By Marit Gookin
It may feel to some like summer had only barely just begun before it turned into fall; cool temperatures and rainy weather extended spring into July, and after a few weeks of warmer weather things have turned cool again. This past Saturday had the lowest high temperature ever recorded for Riverton on August 5 – 71°F – and last Friday saw a funnel form near the Riverton airport. The cool, wet conditions aren’t necessarily bad for commercial farms, though, however much kitchen garden zucchini may be struggling.
“We obviously had a cooler winter/spring than we’re used to … which is actually a good thing for barley” and wheat, observed Farm Manager Sam George at the University of Wyoming’s Powell Research and Extension Center. “For the most part, it’s been a pretty good summer [for crops].”
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2022 Wyoming was one of the nation’s top 10 producers of barley, dry edible beans, pinto beans and sugar beets, and has on average the largest individual farms in the U.S. Cash receipts for Wyoming agricultural production add up to nearly $2 billion annually; agriculture is one of the state’s top industries, and is also culturally very important to the state’s identity. While cattle ranches and sheepherders are iconic, hay and crops also play an important role in Wyoming’s agriculture.
“The last couple years have been fairly quiet in terms of severe convective weather,” explained Brett McDonald, a science and operations officer at the National Weather Service’s Riverton office. “This summer has been a lot more active … Overall, it’s felt cooler – certainly in terms of high temperatures.” The highest temperature reached in Riverton so far this summer has been 96°F, McDonald said; most summers, the highest temperature by this point of the summer would be closer to 100°F.
While the cooler weather has been good for some of Wyoming’s crops, hay has been a different story. “Alfalfa producers have been probably the most impacted this year … Everybody is kind of behind their schedule,” George noted. Due to the delayed start to Wyoming’s already short growing season, people who usually hay their fields three or four times in a summer may get a smaller yield on their final haying or simply won’t be able to have as many cuttings as they would in a typical summer.
Low alfalfa production this summer may impact cattle producers, who already have weathered a hard winter that may have cost more than ranchers anticipated. “A lot of guys had to buy feed because they couldn’t graze through the winter,” George explained. “Some cattle producers are probably looking at the cost of feed.” However, he also noted that cattle prices have been fairly good this year, and will hopefully stay high.
The damp conditions can also encourage the growth of mold and fungus, and can play a role in certain diseases. “I think what producers are recognizing with this wetter weather is there is an increased risk,” George said, but he noted that Wyoming commercial farmers already tend to be vigilant about these risks. “I think for the most part, producers are taking about the same amount of care they always do.”
Wind and hail associated with the summer’s stormy weather have also impacted some crops in Fremont County, knocking over or damaging plants that are a little younger than they would normally be at this time of year due to the late start to the growing season. While Wyoming is always windy, the hail is more unusual; the combination of factors has meant many crops growing particularly well due to the increased moisture, but some crops also suffering due to the same weather conditions. Overall, George feels positive about how things stand for Wyoming’s crop yield at the moment, saying that most crops are doing well this year.
However, things could still take a turn for some crops. “If we lose some of that heat in August and September, it could affect our corn and maybe sugar beets,” George explained. While a frost immediately before harvest can actually result in sweeter beets, the tops of the plants fill in first and the root grows to a harvestable beet later. With the later start to the growing season, if the temperatures turn cool too early, the beets may not have had a chance to grow yet.
The outlook for Wyoming’s crop production this year currently looks good, with Wyoming farmers benefiting from the moisture even as they pay close attention to crops that are susceptible to mold and fungus. Cattle prices are doing well, and all of the green grass has likely meant for good grazing this year. However, hay yields will likely be down, and as fall approaches lower temperatures and high winds could still have a negative impact on some crops. It remains to be seen if the timing of this year’s first frost will be poorly timed and result in small and sparse sugar beets – or if it will be well-timed and yield a crop of especially sweet beets.