Autumn rain: Little too late for corn, soybeans
Heavy rains last week suspended the burning ban in River Falls and surrounding towns, effective last Thursday, Sept. 18. As of Tuesday, the burning ban was still suspended, according to River Falls Fire Chief Scott Nelson.
Nelson did remind citizens that they should still be careful with outdoor fires, and should still obtain burning permits when required by the city or town.
But, the rain that suspended River Falls’ burning ban Friday came too late to save this year’s corn crop from damage.
In fact, according to St. Croix UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Ryan Sterry, most area farmers have already harvested much of their corn for use as silage.
Corn needs about a 60-65% moisture level in order to be used as silage, according to Bill Connolly, director of UW-River Falls’ Mann Valley Farm. With the drought, Connolly said, the corn was drying out fast.
“We had to really go speed up the harvest and harvest it as fast as possible,” Connolly said. He said most of the farm’s corn has already been harvested and chopped up for silage.
Because this year’s drought was preceded by a cold, wet spring, Sterry said, crops not only went in late, but didn’t get the water they needed to thrive during the growing season. This has meant significantly lower crop yields, especially for corn and soybeans.
“We went from one extreme to the other,” Sterry said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it swing this far from being as cold and wet in late spring as we had.”
Another problem that comes with low corn yields, according to Sterry, is feeding livestock. He said he has been working with many local dairy and beef farmers, helping them figure out how they will feed their animals, and whether they will need to buy feed or not. He said this year of being short on feed will be especially hard, as last year’s drought created a feed shortage too.
“One year is hard enough on people,” Sterry said. “Going through two years being tight on feed is very stressful.”
Connolly said the crops at Mann Valley Farm are all intended to feed the livestock there, which include dairy and beef cattle, sheep and pigs. With this year’s low yield, Connolly said, the animals will have to receive some alternate feeding. More silage may be substituted for other feeds. If need be, other measures will be taken.
“We may have to cull some livestock,” Connolly said.
Sterry said there could be an increase in beef prices, as the cost of feed is keeping herd sizes smaller than it has been in a long time.
“As a nation, we have the smallest beef herd we have had since the ‘40s-‘50s,” Sterry said. Smaller herds have increased beef prices, but with the drought’s low yields meaning another feed shortage this year, Sterry said, farmers can’t afford to increase their herd sizes.
However, there is still hope for other crops.
Connolly said the rain will help Mann Valley Farm’s alfalfa crop.
“Because it’s a perennial, these rains now will really help the alfalfa,” Connolly said. He said rain will help the alfalfa plants be prepared for the winter, and set them up for good growth next year. Replacing moisture in the soil is also important, he said, so plants have water to draw during next year’s growing season.
Other crops, such as apples, can still benefit from the rains this year. St. Croix County UW-Extension horticulture educator Heidi Doering said those crops still need to be watered, but the rain can definitely help them.
Most of the crops Heidi said she has seen are grown in family gardens, but she has also worked with some commercial growers.
She said most ornamental trees have larger, deeper root systems than plants like corn or hay, which help them last longer in droughts.
In fact, Doering said, an apple-farmer she met at a farmer’s market recently said his apple trees were doing well.
“He said this is a great year for him,” Doering said. “He’s got a great crop this year.”
It hasn’t been an easy year for plants like apples and berries, but Doering said with more rain, and lots of watering, the plants could still do very well.
Doering said she wanted “to emphasize the importance of watering any trees that you care to have in your yard beyond this year.”
However, fertilizing during a drought is a bad idea, she said.
“When it’s dry, it takes moisture out of the plant,” Doering said. She said this is because fertilizers often include salt.
Sterry said struggling farmers can contact the Wisconsin Farm Service Agency at 608-662-4422.
Connolly said he’s hoping for better weather next year, but meanwhile, the UWRF students that work on Mann Valley Farm are learning how to deal with difficult years.
“You just have to adapt and make the best of what you have, and the conditions that the weather offers,” Connolly said, “And hope for the best next year.”