WisBusiness: Dry stretch could spell trouble for farms, wineries

By Brian E. Clark

Wisconsin farmers are beginning to use the dreaded
“D” word – as in drought – especially in the southeast and east central
portions of the state.

And it’s not a whole lot better in the Dane and Rock
counties either.

“We need rain, no doubt about it,” said Jim Stute, a
soils and crop specialist with the University of Wisconsin Cooperative
Extension office in Rock County.

Stute said the first cutting for the hay crop was
only 65 percent of normal and farmers are now finishing a diminished
second cutting.

“The hay should be 24 inches tall, but is only half
that,” he said, noting that this year’s weather pattern bears and
uncomfortable resemblance to the drought year of 1988.

“But we are an inch below 1988 from April 1 through
the current reporting period,” he said. “And there isn’t any rain
coming our way for at least a week, according to the forecasts.”

Hurricane Dennis pushed a few sprinkles up into
Wisconsin Tuesday, but barely enough to dampen dust on rural roads.

Stute said patches of corn grown in sandy soils are
already turning what he called a “sickly gray” from lack of moisture.
Similarly, soybeans exhibit stress when they flip their leaves to the
lighter side to reflect light and heat. In some poorer soils, the beans
could soon wilt with no new rain.

For corn growers, the situation is critical because
their crop is on schedule for pollination next week, Stute said.

If the plants are stressed and do not pollinate
well, that could affect yields. Ultimately, parts of Wisconsin farm
country could be declared a disaster area, making farmers eligible for
low interest loans or disaster payments.

On the other hand, if the state gets rain in the
next week, recent dry weather could prove to be a boon, he said
optimistically. But it must come soon.

“When it’s dry in June, the plants develop deeper
roots to find nutrients and moisture,” he said. “But the key is to get
rain quickly or we could really be in trouble.”

Stute said it’s too early to tell what affect the
dry weather could have on consumers.

He said dairy farmers are now being squeezed by poor
hay yields, but he said there is plenty of corn in storage that is left
over from last year.

At the Wollersheim Winery, operations manager Dixie
Lea said vines on the upper slopes of the vineyard are beginning to
wilt from lack of rain.

“Yes, we’re starting to get worried,” said Lea, who
noted that the winery lost some vines several years ago due in part to
dry weather.

“We are watering our new vines that are a year or
two old,” she said. Wollersheim is about 25 miles northwest of Madison
on the east bank of the Wisconsin River, directly across from Prairie
du Sac and Sauk City.

“We could certainly use rain in the next week or
two,” she said. “It would be good for us and everyone else in

To reduce competition, Lea said vineyard workers mow
between rows and eliminate weeds. They also cut off non-productive
shoots to that would take up water needed by the rest of the vine.

Lea said dry weather isn’t always a bad thing for
the vineyard’s grapes, which are primarily of the Marchael Foche

“If it comes in late August or September, dry
weather helps evaporate the water in the grapes and concentrate the
sugar,” she said.

“But right now, our vineyard needs the moisture,”
she said.

Ron Tauchen of the National Agricultural Statistics
Service said 30 percent of the state’s fields are very short of
moisture and 30 percent are short.

In the east central region – which Green Bay to Fond
du Lac, 64 percent of the acreage is very short and 35 percent is short.

In the southeast, the figures are 52 percent
very short and 46 percent short. And for Dane County, its 28 percent
very short and 44 percent short.

“Farmers are worried about the dry weather,” he

“You notice it first in the pastures that are being
grazed or cut once a month for hay,” he said. “Next to show are crops
like corn and soy beans.

“And now is a critical time for corn pollination,
when it’s really important to have adequate moisture,” he said. “And
soybeans are starting to bloom now, too.”

In addition, there is the danger of fire in
extremely dry wheat fields that are now being harvested.

Tauchen said the first soybean and corn yield
forecasts will not be released for another month from now. And they
could be down from normal with only marginal rain, he said.

“The moisture levels from county to county and field
to field, depending on rainfall and soil types,” he said.

“But there is no doubt the whole state could benefit
from some storms,” he said.

Tauchen said the largest crop grown in Wisconsin is
corn, which covers a whopping 3.75 million acres. Next are hay crops at
3 million acres and third is soybeans at 1.7 million acres.

He said all farm commodities produced in the state
have a value of $6 billion, with half of that coming from the dairy

“This dry weather can really cost farmers,” he said.
“The first to feel it are dairymen. If their hay crop is small, they
face the dilemma of reducing the size of their herds or buying hay feed
from other areas.”

Tauchen said much of the Midwest is dry this summer,
except for the Dakotas and Minnesota – which have received adequate
rainfall to date.