When what appeared to be storm clouds passed overhead this past Friday, farmers and all residents alike hoped that the odd-shaped clouds would bring much-needed rain. Alas, those clouds came and went without depositing a noticeable rainfall.
Widespread droughts in southern Wisconsin have raised concerns about crop and dairy production for the rest of the season, according to the faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville School of Agriculture. Precipitation in the Platteville area is down over five inches – 11.95 inches through June compared to 16.68 in 2010 and 16.57 in 2011.
At the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Research Station, located between Lancaster and Bloomington, the numbers are not much better. The .05 of an inch the area received with a modest rain this past week, there was 1.48 inches of rain for June, compared to an average of 4.57 inches in previous years. This has led to a total of 12.33 inches of precipitation observed for the year at the station, nearly three inches below the yearly average.
That lack of rain, coupled with extreme heat in recent weeks, has impacted farm operations across the state, with any extended dry and hot spells in coming weeks having the potential to seriously threaten this year’s crops.
“The critical time for corn and soybeans to have moisture is when they are flowering – when corn is tasselling and soybeans are flowering,” said Ted Bay, UW-Extension Crops and Farm Management Agent for Grant County. “We’re just coming into that period now.”
Meaning, he explained, that we don’t know how much damage has been done yet.
“So far, we have seen reduced yields: hay regrowth has been slower after each cutting,” Bay added. “But if the drought continues, the plants will abort kernels or beans to survive as the drought stress increases.”
And since most Grant County farmers do not use irrigation equipment, it’s mainly a case of “waiting and hoping for rain soon.” However, even in this extreme dry period, farmers are learning something new about their farms.
According to Bay, one interesting outcome of the unusually dry season is that farmers are learning where the shallowest soil is in their fields. In those shallow spots, the plants curl up or turn grey while plants with more soil (and moisture) remain greener longer. That information can help farmers with crop planning in the future.
This drought has been unusually severe, as many can attest.
“We’re setting records for the lack of moisture in Wisconsin,” said Bay. “1988 is the last time I can remember having anything similar, and I can’t remember the last time we had a drought as severe as this one.”
“The lack of rain has significantly reduced the growth of grasses in our beef/dairy pastures,” said Dr. Charles Steiner, interim director of the UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm, who added they have had to alter their management practices because of the heat and dry conditions. “We had to bring livestock in and supplement feed with hay due to very slow re-growth of grasses in the pasture.”
Beyond the impact to crops, the heat and dryness has impacted livestock as well, costing farmers in many ways. Besides supplementing feed due to the low hay yields, farmers have had to increase use of fans and sprinklers to keep animals cool, and have had to pump more water for livestock to drink.
In order to make the animals as comfortable as possible, Pioneer Farm staff members continue using fans to keep airflow moving through the swine and dairy facilities.
“We have also installed a new sprinkler system in the dairy free stall barn to help keep the dairy cows cool,” said Steiner. “We also make sure all animals have a continuous supply of water available.”
But even with those added measures, dairy farmers are likely seeing another impact - declining milk production from their animals.
According to Cory Weigel, Pioneer Farm Dairy Enterprise manager, the cows are handling the conditions as best they can. “Usually when we get a week of 90 degree plus weather that is when it affects them the most,” he said. “Anytime the weather stays above 90 degrees there is a decline in milk production along with other issues due to the heat stress.”
If this continues, it appears the state may have declare an emergency for fall crops, making the second declaration that would have to be made this year. Governor Scott Walker recently requested federal agricultural disaster declarations to help farmers who have sustained fruit tree and maple syrup losses due to extreme weather conditions in March and April. The unseasonably warm month of March caused many fruit trees – including apples and cherries – to flower early and frost conditions in April killed many fruit buds. Agriculture officials estimate that statewide losses could reach as high as 80 percent. In addition, maple syrup production could be down as much as 30 percent due to the same unusual weather patterns. The counties listed in the request for maple syrup losses are Barron, Door, Florence, Forest, Kewaunee, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Marinette, Pierce, Polk, St Croix, Shawano and Vilas.
UW-Platteville Public Information contributed to this report.