September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Even though it might seem, at times, as though the drought is over, the USDA's Wisconsin Crop Progress Report does not back up that hope. The July 23 report had 76 percent of the state "short" or "very short" on moisture. That's three percentage points worse than on July 9.
Conditions were still especially bad across the southern third of the Badger State. In the July 23 report, the southwest - Vernon, Richland, Crawford, Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties - were rated 99 percent short or very short on soil moisture. That 99 percent figure was repeated farther east, in a region that includes Green County. Even farther east, toward Lake Michigan, fully 100 percent of the ratings were short or very short.
Cornfields across the state were assessed at 43 percent poor or very poor. That's the same percentage as in the July 16 report, but 12 percentage points worse than in the July 9 report.
Pasture conditions have worsened, too. That's especially a concern in southwest Wisconsin. That part of the state is home to many grazing dairies, along with organic dairy farms that are supposed to make sure their cows get 30 percent of their dry matter from fresh forage for at least 120 days.
In the July 23 report, 66 percent of the pastures were deemed poor or very poor. That's up from 63 percent on July 16, and up from 48 percent poor or very poor on July 9.
The National Weather Service (NWS) says the southern third of the state is still locked in the grip of a "severe" drought. According to the crop progress report, La Crosse, along the state's western border, was 2.94 inches of precipitation below normal as of July 22. Since June 1, La Crosse had gotten 3.9 inches, with 0.26 inch of that arriving within the previous week.
Madison, about 100 miles southeast, received 1.43 inches between July 15 and 22. But the rainfall total there since June 1 still stood at a scant 1.75 inches, putting Madison 5.24 inches below normal for the year.
Pasture rule restrictive
In Iowa County, near Mineral Point, Wis., Adam Heisner was finding the National Organic Program (NOP) rule on pastures rather restrictive. Heisner and his brother, Cyrus, milk 120 cows on their farm that has been certified organic for 12 years.
The Heisners turned their cows onto pasture April 3, but pulled them off pasture June 18. "That may or may not have been a good decision," Heisner said. "But we were out of feed."
Thanks to the early exit, the brothers' cows have only been on pasture 76 days - a little more than six weeks shy of the 120 days the NOP rule stipulates.
"Yes, it's going to affect us," Heisner said. "Our only hope is it starts raining and we get some more (grazing) days."
Waivers from the 120-day rule are allowed, but Heisner said he had not yet looked into getting one. "It's going to be difficult to hold anybody in this area to that rule this year," he said.
In the meantime, the Heisners have been giving their cattle stored feed and searching for some to buy. Of course, it must be organically grown if they want to maintain their organic status. So far, he hadn't found any organically grown hay for sale. "Whatever is out there, people are holding onto pretty hard," he said.
He's willing to buy hay from "anywhere" if he can get a reasonable rate on freight, Heisner said.
"We have to feed our cattle," he emphasized. "That's one thing about these (organic) rules: They've got them so stringent that we have to make game time decisions out here, and it's awfully tough to do when you're sitting there waiting for waivers and such."
Organic in trouble?
With major portions of the United States in a drought, Heisner wonders whether the organic dairy industry is perched on the precipice of disaster, due to a lack of feed.
"For years, the Upper Midwest has been the breadbasket for the whole organic industry," he said. "We've sent feed east; we've sent feed west; we've sent feed south; we've sent feed everywhere. The pipeline is empty enough so we have a problem. I have no idea where it's going to come from or how it's going to get here."
To stretch their feed supplies, the Heisners were going to sell 10 head, and maybe 10 more a week later.
Even so, Heisner indicated that he was not overly optimistic about the organic dairy industry.
"We thought there was a shortage of organic milk now. Just wait," he said. "I understand it's (Wisconsin) an awful big state and there are a lot of cows. But as far as organic milk goes, this is the one that will really test it all. There's no plan, and the rules are so stringent that unless they start allowing for emergencies and waivers on a mass basis, it's going to affect everything."
Schillings selling cattle, too
At Schilling Farms near Darlington, Wis., Andy Schilling said his family would hold a financial meeting with its lenders and advisors and look at selling 20 percent of the cattle. Getting rid of some heifer and lower-producing cows would stretch feed supplies.
"We're going to have to do something anyway,' he said. "We either need to expand the dairy or cut back."
The Schillings are milking 590. They hope to collect $36,000 in crop insurance on 40 acres of corn they've been chopping. That corn stood from three to five feet tall and produced no ears. He estimated the yield at a ton per foot of plant height, or five tons per acre for corn five feet tall. Last year, all of their chopped corn averaged 27 tons per acre.
As for the crop insurance money, Schilling said, "Oh, it'll make the difference between staying alive or not. It'll help us make some replacement feed purchases."
The Schillings have already bought hay for $210 a ton, delivered. Plus, they were able to carry some hay over from last year.
He said they should have enough silage if they chop it all and it runs 13 to 14 tons per acres. "Grain (corn) is my biggest concern right now," Schilling said.
Doing anything in the fields can be depressing, Schilling agreed. But, he said, "You've got to keep your head up and take the bad years with the good years."
Farmers in his part of southern Wisconsin had their fingers crossed a couple of weeks ago, when the Lafayette County Fair rolled around. Said Schilling, "It always rains during the fair, so everybody was pretty excited. But we didn't get lucky."
Careful with pastures
When and where rain does arrive, farmers should be careful with their pastures, said Laura Paine, the organic specialist at the state agriculture department. She raises British White Parks on her farm in Columbia County, just north of Madison, and got 1.6 inches of greatly appreciated rain July 18.
"Make sure your pastures have recovered before you start grazing them again," Paine said. "As soon as it gets green, people are going to want to get their cattle back out, and that's one of the worst things you can do for the health of the pasture."
Wait until there are eight to 10 inches of "nice and green" regrowth. That waiting period will give the plants time to start rebuilding their root reserves for winter.
That advice is echoed by Rhonda Gildersleeve, the UW-Extension grazing specialist who works out of Lancaster, Wis.
"Take a really hard look at what pasture you have available and what condition it's in," Gildersleeve said. "Most people are already feeding some purchased feed. If they haven't already started pulling animals off pasture, they might want to consider that."
She suggested looking ahead to the 2013 grazing season by giving pasture plants at least six weeks to restore their root reserves. That means stop grazing and haying by mid-September.
Not giving pastures that rest period could result in a later start next year. Said Gildersleeve, "Some research has shown that we might have as much as a 10-day delay."
It's not too early to start thinking about a late crop of fall forage planted in an old hay field. And, "If we start getting some regular rains, 40 pounds of nitrogen in August will help a little bit," the grazing specialist said.
Farmers who have cattle but little pasture can link up with those in other parts of Wisconsin who have plenty of grass and legumes through a "grazing exchange," said Crawford County UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Vance Haugen. The exchange is at: https://farmertofarmer.crowdmap.com/.
The idea is that farmers might be able to literally send their heifers and dry cows to greener pastures for a spell. Doing so would likely prove problematic with lactating cows, since they need to be milked.
Haugen, who dairies in southeast Minnesota, is among the farmers who has sold some stock, due to lack of pasture. They were grazing in Crawford County, but, "The pasture just wasn't there," he said.
On a somewhat optimistic note, Haugen said he observed a variety of crop conditions when he drove to Wisconsin Farm Technology Days during the middle of July.
"The Central Sands looked really rough," Haugen said. "I did not go over by Madison. But from here to Sparta, things looked pretty doggone good. Sparta over to Wisconsin Rapids looked pretty bad. Then you get from Wisconsin Rapids (farther east) to New London and they look pretty darn good again."
Finally, said Haugen, at Pulaski, Wis. near Green Bay, the crops looked "just great."[[In-content Ad]]