Drought Resources for Montana Ranchers

MSGA is committed to keeping its members up-to-date on drought related information and resources. As our members work to find solutions during this challenging time, resources and information will be posted on this information hub as they become available.

Last updated July 28, 2021

Gov Gianforte Declares Statewide Drought Emergency

HELENA, Mont. (July 1, 2021) – Governor Greg Gianforte today issued an executive order declaring a statewide drought emergency in Montana.

“Every region of the state faces severe to extreme drought conditions, and the situation is getting worse. These alarming drought conditions are devastating our ag producers, challenging our tourism industry, and could bring a severe wildfire season,” Gov. Gianforte said. “This emergency order makes available all necessary state government resources to mitigate the impacts of this drought and protect Montanans.”

Executive Order 11-2021 directs the Departments of Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources and Conservation to provide maximum assistance to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on drought-related activities to secure timely economic assistance from the federal government.

Read more >>>



MSGA encourages its members to provide condition and drought reports to the National Drought Mitigation Center and the state Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee.

The National Drought Mitigation Center Monitoring Reporter

Report drought-related conditions and impacts. This is a nation-wide service provided by the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at the University of Nebraska, in partnership with the National Integrated Drought Information System and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee Drought Impact Reporter

Report local drought impacts. The information gathered will be used to investigate trends and impacts and will help to inform potential responses during drought.


USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers disaster assistance and low-interest loan programs to assist you in your recovery efforts following drought. For more information on these programs, contact your USDA Service Center and visit

2021 Livestock Forage Disaster Program

Livestock producers in 24 Montana counties are eligible to apply for 2021 Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) benefits on small grain, native pasture, improved pasture, annual ryegrass, and forage sorghum.

LFP provides compensation if you suffer grazing losses for covered livestock due to drought on privately owned or leased land or fire on federally managed land.

County committees can only accept LFP applications after notification is received by the National Office of qualifying drought or if a federal agency prohibits producers from grazing normal permitted livestock on federally managed lands due to qualifying fire.

The following 24 Montana counties have triggered the 2021 LFP drought criteria: Beaverhead, Blaine, Carter, Custer, Daniels, Dawson, Fallon, Fergus, Garfield, Golden Valley, Hill, McCone, Musselshell, Petroleum, Phillips, Powder River, Prairie, Richland, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Sheridan, Valley, Wheatland, and Wibaux. Producers must complete a CCC-853 and the required supporting documentation no later than January 31, 2022, for 2021 losses.

For additional information about LFP, including eligible livestock and fire criteria, contact the local USDA Service Center and/or

Drought Map as of July 22, 2021
Montana drought status by County

ELAP Covers Losses from Additional Cost of Transporting Water to Livestock

If you’ve incurred additional operating costs for transporting water to livestock due to an eligible drought, assistance may be available to you through the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP).

An eligible drought means that part or all of your county is designated D3 (extreme drought) or higher as indicated by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Eligible livestock must be adult or non-adult dairy cattle, beef cattle, buffalo and beefalo, as well as alpacas, deer, elk, emus, equine, goats, llamas, reindeer, or sheep. Additionally, the livestock must have been owned 60 calendar days prior to the beginning of the drought and be physically located in the county designated as a disaster area due to drought. Adequate livestock watering systems or facilities must have existed before the drought occurred and producers are only eligible if they do not normally transport water to the livestock.

Livestock that were or would have been in a feedlot are not eligible for transporting water. ELAP covers the additional cost of transporting water and does not cover the cost of the water itself.

You must file a notice of loss on form CCC-851 the earlier of 30 calendar days of when the loss is apparent to you or by Jan. 31, 2022.  Additionally, the deadline to submit an application for payment for 2020 ELAP assistance is Jan. 31, 2022.

You’ll have to provide documentation to FSA that shows the method used to transport the water, the number of gallons of water transported and the number of eligible livestock to which water was transported.

To make an appointment to sign up for ELAP and to learn more about eligibility, application and documentation requirements, contact your local USDA Service Center or visit

USDA Emergency Haying and Grazing Eligibility
Eligible Counties Updated Weekly

USDA Farm Service Agency announced changes for emergency haying and grazing use of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program last year. This included changes outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill that streamlines the authorization process for farmers and ranchers.

Drought conditions are tough for our livestock producers, but emergency haying and grazing use of Conservation Reserve Program acres provides temporary relief to these producers. Thanks to a streamlined authorization process, Montana producers will be able to more quickly obtain emergency use approval to begin emergency haying or grazing of CRP acres.

Program Changes

Previously emergency haying and grazing requests originated with FSA at the county level and required state and national level approval. Now approval will be based on drought severity as determined by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

To date, 43 counties in Montana have triggered eligibility for emergency haying and grazing on CRP acres. A list by state and map of eligible counties are updated weekly and available on FSA’s website.

Producers located in a county that is designated as severe drought (D2) or greater on March 1st are eligible for emergency haying and grazing on all eligible acres. Counties that trigger for Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) payments based on the U.S. Drought Monitor may hay only certain practices on less than 50% of eligible contract acres. Producers should contact their local FSA county office for eligible CRP practices.

Producers who don’t meet the drought monitor qualifications but have a 40% loss of forage production may also be eligible for emergency haying and grazing outside of the primary nesting season.

CRP Emergency Haying and Grazing Provisions

Before haying or grazing eligible acres, producers must submit a request for CRP emergency haying or grazing to FSA and obtain a modified conservation plan from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Emergency grazing is authorized for up to 90 days and emergency haying is authorized for up to 60 days outside of the primary nesting season which is May 15-July 15. Under the emergency grazing provisions, producers can use the CRP acreage for their own livestock or may grant another livestock producer use of the CRP acreage. The eligible CRP acreage is limited to acres located within the approved county.

For emergency haying, producers are limited to one cutting and are permitted to sell the hay. Participants must remove all hay from CRP acreage within 15 days after baling and remove all livestock from CRP acreage no later than 1 day after the end of the emergency grazing period. There will be no CRP annual rental payment reduction for emergency haying and grazing authorizations.

More Information

For more information on CRP emergency haying and grazing visit or contact your FSA county office. To locate your FSA office, visit For more disaster recovery assistance programs, visit


The Montana Department of Agriculture maintains this list as a service to the Agricultural industry and particularly to those in need of hay and those who have hay to supply.

Additional USDA Program and Loan Resources

Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP)

Provides financial assistance to producers of non-insurable crops when low yields, loss of inventory, or prevented planting occur due to natural disasters including qualifying drought (includes native grass for grazing). NAP Application for Coverage must have been obtained by the Sales Closing date to be eligible for this program.

Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP)

Provides compensation to eligible livestock producers who suffered grazing losses for covered livestock due to drought on privately owned or cash leased land. (See qualified counties listed above)

Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP)

Offers payments to eligible producers for livestock death losses in excess of normal mortality due to adverse weather. Drought is not an eligible adverse weather event, except when associated with anthrax, a condition that occurs because of drought and directly results in the death of eligible livestock. Producers should submit Notice of Loss within 30 calendar days of when the loss is first apparent. Producers should document the adverse weather conditions and date(s) of weather events.

Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP)

Provides emergency relief for losses due to feed or water shortages, disease, adverse weather, or other conditions, which are not adequately addressed by other disaster programs. Starting in 2020 for covered livestock losses,, including livestock feed, grazing and farm-raised fish losses, producers have a notice of loss deadline of 30 days from when the loss is first apparent to the producer.

Emergency Loan Program

Available to producers with agriculture operations located in a county under a primary or contiguous Secretarial Disaster designation. These low interest loans help producers recover from production and physical losses.

Emergency Conservation Program (ECP)

Provides emergency funding for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate land severely damaged by natural disasters and to implement emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.

To establish or retain FSA program eligibility, you must report prevented planting and failed acres (crops and grasses). Prevented planting acreage must be reported on form FSA-576, Notice of Loss, no later than 15 calendar days after the final planting date as established by FSA and Risk Management Agency (RMA).

USDA Designates Two Montana Counties as Primary Natural Disaster Areas

This Secretarial natural disaster designation allows the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) to extend much-needed emergency credit to producers recovering from natural disasters through emergency loans. Emergency loans can be used to meet various recovery needs including the replacement of essential items such as equipment or livestock, reorganization of a farming operation or the refinance of certain debts. FSA will review the loans based on the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor (see, these counties suffered from a drought intensity rating during the growing season of 1) D2 Drought-Severe for 8 or more consecutive weeks or 2) D3 Drought-Extreme or D4 Drought-Exceptional.

Impacted Area: Montana
Triggering Disaster: Drought
Application Deadline: March 7, 2022
Primary Counties Eligible:

Carbon Madison Stillwater Treasure
Gallatin Park Sweet Grass Yellowstone

Contiguous Counties Also Eligible:


Beaverhead Broadwater Jefferson Musselshell Silver Bow
Big Horn Golden Valley Meagher Rosebud Wheatland

Educational Drought Resources from MSU Extension Service

Written by Mike Schuldt, Custer County Extension Agent

Water quality often decreases during drought. This article focuses on water quality concerns, testing, and interpretation. Many Eastern Montana County Extension offices have a meter to measure total dissolved solids (TDS) which can be a first step in investigating water quality. If TDS measures in the 2500-3000 ppm range or higher, a lab analysis should be obtained to identify the salts that make up the TDS. A basic laboratory water quality analysis will measure, at a minimum, sodium, calcium, magnesium, pH, nitrate, sulfate, and total dissolved solids.

Total dissolved solids (TDS) consist of the dissolved salts in the water, including sodium, chloride, carbonates, nitrates, sulfates, calcium, magnesium and potassium. It is generally expressed in parts per million (ppm). A guide to livestock and poultry response to saline water is: Less than 1000 ppm is excellent for livestock use, 1000 – 3000 satisfactory for our cattle, horses and sheep, 3000 – 7000 may cause diarrhea in animals not accustomed to the water and has a risk of sulfate issues. Over 7000  ppm should be avoided and laboratory test to determine specific at risk salts should be obtained.

In our area high-sulfate water is one of the major risk factors. Elevated sulfate levels  lead to poor animal performance, reproductive issues and at higher levels polioencepahlomalacia (Polio) and death. High-sulfate water has a laxative effect and usually tastes bitter. Water analysis results this year have measured sulfate levels that make up nearly 100% of the TDS, critical levels may be present in our water sources with TDS levels as low as 3500 TDS. Sulfur negatively impacts the absorption of copper. Producers with elevated water sulfate concentrations may wish to address these copper availability issues by increasing their copper in their mineral package

The use recommendations for sulfate containing water are: Up to 2500 ppm, relatively safe, 2500 – 3500 reduce copper availability, some polio, 3500 – 4500 very laxative and higher risk of polio induced death, over 4500 not recommended for use.

Sodium should also be monitored as excessive levels of sodium have a diuretic effect. By themselves, sodium and magnesium normally pose little risk to livestock, but their association with sulfate is a major concern. Water over 800 ppm sodium in the presence of high sulfates would be of concern. Also, the laxative effects of high sulfate water will be more dramatic as water pH increases.

High nitrate concentrations in water can be poisonous. Just as with nitrate toxicity from forages, nitrate from water is converted to nitrite in the rumen. This is of special concern as many of our forages have elevated nitrate with the drought conditions.

One other issue to be monitoring is the presence of Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are photosynthetic bacteria that live and grow in aquatic environments. Poisoning usually does not occur unless there is a heavy bloom that forms a dense surface scum. Colonies may look like a skin or paint on or just below the water surface. Ruminants and birds are more sensitive to the toxins than monogastrics. Among domestic animals, dogs are most susceptible. Ranchers have reported dead birds and other wildlife along shorelines of affected water sources.

Water quality is a critical nutritional factor that influences animal health, performance, and wellbeing. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions about water sampling, testing, or interpretation of analyses.

Written by Mike Schuldt, Custer County Extension Agent

The risk of nitrate in our drought situation is inherently high as the conditions in SE Montana favor nitrate accumulation in our cereal forages. Standard nitrate testing protocol has been developed for harvested forages to be fed as a winter of feedlot diet – no credit is given for selective grazing by the livestock. We really have no established protocol for evaluating risk of nitrate in a grazing situation. Experience indicates that animals grazing fields that test positive for nitrate have less risk of developing symptoms that those fed similar testing forages that are harvested.

First, animals tend to eat more slowly when grazing compared to those being fed hay and the grazing cattle also tend to be more selective while grazing.  Stems have the highest level of nitrates, followed by leaves, then heads.  So, if the cattle are allowed to access these cereal fields as a whole (not strip graze) they will typically graze the upper portions (i.e., leaves and heads) first and will be consuming the lowest nitrate plant parts.  Second, more mature forages will have less nitrates than younger.  Typically, the highest nitrate levels are when cereals are late vegetative to boot growth stage and decrease toward milk and less when soft dough.  This typically only holds true, though, when soil moistures are normal, so we don’t want to judge a field based on maturity alone.

Decisions we make should take in these considerations:

  • Forages from each field considered for grazing should be tested using the newly implemented strip test at the Local County Extension office.  Two tests can be performed, one on the top portion (leaves and heads) of the plant and another on the lower stems.  To get a differential of accumulations.  (not to be confused when we are testing for hay harvest, we evaluate the entire plant in the case of hay)
  • A ‘Graze Lightly’ recommendation should be given to those fields with high NO3.
  • The graze lightly recommendation will not only allow the cows to primarily eat the low nitrate leaves and heads but it will also allow the rumen bacteria to adapt to processing higher nitrate feeds, allowing more nitrite to be converted to ammonia rather than entering the blood stream.
  • Animals at times have shown evidence of adapting to elevated levels of nitrates so a graduated approach to increasing level of nitrates would be advisable if possible. “step up nitrates slowly”
  • If at all possible, lower risk cattle should be used.  Open cows are probably the best choice followed by stockers or non-pregnant replacement heifers.
  • Turn cattle out to novel fields after a grazing bout, not hungry.  Grass waterways that are incorporated with the drought grain fields will help alleviate some issues and / or allow the cattle access to the fallow strips to pick and graze last year’s stubble also.
  • Be sure you are not compounding forage nitrates with nitrates that may be elevated in the cattle’s water source.  A normal water source with only minor levels of nitrates that on a normal year is not a problem could elevate the animal’s intake to a level the produces nitrate toxicity.
  • If the producer has an option, supplementing the cattle with an grain supplement while they are adapting to the higher-nitrate forages will supply the energy the rumen microbes need to convert nitrate into bacterial protein because it minimizes the middle step of nitrite. Use a readily available energy source for the cattle. NO energy sources with NPN. Protein should be all-natural protein.
  • Cattle should be monitored closely for signs of nitrate poisoning.

Other things to consider:

Should the crop have any grain fill it will aid in reducing nitrate toxicity but realize, wheat is highly digestible so associated grain problems could occur, Acidosis, bloat or founder. When we are talking cows the idea of increased foot problems may be important in the long run.  This may not be a high risk on some peoples list but definitely comes into play with hailed out grain just prior to grain harvest.

Be sure the cattle are on a high-quality mineral if possible 30 days prior and the entire time they are on the drought pastures

Remove cattle at the first sign of symptoms, move to a safe field.  Methylene blue is the treatment, consult your veterinarian before using this treatment.

There is only two ways to reduce nitrates in the plant, let the plant mature or ensile the crop.  Cutting and windrow grazing will do nothing to reduce the nitrates.

If the producers can keep their pregnant cattle from risk it would be best, perhaps graze yearling steers or non-replacement animals rather than pregnant animals, if possible. Think about the effect of nitrate on both the cow and bull if the bulls are still with the cows, you may negatively impact breed up.

Emergency forages will be used throughout Montana this year. Producers need to realize there are inherent risks associated with them and how each risk can be mediated or judged appropriate, so they can make the best decision for their operation.

Signs of chronic and acute toxicity can be found here: []