In 2011, high snowmelt signaled the spring flooding that would follow. The runoff was augmented by severe rains in May, then another event in June, which essentially turned the entire season soggy.
"This time, it was five days," Fransen said. With only two inches predicted, residents didn't have much time to prepare.
The flash floods caused significant damage to infrastructure. The Valley County road department identified 37 road washout sites, some of which are still impassable.
Todd Young, assistant road foreman, stood over one huge washout in a small drainage area south of Glasgow that sloughed off a chunk of road 100 feet long and 10 feet wide.
"It's impressive, in a sense," he said.
Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com
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