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Climate change could hit western North Dakota, eastern Montana hard

SIDNEY, Mont. — A wetter winter and drier summer are in store for western North Dakota and eastern Montana  growers, if climate change predictions developed for a Montana Farmers Union report hold true.

The statewide study looked primarily at the effects of climate change on the wheat and cattle industries, which together comprise about 80 percent of the agricultural economy in Montana.

The report was prepared by a father and son team, Montana economist Dr. Thomas Power and University of Montana Research Professor and Professor Emeritus Tom Power, who studies climate change, including the movement of ice sheets in Antarctica. Their studies used existing global climate models and national climate models to look at the likely effects of continued climate change on Montana growers and then applied that information to the economics. They concluded that agriculture is looking at a multimillion dollar hit due to climate change under the models currently favored by climate change scientists.

Donovan estimated that by 2055 the state as a whole would be looking at five to 15 additional days each year where temperatures are above 95 degrees. That, coupled with 5 to 10 percent less rain in the summer will create a growing season that looks very different from today.

Summers would be drier across the state, though northeastern Montana could perhaps enjoy about 6 to 9 percent more moisture than the western half of the state, according to their study. The moisture, however, would be pushed more into winter than it is now, and the summers would get drier.

“In winter, we expect to see 20 to 40 fewer days below freezing,” Donovan Power said. “The increased heat coupled with less moisture in the summer brings the potential for new weeds and pests to thrive.”

Not only that, but the resulting carbon to nitrogen ratio, while allowing plants to grow faster than before, will lessen the nutrition being pulled into forage and the protein in wheat, unless additional inputs of nitrogen are added to keep the right ratios.

Those factors were added to increased competition from weeds such as cheatgrass to conclude that productivity of rangelands could drop an average of 20 percent statewide, costing ranchers more than 12,000 jobs and $364 million in earnings. Grains, meanwhile, would see as much as a 25 percent drop in yield, costing 12,500 jobs and $372 million in earnings.

“The report is a ‘business-as-usual’ look at the numerous challenges Montana farmers and ranchers will face as warming temperatures brought on or made worse by the expected 4 to 5 degree average temperature increase,” said co-author Tom Power, University of Montana Research Professor and Professor Emeritus. “We project a 20 percent drop in rangeland cattle production and a 25 percent decline in grain production by 2055.”

“We are looking at a winter that is going to be wetter,” Donovan Power said. “For northeastern Montana, we are probably looking at things being 15 percent wetter and then drier in summer.”

The area will, in other words, begin to resemble more of a Kansas growing season, as the climate zones shift upward.

“The climate we have enjoyed is going to be shifting up into Alberta,” Donovan Power explained. “And the climate of mid-latitude Great Plains shifts up into our area a little bit. It’s not quite that simple. For temperatures it’s closer to that, but precipitation is more complicated.”

The warming effect will be more concentrated in northern latitudes, meaning the changes seen in the this region will be higher than what is seen in say Oklahoma or Texas.

Rainfall is the more complicated piece of things, Donovan Power said.

Both climate models are good at getting temperatures correct, but modeling the influence of cloud cover is complex.

The two have talked to farmers and ranchers throughout the state and say they are finding that many growers and producers are already onto the trends they are showing in their models.

“It’s been pretty neat for us, because it’s like the science is right in line with what farmers are seeing happening in fields in Montana, and they are aware of it,” Donovan Powers said. “That’s been pretty cool for us to be able to see that the science is real, and that Montana ranchers and farmers are paying attention to it.”

Erik Somerfeld grows wheat, malt barley and hay on a family farm near Power, Mont.

“It’s no secret to farmers that things are changing,” he says. “We see it in every season. We’re planting at least two weeks earlier than we did 10 years ago, and we’re not getting the early and mid-summer moisture that crops like malt barley need.”

Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ron De Yong said the report could help guide policy decisions in the field going forward.

“We look forward to continued research on climate change, its impacts and adaptation strategies for agriculture,” he said.

Chris Christiaens is Montana Farmers Union’s Legislative Director. He said 2015 was a big year for Montana agriculture.

“Production was up 7 percent over 2014 levels and topped $5.2 billion in economic impact for the first time ever,” Christiaens said. “Montana Farmers Union is committed to ensuring our agriculture industry remains robust, even in the face of serious challenges from changes in our climate.”