Dairy producers feeling the heat, drought

Farmers concerned about feed supply, milk production
A group of dairy cows

The heat and drought have combined for a one-two punch that has lowered dairy producers’ output and their feed stockpiles.

The second-longest heat wave in southern Wisconsin history sickened cows and cut milk production by one-third at Pat O’Brien’s farm in Fitchburg.

“The cows really did pretty well until about July 4, and (since) then they’ve taken quite a dive,” O’Brien said. “The cows don’t eat, and when they don’t eat they’re not going to produce milk.”

The drought, which the U.S. Drought Monitor measured at moderate levels for southern Wisconsin on July 3, has dramatically reduced the amount of available feed, and the corn crop that farmers rely on to replenish the supply is in jeopardy.

The corn crop needs rain soon, before the critical pollination process begins in one or two weeks, WISC-TV reported. The pollination process, which begins the development of the ears of corn, can’t happen without some precipitation.

“Everything we raise goes into the feed we need for the next year for our cattle,” said O’Brien, who is insured. “If we don’t have a corn crop, I don’t know (where we’ll get the feed).”

Johnie Ambrosy, a veterinarian with Waunakee Veterinary Service, was treating one of O’Brien’s cows for pneumonia Monday morning.

“Cows are a lot more sensitive than humans are to heat,” he said. “They usually start showing signs of heat stress at temperatures as low as 68 degrees.”

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The decrease in milk production, along with the feed supply concerns, is affecting dairy producers still recovering from a 2009 crisis, said Mark Stephenson, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dairy Policy Analysis Center.

“It’s the worst year we’ve seen since 2009, and 2009 was truly a low water mark for us,” he said. “It was a bad year for dairy producers, many of whom are only restoring equity now and this year is drawing on those reserves.”

The crop damage and decrease in milk production will drive prices up at the grocery store and at restaurants, Stephenson said, although there are no estimates how much prices could rise.

Only about 69 percent of corn growers are insured, while 74 percent of soybean growers have insurance, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.

Gov. Scott Walker on Monday declared a state of emergency for 42 southern Wisconsin counties, allowing farmers to temporarily use streams or lakes for irrigation.

But the emergency declaration won’t help many farmers who don’t have irrigation systems, O’Brien said.

He said the situation was the worst he’d seen — including the dry summer of 1988.

“1988 was a dry year, but it didn’t start this early,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got most of the month of July and all of August to get through.” 

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