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Dry conditions persist, farmers feel heat

July 30, 2007|By MARLO BARNHART

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Out working in his scorched fields on a late July afternoon, Donnie Beard finds himself in an all-too-familiar situation.

The veteran dairy farmer is looking at yet another dry year at his Boonsboro-area farm and wondering what he will feed his 215 dairy cows this winter when the food runs out.

"You have to feed your heifers silage to keep them in good shape," Beard said.

In a greener year, Beard's cows would be eating in the pastures while the summer hay cuttings would be filling up the storage silos for winter feed.

That's not going to be the case in 2007.

Late last week, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and chair of the Maryland congressional delegation, was joined by a bipartisan coalition of her Maryland colleagues in sending a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, urging him to honor Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's request to release federal assistance for many Maryland farmers, who will then become eligible for additional disaster relief funds.

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Rainfall amounts across Maryland have been well below average since spring, with data analysis from the National Drought Mitigation Center showing 97 percent of the state in at least abnormally dry conditions.

Saturday's rainfall - which measured 1.64 inches in Hagerstown, according to the Web site of weather observer Greg Keefer - eased things a little in Washington County and raised the Potomac River three-tenths of a foot, according to a spokesman at the R.C. Willson Water Plant in Williamsport.

Another .41 inch of rain fell Sunday, according to Keefer's site.

Boonsboro, Clear Spring and Hancock have their own water systems.

Clear Spring Mayor Paul Hose Jr. said the town's wells are being checked every day.

"We have been discussing the possibility of voluntary conservation," he said.

Hancock Mayor Daniel Murphy said the well that supplies the town's water is a strong one, but officials are keeping a close watch on it for any signs of trouble.

"So far, we haven't even talked about any conservation measures," Murphy said.

While no conservation measures have been put in place in Boonsboro, Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. said he hopes residents will use common sense during this dry period.

Portions of Washington, Frederick, Montgomery and Calvert counties, as well as all of Charles and St. Mary's counties, are experiencing severe drought conditions.

Beard didn't need any agency or politician to tell him that. He's living it every day on his farm.

Dry years aren't uncommon, Beard said.

"But this year, things got drier earlier in the season and that makes it worse than it was, say, back in 1999."

Conditions that year meant Beard had to buy a great deal more grain for the winter than he would like. There might be a repeat this year, and Beard isn't looking forward to that.

Talking on his cell phone from the fields Friday afternoon, Beard said it was starting to rain a little but he didn't foresee it making much difference unless it rained a lot more.

Even "hobby" farmers like Frank Kipe are feeling the strain this year.

"I only have five head of dairy cattle, so I can take a bucket of water from our spring for them and even do some irrigation," he said.

Still, Kipe said he would have a couple hundred bales of hay by now in a normal year.

"I'll have to buy hay this winter," Kipe figures.

Jeff Semler, a Maryland Cooperative Extension educator, said some of the older farmers are telling him that things this year are as bad as they were in the 1960s.

"Corn yield will be down this year," Semler said. "The corn still in the fields is shot. A lot of that will go for silage but the tonnage will be off."

Usually, there are five alfalfa cuttings during a season, but Semler said this year there have been only four and the last cutting was "pitiful."

A good rain this week would strengthen hay and help those last cuttings, Semler said.

"We could also use some rain to build up the soil moisture for fall plantings," he said.

Farmers aren't the only ones dealing with the dry conditions.

Annette Ipsan, Maryland Cooperative Extension educator for horticulture, said she's been fielding a lot of calls about how to do what's best for backyard gardens and decorative plantings in these dry conditions.

"I encourage people to water deep and less often," Ipsan said. "That is particularly important for young plants."

Mulching is very advantageous to help retain what water there is around plants. And when choosing plants, choose drought-resistant varieties such as sedum and black-eyed Susans, she said.

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