Rainy June bogs down farmers

ADDISON COUNTY — According to the National Weather Service, June’s rainfall in Burlington of 8.67 inches proved to be the third highest since 1884, trailing only 1922 and 2013.
Nobody had to tell Vermont farmers that news.
“Every year we have our little times and issues with wet weather,” said Peter James, co-owner of Weybridge’s Monument Farms. “But this year it’s been the entire month of June.”
Heavy rain and clouds in June pose special problems for dairy farmers.
That month is when they plan to bring in their first crop of hay, fertilize and grow a second cut for an early July harvest, and watch their newly planted corn begin to thrive.
James last week said things did not go according to that plan — he said Monument Farms might have cut about a fifth of its first hay growth before the rains came, has not been able to get equipment into its soaked fields to fertilize a second cut, and is seeing corn “struggling” to survive.
“The corn needs the sunlight to get established. And you’re trying to get your crops harvested, and we couldn’t,” he said.
Marie Audet of Bridport’s Blue Spruce Farm explained the consequences: Cows still have to eat, and eat well, even though the quantity and quality of the spring and early-summer hay crop just isn’t there.
“We’ll have to purchase feed. We like to maintain a consistent diet for our animals. Just because the weather’s bad, that doesn’t mean we’re going to feed them crappy stuff,” Audet said. “So we’re going to look elsewhere to make up the difference. So that’s how it really cuts into our profitability.”
Audet said 2014 was a good year, a fact that is helping farmers this year. But they know June’s weather will create problems down the road.
“It will impact our profitability in the future. We’re hanging on well now because we had such a good crop last year. And it was good quality and good quantity,” she said. “So we’re in fairly good position as far as feeding our animals now. It’s just that in the future it will certainly show up.”
Of course, the fact that the milk price is down from about $25/hundredweight in 2014 to around $16 this year doesn’t help. But the financial impact of the wet weather is also immediate. Farmers can’t access their fields to apply needed fertilizer.
University of Vermont agronomy outreach specialist Rico Balzano said that fertilizer is crucial when fields are wet because rainy conditions “denitrify” soils, either by simply washing away fertilizer or by smothering soils by ponding, which essentially turns nitrate fertilizer into gas, he said.
Seeing the good forecast for Thursday through early this week, James went so far last week as to spend money on a helicopter to spread fertilizer.
“The fertilizer is at a higher cost because of the application cost,” he said. “But your hands are kind of tied because unless you want to walk with flippers and goggles on, there’s no other way to get it out there.”
Farmers also worry about the low quality of the early hay crops and the entire 2015 corn crop, another reason they will have to supplement homegrown feed.
James said without sun, corn crops are coming along slowly. Stalks are short and leaves are yellow, not a healthy green. He hopes Addison County farms can approach 75 or 80 percent of their typical 14.5 tons per acre yield, and something near their usual quality.
“The greater expense comes in later on,” James said. “Because it’s much lesser quality, you have to purchase farm products to make up the difference.”
Balzano said the lack of sun is a big factor in the underperforming corn crop.
“Part of the reason was the lack of accumulation of degree days,” Balzano said. “The heat of summer just wasn’t there.”
Meanwhile, the fact that farmers are not already getting ready to cut their second hay crop means they will almost certainly not get a fourth cut this season. Rather than planning on three and hoping for a fourth cut, they are counting on two and wishing for a third.
“They’re hoping for three. They’ve already written off their fourth,” Balzano said.
Beef producers have also been affected. New Haven’s Harvey Smith raises a herd of about 110 and had to bring them into his barn because of knee-deep mud — he said the animals were destroying the fields. That decision meant dipping into his winter feed stores to preserve his pastures.
“It’s been so bad I had to pull my animals off pasture,” Smith said, adding, “I’m sure a number of people have had to make changes to their feeding operations.”
Smith has many friends in the dairy community, and said he sees the problems James and Audet discuss everywhere he turns. Many are concerned there could be a feed shortage because of the increased demand.
“It’s making the farming community wonder if there is going to be enough feed this winter,” Smith said. “It’s going to have to turn around really fast if we’re going to recover.”
Smith recently took a trip to southern New England and said he saw the same problems everywhere he looked.
“I know what I’m facing is pretty universal across the county and probably across the state,” he said. “I didn’t see hardly any nice corn anyplace.”
Still, most chose to either take the long view or just to look on the bright side.
Balzano, who said apple-growers, at least, have not been hurt, said there is time for a rebound.
“We still have a solid two, three months of the growing season,” Balzano said. “So it could turn around, being optimistic.”
Audet said in the big picture, worldwide dairy consumption is at an all-time high. And as far as bad weather, farmers have been there, done that.
“You know, we’re a resilient bunch. This industry ebbs and flows this way,” she said. “So although it’s kind of depressing around the farm right now, it’s not a road we’ve never been on.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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