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Farmers deal with drought

January 14, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. - In three generations of farming, Gary Decker has never known the spring on his family's Licking Creek Township farm to go dry. Not until this winter.

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Decker's spring and a well recently ran dry, leaving him with one well to provide water for 125 beef cattle and his family.

For two weeks, the household has been conserving water to get by, said Decker, 44, who is a Fulton County Commissioner.

"You can't tell the cows to cut back any. They're going to drink as normal," Decker said Wednesday.

Decker is one of several Tri-State area farmers who has been hit hard this winter because of last fall's dry season. Because of scant rainfall, some farmers were forced to drill new wells or to buy feed they normally would have grown on their farms.

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Rainfall in Washington County totaled 3.95 inches from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, while 4.13 inches fell in the Chambersburg, Pa., area in that period, according to weather observers Greg Keefer and David Bender. That is about one-third of the normal amount of precipitation for the period, Keefer said.

Despite the recent snowfall, several wells have run dry in the Tri-State area because of the dry fall and frozen ground, farmers and well drillers said.

With the ground frozen, melting snow runs off instead of seeping into the ground toward the water table, they said.

Craig Leggett, 42, has been spending $250 a day on feed because the dry season wiped out his feed crop and left little pasture. Now he's worried about his water level.

"We need water. We need rain," Leggett said.

He said he's never seen Beaver Creek so low at this time of year. The creek runs through his southern Washington County, Md., farm north of Boonsboro.

And his feed troubles aren't over.

Leggett still needs feed crops to come in this spring for his 90 milking cows and 70 heifers.

If they don't, he'll have to continue buying feed or sell some cows, which wouldn't bring in much money under such conditions, he said.

"It's becoming a matter of survival," Leggett said.

Shannon Donley said the dry season is causing him to spend $900 more a week on feed for the more than 1,000 hogs at his Fertile Plain Farm near Moler Crossroads in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Donley said he won't know until mid-April how badly damaged his fall plantings will be. He'll decide then whether to kill the crop and plant his regular crop.

"It's hurting me like crazy, because hog prices are terrible right now," Donley said.

Dairy veterinarian John Heizer said the dry weather also has affected the quality of feed, which is the biggest problem for overall milk production.

Gareth Myers said his feed situation is OK, but he couldn't say the same for his well.

Myers had a second well dug last week at his dairy farm along Hollowell Church Road in Franklin County, Pa., after he looked into his 40-foot-deep well and wasn't satisfied with the water level.

It cost Myers about $2,500 for the new well, which is 420 feet deep.

Funks Drilling Inc., the company that drilled Myers' well, has experienced a surge in business in the last few months because of the dry season, said Kevin Lay, office manager.

The company had 30 calls alone in December about wells running dry or related problems.

Lay said other drillers were working on wells along Hollowell Church Road last week as well.

"I don't know when the water table's been this low," Lay said.

Farmers aren't the only ones having problems with dry or low wells, drillers said.

The problem isn't new, said Randy Boothby, general manager of SEC Well Drilling and Pump Co. in Greencastle, Pa.

Many older wells are shallow and are running dry as the water table continues to drop, Boothby said.

The dry spell was the "icing on the cake," he said.

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