Pennsylvania farmers dealing with a precipitation deficit approaching 9” below average are trying to make the best of a parched situation, according to Penn State University experts.
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,” says Marvin Hall, forage agronomist. He explains that the spring months were warm and wet – a combination that brought high hay yields that offset late summer’s slow growth.
This, combined with spotty summer precipitation, resulted in widely variable forage yields across the state. Some producers have lots of hay; others don’t, says Hall. But for farmers with grazing livestock, this summer’s variability has caused worse problems.
“At least half the grazing land in the state is in serious trouble – the rest is merely marginal,” says animal scientist John Comerford. “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, warns Hall. “People too often leave their animals on stressed pastures that have been grazed to the ground,” he says. “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 wean beef calves early. “This cuts down on the nutrients required for the cow herd out on pasture,” says Comerford.
But with the lower crop yields come higher feed prices for animal operations. “As corn prices rise, feeder-calf prices drop,” he explains. “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 notes that ethanol-making facilities still may be demanding corn. Since graziers 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,” he says.
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, says 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 says.
The rains turn grass green but don’t always stimulate growth, Hall notes. “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 8-9” 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 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,” says Hall. “But despite a good seeding opportunity, the plants are slow-growing due to the dry weather.”