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Drought latest trouble for farmers

August 11, 1997

By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

Staff Writer

When Frank Downey planted corn on 250 acres near Downsville this past spring, he figured he'd have enough to feed his 200 cows, and then some.

He didn't figure on the drought.

Now, Downey is looking at a crop so stunted, he's abandoned all hope of storing any as grain for later use, let alone having a surplus to sell. Instead, he's having to "greenchop" it - cutting off cornstalks every morning just to feed his herd that day.

For many dairy farmers in Washington County's hardest hit areas and throughout most of Frederick County, the problem is the same: they're running out of feed. And some, officials say, probably don't have the financial reserves to buy enough to survive.

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Since 1982, the number of dairy farms in Washington County has dropped to about 180 from 250 - an average loss of 4 or 5 herds a year. The drought could accelerate that rate a lot between now and spring, one official said.

"Some of these guys just can't make it or are just tired of beating their heads against it," said Don Schwartz, local agricultural agent for the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maryland.

"Milk prices are about the same as they were 15 years ago and, in the meantime, costs - equipment, feed, chemicals all go up," Schwartz said. "Gets them a little discouraged."

One morning last week, the telephone in Schwartz's office rang incessantly with calls from worried farmers. When not on the phone, he's out walking their fields, judging the devastation.

"I'm helping them to estimate yield, discussing what are we going to need for inventory, can we get an October harvest of alfalfa yet, will the insurance cover part of what is needed to buy more feed or should a loan be sought," he said.

"So it's a real complex decision-making process," Schwartz said.

It starts with some basics: cows, like people, need to eat a variety of food to get the nutrients they need to live and produce the most milk. Farmers plant as much as they can to grow the forage and grain that goes into each cow's diet.

This year, the drought has not only withered the grass cows would graze on in the pasture, it has savaged the corn and other grain crops farmers would store to sustain their herds through the winter.

On Gerald Cavanaugh's farm near Downsville, for instance, the ground is so dry that some of the soybeans he planted in late June "didn't even come up out of the ground," he said.

The prospects for the 185 acres he planted in corn aren't much better. "A lot of our corn isn't even putting an ear on," he said.

At Charles Wiles' dairy farm near Williamsport, the situation is similar. "We normally get 16 to 20 tons of (corn) silage per acre. But this year, I'd estimate we'll get just 6 to 8 tons off two-thirds of my acreage. The other one-third, we're predicting nothing. Zero. It's that bad."

The situation demands action fast, Schwartz said.

"The next two months, folks are going to be scrambling real, real hard to try to line up feed for the 50,000 cows we have in this county," he said.

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