Farmer forced to buy feed

August 09, 1999

By BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

BOONSBORO - Corn stalks the color of faded dollar bills fill the field as Craig Leggett stops to check his crop.

Corn is currency to a farmer, but its value is not constant. Drought is pushing Leggett deeper into debt and his profits are drying up in the unstoppable sun.

"It all boils down to whether or not it rains," he says.

Leggett pays close attention to color, eyeing subtle changes in hue like a broker might read fractions. He sees brown-tinged tips in a field of lush grass. His corn is a shade duller than it should be, he says.


The farmer pushes past a few spindly plants, his head showing above their tassels. In a good year, he could hide underneath the leaves. These stalks are short and bear few ears.

He pulls one off, rips open the husk and runs a fingernail down a row of kernels. Juice arcs over the silk. He splits the ripe cob and looks at the "milk," pearly areas of soft starch in the kernels.

"That's good corn," he says. "But another week of dry weather and we've got to chop it. Some of the kernels are already dented."

Tiny slits show the starch inside is drying. Leggett grows corn to feed his cattle, but he can't give them hard kernels. "Cows cannot digest that," he says.

With more than 180 mouths depending on him, the farmer has to provide a lot of food. His operation includes 120 head on the milking chain and another 60 to 70 heifers and calves. He feeds them all twice a day.

This is where water and want intersect. Drought stunts the growth of plants, which translates into a feed shortage. Pastures don't produce enough. As a rule, drought-stressed forage makes good feed, but there is less of it to go around.

Hungry cows make poor milk, which is Leggett's chief income source.

To feed his animals, he had to buy extra corn from a farm six miles away that fared better with rain.

At $250 per acre, the 60-acre field will cost him $15,000. Add labor and transportation costs, and Leggett estimates he'll spend $25,000 on the extra corn.

That should last until spring, he says.

"I shouldn't have to worry about feed for a while," he says. "But it still needs to rain."

Leggett's lost money for the past three years. In 1998, he grossed $250,000 and declared about $18,000 in family living expenses. Overall the operation lost $5,000, the farmer says.

Leggett, 43, has worked on a farm since he was 12 years old. He started his own operation 15 years ago. He recently began growing different grasses such as sorghum sudan. Grasses do well in drought, giving cows good energy and protein.

Grains are too much of a gamble because they rely on rain, Leggett says. "I'd be scared to death to be a grain farmer right now," he says.

The area has a drought three out of every five years, according to Leggett. The latest dry spell is making news but it's an old problem. Lack of rain is all too familiar to Leggett. "It's to the point where I'm almost getting used to it," he says.

When Washington County was declared a disaster area Aug. 2, millions of dollars were made available to farmers in low-interest loans, but Leggett doesn't want another loan.

"That just digs the hole deeper," he said.

Disaster relief does more to make politicians look good than it does to help farmers, he said. Real help would return more of the consumer's dollar to the farm.

When milk prices fluctuate, so does Leggett's paycheck. Milk brought a high of $19 per hundred weight in January, then dropped sharply, cutting his income 25 percent.

"All the bills stayed the same," he says.

Leggett doesn't want the government to give him money either. Farmers simply want to sustain themselves and their families, he says.

"We're not here to be welfare cases."

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