September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Despite good-looking crops in places, drought drags on
As of Aug. 5, seven of Wisconsin's nine crop-reporting districts were 51 percent or more short or very short on soil moisture. In addition, the USDA's crop progress report said 72 percent of the Badger State was short or very short on moisture. To be sure, that's an improvement from conditions two weeks earlier, but just a slight one: four percent.
The southern tiers of counties all the way from the Mississippi River on the west to Lake Michigan on the east were in the worst shape. In southwest Wisconsin, soil moisture was described as 95 percent short or very short. Farther east, that figure was 93 percent, a number that carried over to far southeast Wisconsin.
An area from around Ellsworth to La Crosse was in a bit better shape: 65 percent short or very short on soil moisture. Central Wisconsin was faring the worst of all: 99 percent lacking in moisture.
Crop conditions reflect the reality of those numbers. Pasture conditions were being called "poor" or "very poor" over 66 percent of the state. The corn crop was rated 41 percent poor or very poor. Soybeans were doing better, with 28 percent of the crop falling into the poor or very poor categories.
A drought, of course, pays no attention to state boundaries. Much of Iowa remained parched, too.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the Hawkeye State was in a "severe" drought. But an area in its southeast, along with much of east-central Iowa, lay in the grip of an "extreme" drought, just as in far southern Wisconsin.
Also as in Wisconsin, the Iowa situation was "quite variable," but "very dry conditions," said Larry Tranel, an Iowa State University dairy specialist who works out of the Dubuque office.
"The pastures are as dry as I've ever seen them," Tranel said. "And I farmed through the '88-'89 drought. The pastures are drier now than they were then."
First-and-second-crop hay yielded "pretty good," he said. But third and fourth crop will be about half of normal.
As for corn, Tranel said, "The in-field variability is probably as high as I've ever seen it. You've got areas in a field where the stalks might be almost completely brown. You've got other areas where they're still pretty darn green. Trying to manage that moisture variability is going to be a big concern."
Some Iowa farmers were starting to chop corn for silage as of early August. Tranel said some of the corn was down to 70 percent moisture, and chopping was starting about two weeks early.
The quality of that silage should still be quite good - maybe 80 to 90 percent of normal, according to Tranel. But the tonnage will be "way down" - as far as 40 to 50 percent of normal.
"Variability" also describes milk production from farm to farm.
"I think the people who are doing a good job with heat abatement didn't suffer a whole lot," Tranel said. "But for farmers who don't have fans and sprinklers, and who are keeping cows in holding areas too long without proper heat abatement measures, they took a pretty good hit."
Silo gas a concern
Any rain parts of Iowa received arrived "too little too late," Tranel said. He noted that the drought could create a hazard from corn silage.
"My biggest concern right now is farmers putting corn silage into upright silos and the effect of silo gas," Tranel said. "A high level of nitrates that have the potential to be in the forage will turn into nitrites, and that can create some pretty serious silo gas. That silo gas can be two to three times worse this year than it normally is."
Dairy farmers culling heavily
In mid-July, dairy farmers in parts of Iowa "really started taking a look at trying to cull heavily," Tranel said. As a result, cull cow prices "really dropped," falling by close to 50 percent.
Same in Wisconsin
The same thing happened in his part of Wisconsin, said Rod Knudtson, the manager of the Equity Cooperative Livestock Sales Association barn at Sparta, Wis.
Early in August he said, "A couple of weeks ago, we were seeing a lot more cattle than we usually do. But now things have kind of gotten back to normal."
A dairy and feeder cattle sale on Aug. 2 brought more open heifers through the ring, as farmers sold cattle in an attempt to stretch their dwindling feed supplies. And it hasn't just been cattle numbers that have risen. Knudtson said more sheep have been trotting through the ring, too.
Knudtson lives where it's tough to notice the drought just by looking at the crops. He said, "If I took you out for a drive and told you we were in a drought, you'd call me a liar."
Fewer cows at Wilson farm
Keith Wilson and his family normally would be milking 300 cows on their Lafayette County farm just east of Cuba City, Wis. But they're in a spot that the drought has hit especially hard and have dropped their cow numbers to 275.
At a recent field day on his organic farm, Wilson said the last "decent" rain his land received fell June 3. A bit of rain - 0.2 inch - also fell July 23, but the storm hit just one end of his 1,900 acres and left the rest as dry as the proverbial bone.
His pastures gave out around July 1, so Wilson has had to tap his winter's hay supply.
"It looks like we're going to have to keep doing that unless we get quite a bit of rain," he said.
Wilson was worried about his new seeding - 400 acres of small grains with alfalfa and grass.
"My nephew thinks it's dead," the farmer said, "but I'm keeping an eye on it, hoping it'll pop up."
His farm's corn silage yields will be light, but with hay left from 2011, plus crop insurance money to use to buy feed, Wilson figured his farm would "get through it." Trouble is, crop insurance only pays the regular value of lost feed - not its value on the organic market.
"It's almost inconceivable to think you'd have to be paying $15 to almost $18 a bushel for (organic) corn, and $30 for (organic) soybeans and hay at $300 a ton," Wilson said. "I just can't imagine anybody doing that and being able to survive, economically. We've got to really hope for rain - to help the forages, especially."
Compounding the problem of having to pay higher prices for feed - organic or conventional - is the fact that Wilson and other farmers will likely sell less milk this year. In a normal year, Wilson would sell about 5.5 million pounds of milk and be paid approximately $1.3 million for it, he said.
But this year, "We're going to back off about $400,000 on milk sales because we aren't going to be able to feed grain the way you do to really get high production," he said.
Pasture waivers sought
Organic dairy farmers are required to make sure their cattle get at least 30 percent of their dry matter from pastures, and for at least 120 days a year. But some pastures were burnt to a crisp as early as June, long before the 120-day requirement was met.
Farmers can apply for variances from the 120-day rule. And that's what the Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), headquartered in Viroqua, Wis., has done. Executive director Bonnie Wideman said MOSA has applied for variances on behalf of farmers it serves and awaits a response.
"We have had enough people step forward and say they feel they won't be able to make it (the pasture requirement) this year," Wideman said.
MOSA's application for variances is for all its clients whose farms are in counties the USDA has designated as being in a "severe" drought. MOSA certifies approximately 1,400 organic farms in 10 states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota.
The variance request is to let farmers meet a reduced pasture requirement - 15 percent instead of the usual 30 percent. Meeting even that scaled-back requirement "could be tough if they didn't provide a whole lot of pasture to start with," Wideman said.
Just because farmers are granted variances, they still need to feed their cattle something. For many organic dairy producers, that means hay - organically grown hay, which commands a higher price - if any can be found.
Get off corn
Organic dairy farmers, especially, would do well to "get off corn," according to Theresa Marquez, mission executive for Cooperative Regions of Organic Production Pools (CROPP) and its associated Organic Valley dairy division. The co-op, headquartered at La Farge, Wis., in Vernon County, said the "biggest risk" the co-op faces is a lack of feed.
"The drought is kind of the wake-up call for all of us," Marquez said.
Due partly to the drought, CROPP is putting into place a "feed plan," Marquez said. A key part of the plan is to reduce farmers' reliance on corn.
The drought has emphasized how poorly corn can fare compared to other crops during dry conditions. What's more, some 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop now goes to ethanol production, so it's just not available to feed to livestock. Instead, Marquez said, a "diversity of feed sources" is needed.
The second part of the feed plan is to "build infrastructure" in certain areas, encourage farmers to grow small grains there, and make that grain available to CROPP farmers where it's needed. CROPP intends to do that in Aroostook County, Maine's northernmost county, and in Canada's Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces.
CROPP has a "deep partnership" with Organic Direct, a co-op in western Canada, Marquez said. Organic Direct will send about 100 rail cars of barley to CROPP farmers this year. In addition, CROPP is looking into helping Organic Direct pay to build grain storage facilities.
The task of assuring feed supplies for CROPP's farmers won't be easy, Marquez acknowledged.
She said, "Getting farmers to think about more-diverse feeding, rather than corn and soybeans, is going to be long-term, tough stuff."[[In-content Ad]]
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