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Farmers feeling heat from drought

July 18, 2012
It's no secret that dry conditions are causing problems for many people this summer. However, it is perhaps the farming community that is feeling the most heat this year.

Farmer Jerry Brewer, of Marengo, shows the difference between four ears of corn all taken from the same field. Due to the dry weather, many of the ears show poor or no pollination inside the husk. Photo by Leslie Radcliff
Purdue Extension's Mike Schutz said early last week that drought conditions often result in reduced pasture, hay and silage yields, which can greatly reduce the typical supply of forage for a dairy farm.

The heat has had such a significant effect on the potential for crop yield this season that specialists are cautioning farmers across the state to create early contingency plans for alternative feed sources if the dry conditions continue or face the possibility of herd reduction and loss.

It is a conundrum that has really hit home for Marengo dairy farmer Jerry Brewer.

"We've lost, since the two weeks that were over 100 (degrees), we've lost about two gallons per cow per day," Brewer said. "We were running at our peak about nine gallon a cow. Now, we're down to around seven."

That's a net loss of about 200 gallons each day for Brewer's 100-cow herd.

"I don't get the price you do; if you're paying $3 a gallon, I get around a dollar and a half," Brewer said.

He also said that drought will affect his prices even further, not just in reduced production but in reduced quality of the milk that is produced.

It also will reduce his conception rates. Conception rates are important because, without a calf, his cows won't continue to produce milk.

"If it's hot, it's going to stretch the conception rates, and that's just a normal year," Brewer said. "That longer dry period is just a cost because they won't want to reproduce."

For Brewer and others like him, it's not just about his herds. He also plants corn, soybeans, wheat and short beans, both for sale and to supplement his grain bins throughout the winter.

"There's just not much pollination," Brewer said as he pulled an ear of corn from one of his fields. "It's just no water and the heat."

With the drought comes other potential problems, as well. Farmers who grow their own silage have to be cautious in water-deprived conditions because the extra nitrogen that builds up in the stalks of plants can be fatal to any animal that consumes it in quantity.

"We have to cut our stalks up higher," Brewer said. "I will have mine sent off and tested."

Lee Johnson, 75, who now resides in Marengo but is originally from Orange County, has been a farmer (corn and pigs) for most of his life and can still remember his father talking about the hottest year he ever had: 1936. Johnson was born the following year.

This year has proven to be much the same.

"We haven't had what you'd call a general rain that comes in on a front," Johnson said. "We've had little spots of rain here and there, little pockets. It's not a good weather pattern."

Both Brewer and Johnson believe that this could be a year where corn is in short supply for Crawford and Dubois counties. Johnson said he already has seen many farmers throwing in the towel and disking up their crop in hopes that a late planting may yield better results.

"Dubois County is a corn-deficit county on a good year because of all the chicken and turkey farms in the area," Brewer said. "There are people that produce a lot of corn who are looking for corn to feed their livestock because of the drought."

Johnson and Brewer believe the feed mills will not be able to keep up with the demand. Johnson and his nephew, who manages his fields, are already looking at railing in more corn to supplement their stores.

"Our beans still looked good. You seen a couple yellow spots, but I think they're coming out of it," Johnson said. "Beans will take the heat better, but most of our corn is approaching the seven-to-eight-day limit on pollination."

There does seem to be a silver lining in this dark cloud. Corn, beans and wheat are going for their best prices in recent memory. However, it is difficult to take advantage of those prices if the drought ruins what is to be sold.

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