Poor hay crop has farmers worried
By David Delcore
Staff Writer | July 16,2013
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Gary Kingsbury of Waitsfield bales hay Monday in a neighbor’s pasture off Common Road in Waitsfield.
EAST MONTPELIER — If you want to find the weakest link in Vermont’s food chain this year odds are pretty good there’s some of it growing — or just lying — in a still-soggy field near you.
Though a recent string of dry summer days and a fair weather forecast may yet help salvage this year’s corn crop, when it was time to make hay most Vermont farmers weren’t doing so because their fields were still too wet to get at it.
Some still are.
In a good year farmers hope to cut hay three times — four if Mother Nature is extremely cooperative. This year she was anything but, and some farmers will be lucky to squeeze in a second cut following what for many was a protein-depleted first.
That, said Mark Cannella, an agricultural financial management specialist who works out of the Berlin office of the University of Vermont Extension Service, could drive up expenses for dairy farmers if they want to maintain the volume and quality of their milking operations.
When it comes to hay, Cannella said quantity is only part of the equation that farmers who rely on it to feed their livestock must take into consideration. Quality is just as important, he said.
“They (farmers) might have an inventory of feed, but the quality is down so they know... the milk that gets produced from that feed is just not going to be of the same volume or quality than if they had that feed cut sooner.”
With spongy, rain-soaked fields unable to handle the weight of heavy farm machinery during a run of historically wet weather, hay went uncut for weeks — losing protein and other nutrients by the day and leaving dairy farmers who count on it with two equally unpalatable choices.
According to Cannella, they can either use the feed as is and accept the fact that it will have a detectable effect on milk production, or invest more than they probably planned in supplemental grains to boost the quality of the feed.
“Either way it has an effect,” he said.
Cannella said that effect could be even more pronounced this year because prices for nutrient-rich pelleted grains are currently up nationally due to extreme weather conditions elsewhere in the country.
However, Bob Parsons, the extension service’s agricultural economist, said those prices should come down based on the latest forecasts.
“That’s good news for Vermont farmers because they’re going to be paying less for grains,” he said.
The bad news?
Odds are pretty good that they will have to buy more of them given the poor quality of this year’s hay and the still-uncertain quantity of corn that is used for forage.
“If I was a dairy farmer right now, I would really be concerned about whether I was going to have enough forage for the coming year,” Parsons said.
So would Cary Smith.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” the now-retired farmer said. “It’s going to be a very difficult year.”
Smith, now 72, knows of what he speaks. The man who spent most of his life running the Sharny Byre Farm on Country Club Road in Plainfield said summer got off to a gut-wrenching start for farmers, and while the rain has finally subsided the damage is done.
“You cannot comprehend the degree of anxiety and pressure it puts on the agricultural community,” he said. “I know it. I feel it even though I’m not doing it any more.”
Richard Hall is.
Hall, who runs Fairmont Farm in East Montpelier and Fairmont Dairy in East Craftsbury, said he has “heard all the wild predictions” and is waiting for the season to play out.
“It’s not over ‘til it’s over,” he said, noting his focus has already shifted from hay to corn.
“For us I guess it would be the corn crop that we’d be the most concerned about,” he said, speaking with guarded optimism about the possibility that a run of warm weather could help salvage a rain-stunted staple of the diet for more than 1,100 cows he milks.
That, Hall said, will come at a cost linked to increased fertilizer he used to counteract the fact drenching rains leached nitrogen out of the soil on much of the 1,500 acres of corn he has planted between East Montpelier and Craftsbury.
“Right now we’re looking at spending more money for a poorer than average (corn) crop,” he said.
Though Hall said he was not overly concerned with his own hay situation, he indicated it could be more of a challenge for others — particularly those who raise horses — who need dry hay.
“Dry hay is going to be expensive and hard to come by,” he predicted.
Cannella and Parsons agreed that while there is cause for concern in the agricultural community, the growing season is a long way from over.
“I wouldn’t count anybody out,” Canella said. “It’s still July.”