Pennsylvania farmers struggling to deal with drought

September 27, 2010

University Park, Pa -- Pennsylvania farmers dealing with a precipitation deficit approaching 9 inches below average are trying to make the best of a parched situation, according to experts in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a drought warning for 24 counties, and the remainder of the state is under a drought watch. But despite the very dry conditions, this year's crop yields haven't uniformly dipped as much as in some other dry years.

"I've heard some farmers boast about record forage yields, while others are producing some of their lowest yields," said Marvin Hall, professor of forage management. He explained that the spring months were warm and wet -- a combination that brought high hay yields that offset the slow-growing late-summer months.

This, combined with spotty summer precipitation, resulted in widely variable forage yields across the state. Some producers have lots of hay; others don't, said Hall. But for farmers with grazing livestock, this summer variability has caused worse problems.

"At least half the grazing land in the state is in serious trouble -- the rest is merely marginal," said John Comerford, associate professor of dairy and animal science. "Some producers have been feeding hay since July 1. Their animals are already eating the feed that has to get them through the winter."

But to ensure pasture health, that's what needs to happen, warned Hall. "People too often leave their animals on stressed pastures that have been grazed to the ground," he said. "Even when it rains and plants begin to grow, animals continue to bite off the succulent regrowth, which can be detrimental to the long-term health of the pasture."

He suggests keeping the animals off stressed pastures entirely, if possible, especially directly after rains, to allow pastures to grow and recover.

Another option is to early-wean beef calves from their mothers. "This cuts down on the nutrients required for the cow herd out on pasture," said Comerford.

But with the lower crop yields comes higher feed prices for animal operations. "As corn prices rise, feeder calf prices drop," he explained. "And prices will get worse for cattlemen before they get better."

After the new corn crop is harvested, Comerford predicts prices may change slightly, but he noted that ethanol-making facilities still may be demanding corn. Since grazers are feeding from their winter supply, they should assess what is available for feeding between now and spring turnout.

"Planning can ensure you have the right amount of feed at the right time and that it's enough to last through the winter," said Comerford.

Even though several storms have crossed the state recently and others may track over Pennsylvania in coming weeks, Hall doesn't believe rain they produce will salvage much of this year's corn or soybean crops. "The window for haymaking is closing, too, and since many farmers who make hay will also be harvesting corn and soybeans, most farmers will be done with harvest."

Hard rains can always pose a runoff problem, especially on steep, dry, intensely grazed pastures where a lot of soil is exposed, said Hall. This fall, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff could be a concern, but only from manure on the pasture surface. "It would be different if the soil was saturated, but since it is so dry, it's more likely to soak up some of the rain like a sponge, reducing runoff concerns," he said.

These rains turn grass green but don't always stimulate growth, Hall noted. "Plants aren't fooled by a quarter inch of rain -- they've been here long enough to know that's not enough, especially when we're 8 to 9 inches behind in rainfall."

Surprisingly, the drought is helping farmers in some aspects, according to the Penn State experts. Crops are maturing earlier, making grain drier during harvest and requiring less subsequent drying. Fall grains are also planted on a timelier basis. This allows for an established stand that, if properly managed, can offer a grazing opportunity.

"Animals can graze lightly off fall small grains without hurting grain yields," said Hall. "But despite a good seeding opportunity, the plants are slow growing due to the dry weather."

While drought watches and warnings pressure citizens to conserve water by installing low-flow shower heads and other water-saving devices, the livestock industry long has taken measures to conserve water, noted Robert Mikesell, senior instructor in dairy and animal science. "We know that leaking hoses and waterers are wasteful," he said. "In hog barns, that extra water is hauled out with the manure. In poultry facilities, it generates more ammonia.”

While shallow wells on some Franklin and Fulton County farms have gone dry recently, forcing farmers to haul in water for their animals, Mikesell said most farms should be fine. Newer large facilities are not populated until an adequate water supply is established to guard against drought conditions.

"They ensure the animals always have a supply of fresh, clean and safe water. That's not to say that out-of-water events can't happen -- but they're less likely," he said.

"Most hog and poultry operations, which run primarily under-roof, have systems that monitor water availability and are less affected by drought conditions. Producers are notified by an alarm system if water pressure drops."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010