WisBusiness: Farmers worried drought conditions near

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

If UW Cooperative Extension agent David Laatsch knew any good rain dances, he’d be doing them now.

So would thousands of Badger State farmers, dairymen, orchardists and cattle raisers.

“This week is pivotal, especially for the corn and soybean crops,” said Laatsch, who works in Dodge County and specializes in crop and soil conditions. “We are starting to see tassel development and pollination will occur next week, so if we don’t have rain for the corn crop, there will be a very, very severe reduction in yield.”

The dry and hot weather -- temperatures are expected to approach 100 today through Friday in southern Wisconsin -- is only the latest in a series of setbacks for Badger State agriculture, he noted.

In March, much of the state had at least 10 days of temperatures over 80 degrees. That caused apple and cherry trees to blossom early, and they were then hit by April frosts. In some areas, most of the blossoms were killed, resulting in almost no apples or cherries.

“In Door County, the fruit survival rate in some areas was as low as 3 percent,” Laatsch said.

As a result, Gov. Scott Walker has applied for federal disaster aid.

One of the few crops to dodge the bad luck was strawberries, he said. They matured early, but yields were close to normal.

Laatsch said farmers are keeping their eyes on the rain forecast. He said there is a chance of precipitation on Wednesday, so he’s keeping his fingers crossed.

“There is a stationary front that has been hovering around,” he said. “It just needs the right conditions to make rain, but it hasn’t happened yet. When it’s dry, you can’t get rain out of a thunderhead.

“And we really need a shot of rain to get us through this pollination period.”

In a worst-case scenario – something he really doesn’t want to ponder – Laatsch said much of southern Wisconsin will be in a serious drought condition and the corn and soybean harvests could be seriously reduced.

He said June was a disastrous month for rain.

“In Dodge County (and much of southern Wisconsin) we had about one-tenth of an inch of rain,” he said. “That is about three to four inches below normal.”

He said the situation north of the Wisconsin Dells is somewhat better.

“They caught some rain storms through from Tomah to the north and west,” he said. “And then way north, well, they got blasted.”

Laatsch said this year is being compared to the summer of 1988, when the state also experienced a severe drought.

Laatsch declined to speculate on whether the dry spell is cyclical or marks a change of weather patterns.

“For that you’d need to talk with a climatologist,” he said.

The extension agent said the dry weather and ensuing predictions of reduced harvests have helped push commodity futures prices to levels that are nearly as high as they have been in a year.

He said farmers who are insured are in a better position than those who are going without any coverage.

“If they don’t have insurance, they really sweating now,” he said, noting that Wisconsin is drier than Iowa and many other parts of the Midwest.

Farmers who have irrigation systems are in luck, he noted, though less than 5 percent of the state’s cropland is watered with sprinklers.

And it’s not just crops that are suffering. He said farmers are already reporting livestock deaths due to the heat.

“We’ll see more stress with continued high temperatures, too,” he said. “And down the road, there will be higher costs for livestock operations and then liquidation of herds. Dairy cows also produce less in high heat … sometimes 20 percent less.

They also have poor reproduction and don’t come into season like they normally would.”

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