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High temperatures stress area crops and livestock

July 11, 2010|By KATE S. ALEXANDER
  • Daniel Godinez carries a bucket of freshly-picked squash through a field near Smithsburg. Behind him, Rene Julian Osorto fills his bucket.
Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

Gardeners can conserve water, keep plants alive

It was Wednesday at 2 p.m., and temperatures in the Tri-State area were creeping toward 100 degrees for a third straight day.

Crops in Washington County, Franklin County, Pa., and Jefferson County, W.Va., were wilting in the sun and farmers were looking to the skies for the cooling relief of rain, which didn't fall.

"I don't remember it being warm like this for a long time," said Matt Harsh, owner of Chesley Vegetable Farm in Smithsburg.

"When it is 102 (degrees) outside, it is hot everywhere, even in front of a fan," said Mike Forsythe, owner of Linden Hall, a dairy farm and orchard on Downsville Pike.

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Plants and farm animals were affected by the heat wave and dry spell, said Jeff Semler, senior extension agent for the Washington County office of the University of Maryland Extension.

"Water is the No. 1 need of everything," he said. "But heat can be more of an issue."

Heat can stress growing vegetables, said Steve Bogash, regional horticulture educator for Penn State University Cooperative Extension in Chambersburg, Pa.

Bogash, who specializes in small fruits and vegetables, said heat is a Catch-22. It helps develop the flavor of fruits and vegetables, but too much of it can spoil vegetables and halt new growth, he said.

Many vegetables should be ready for harvest at this time of year, including squash, sweet corn, early bell peppers and early tomatoes, Bogash said.

Picking "hot" produce is not a good idea, he said.

If produce is hot when it's picked, once it's out of the ground, "it will just keep ripening," Bogash said. "It will go from ripe and ready to nasty very quickly."

With temperatures hitting the 90s by midmorning recently, Harsh said he was up at dawn every day to get a jump-start on his harvest. To harvest before it was too hot, he said he had to hit the fields early and finish up by about noon.

Forsythe said he was forced to change his dairy farm operation to accommodate his overheated cows.

Dairy cows experience more heat stress than other livestock, Semler said.

Cows are happiest when temperatures are between 40 and 75 degrees, Forsythe said. Last week, the thermometer barely dipped to 75 degrees, even at night, he said.

"They don't want to move," he said of his cows. "They aren't eating much, either."

A cow must eat in order to produce milk, so if the cows lose their appetites, farmers lose money, he said.

Forsythe said he could lose as much as 20 percent or 30 percent of his milk production if the summer is an especially hot one.

To comfort the cows, farmers often cool them with fans and water, but the heat was such that even fans had little effect, Forsythe said.

Most dairy farms also grow hay and corn for silage, Semler said.

The last hay harvest at Linden Hall was only a fraction of what it should have been and Forsythe said corn was beginning to curl.

Corn curls to conserve moisture, said Craig Yohn, extension agent with the West Virginia University Cooperative Extension. But curling leaves are the least of a farmer's worries when it comes to corn, he said.

Most corn is just beginning to tassel, or prepare for its pollination season, he said.

Like flowers, corn kernels need pollen to grow, and temperatures above 90 degrees can kill pollen, he said.

No pollen, no kernels, Yohn said.

"The next few days and weeks will be critical for the corn," he said. "If we get the cool-down and the rain, it will make all the difference."

The National Weather Services predicted weekend showers for the region and slightly lower temperatures, according to the service Web site.

Over the weekend, a little more than a quarter of an inch of rain fell in Hagerstown between Friday and late Saturday, said Trina Heiser, a technician for the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

The high temperature Friday in Hagerstown was 92 degrees, followed by highs of 88 degrees Saturday and 91 degrees Sunday, Heiser said.

The forecast this week calls for a chance of a thunderstorm today through Friday, according to AccuWeather.com.

Nothing would help his cows or his fruit like a good soaking rain, said Forsythe. In addition, he said, his fruit has set on the trees but need water to grow to a healthy size.

While irrigating has enabled Harsh to have a harvest despite the heat wave, he said he could barely supply his produce with enough water to keep it alive.

"Stress can stop a vegetable from growing," he said. "While irrigating makes a difference, some are wilting in the afternoon sun."

If there was a bright spot in last week's weather, it was that humidity, which can cause disease in plants, was low, Bogash said.

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