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Heat hurting Pa. dairy production

July 06, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Lisa Meyers has seen cows panting and Frank Barr's corn didn't get fence high by the Fourth of July.

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The heat wave in Franklin County hasn't set records in recent days, but dairy cattle are feeling the heat and giving less milk. Some stands of corn are stunted by the heat and dry conditions.

Rodney Meyers, Lisa's husband, has seen production drop among the 60 cows at his father's 190-acre Aldina Holstein Farm in Greene Township. The last pickup was about 5,300 pounds, down about 400 pounds from the previous one.

"It's been dropping. ... I don't even want to look at the milk weights," Rodney Meyers said. Lisa said the heat and humidity have the cows' tongues hanging.

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Stanley Meyers owns Meyersdale Dairy Farm near Lemasters, Pa., in Peters Township. Saturday's pickup measured 9,300 pounds, but it was down to 7,500 pounds on Tuesday from his herd of 150 cows.

"It usually takes a spell of several days in a row to affect dairy production," Franklin County Dairy Agent Phil Wagner said Tuesday. It also takes cows a few days to recover once the heat breaks.

"In late-lactation cows, you're probably not going to get back to where you were," Stanley Meyers said.

Cows eat and produce less in hot weather, Wagner said. "Try to keep them as comfortable as possible. Keep the air on them, water them down, do most of the feeding at night and don't crowd them," he advised.

Jerry Ashway, a local weather watcher in Chambersburg, said temperatures hit 97 degrees on Sunday, 98 on Monday and 99 on Tuesday, but they set no records. The mercury hit 102 on July 6, 1949.

The record for July 7 is 104 degrees in 1988, but Ashway predicted temperatures would be well below that today.

Despite rainfall of about two inches in June, half the average, Ashway said precipitation for the first six months of 1999 in Chambersburg is an inch above normal at 21.25 inches. Rainfall in July has been just under half an inch.

Rainfall, however, is spotty. Stanley Meyers said he talked to a farmer who recorded 3 1/2 inches in the Fort Loudon area, just down the road from his 600-acre operation.

"We didn't get near what they got a few miles away," Myers said. Still, some of his corn has reached about six feet.

"We've had about one inch of rain in the past four or five weeks," said Barr, who farms about 300 acres south of Greencastle, Pa. He said his corn is about half as high as it should be by now.

"You ought to be able to go out in a cornfield and get lost. It ought to be over your head," said Franklin County Agent and agronomist Robert Kessler.

"Problems, yes. Disaster, I wouldn't use that word right now," said Kessler.

For corn the critical time for rain is during pollination, later in the summer, he said. If corn tassles during a dry spell, the crop could be seriously affected.

In 1997, the last year for which figures are available, about 75,000 acres in the county were planted in corn, about 13,000 in soybeans and 66,000 acres in hay, alfalfa and small grains, according to Kessler. Most of the crops are used for feed within the county.

The 1997 corn crop was poor, about 86 bushels an acre, compared to 123 bushels in 1996, Kessler said.

"Probably the thing that is hurting most at this point is the hay crop," he said.

Stanley Meyers and Barr agreed. Both said their first cutting was near normal, but the second was less and the third is looking worse.

A hot summer could hurt dairy income, but it is just one factor in the dairy equation, according to Wagner. Demand and feed prices also figure into the farmer's bottom line.

Production was $110 million in 1995, jumped to $125 million in 1996, but dropped to $113 million in 1997.

Wagner didn't have dollar figures for 1998, but said it "was probably the best year ever" because of poor conditions in California, low feed costs and good demand.

Barr said he expects to buy a lot of shelled corn if his crop doesn't improve.

Stanley Meyers said he was happy to have stores of hay on hand from previous seasons.

"You talk about risk management, the biggest risk is weather," Wagner said.

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