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Rains bring some relief; farmers ponder the future

Even though recent rains gave the area some much needed relief from the drought conditions that have plagued the whole region for months, the long-term effects of the unusually dry conditions may not be completely known for months to come.
Many of the water supplies in the area were able to weather the drought without noticeable consequences. The Town of Elizabeth, which gets its water from wells near the Ohio River, was able to keep up with demand without a problem.
‘We have three wells just off S.R. 111 near the river,’ said Pam Allen, who works at the water company. ‘We haven’t had a problem with the water supply at all. We had a leak in a line that goes to Caesars at Bridgeport, but even then, we were able to keep up until the line was repaired. All in all, the drought never had much of an impact on us.’
The South Harrison Water Co. gets its water supply from wells at Kintner Bottom, near Laconia, and the Town of Corydon gets its water from wells near Mauckport. Both utilities reported that they were able to keep up with demand without a problem and that the wells maintained sufficient levels throughout the summer.
But area farmers saw problems develop early in the growing season this year.
‘Our problems began even before the dry conditions developed,’ said Marengo dairy farmer Jerry Brewer. ‘Back in March, we had some really warm weather, which promoted a lot of things to begin blooming. Then, we had a really hard freeze. That really devastated the local alfalfa hay crop, and if you lose your first cutting of hay ‘ which is where you get the most volume ‘ it’s almost impossible to catch up. Now, we’ve had some rain and things are growing again, but you can’t really cut hay in November. We tried to cut a little recently, but the stalks are just too tough to make good hay.’
Brewer has been buying hay, but the quality of hay available for sale is not as good as alfalfa, which is needed in the dairy business to ensure good milk production.
‘Of course, alfalfa was hit the hardest,’ Brewer said. ‘And there’s none for sale in this area. If you buy it elsewhere and truck it in, the additional shipping cost takes away from the bottom line. It looks like, now that we’ve had rain, that there will be some pasture until around Thanksgiving, but after that, we’ll be feeding them from what we have stored or from what can be bought. We have silage, but probably not enough. And we’ve baled corn stalks this year which will help some, but the protein is only about 5 percent in corn stalks. That means we can feed it to our dry cows and young stock, but it’s not good enough to produce milk. There’s some hay available that is not real good quality, but again, when the feed quality goes down, so does milk production. I’ve bought more hay in the last two weeks than I’ve ever bought before. I’m 52 years old, and this is the worse year I’ve ever seen for hay, wheat and bean crops and for pasture.’
District 10 director of Farm Bureau Inc. Robert Schickel said that late freeze around Easter weekend was one of the many things contributing to the hay shortage, but not the first. He said the problems really began last autumn with a particularly wet season, which decreased the amount of wheat area farmers put out. That, coupled with the late freeze, has had a devastating effect on local crop yields, he said.
Schickel said the drought has been particularly hard-hitting on the southern-most Indiana counties. Harrison, Floyd and Clark counties have had the most severe reaction to the drought, probably caused by certain weather patterns, he said. Though it rained nearly 6-1/2 inches last week, which helped the fall grains like wheat and rye a little, Schickel said it was too late for hay, especially top-quality horse hay.
‘Cattle hay is not as severe as it was,’ he said. ‘A lot of people bundled corn stalks.’
Because of such hay shortage, Schickel said he’s seen a lot of cattle go to market and horses given up or sold at auction just because of the price of hay.
The dismal outlook for winter is one that Schickel hopes doesn’t get worse. He said he knows that nature always balances itself out somehow, and he’s hoping that this winter the balance stays more wet than frozen.
‘We hope Mother Nature allows itself to made up by rain and not snow,’ he said.
Scott Weis who, with his family, raises about 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Harrison County, saw his yields slip this year, even as expenses remained high.
‘There were a few farmers who had decent yields this year,’ Weis said. ‘A handful of areas had a few little showers that made a big difference in the overall outcome. I talked to some folks around Palmyra who was able to get 20 to 30 bushels per acre more than we got here in the New Middletown area. They were lucky and got a little more precipitation than we got here. Our corn was off about 50 bushels an acre from last year in some of our fields. Soybeans were off by about 15 bushels an acre. We also raise some hay, and that was affected also. If the good weather continues now for a while, the grass will grow quite a bit and will help the pastures. And I think we’re going to get some winter wheat planted. We’ve already put some in the ground, so that’s looking better. Last fall, it was just too wet to get wheat out.’
But farmers’ expenses keep climbing, even as yields remain low. With global demand increasing and recent sanctions on Iran causing oil to climb to $92 a barrel last week, farmers can expect little relief from the cost of fuel and transportation.
‘Fuel prices have gone up the last two years,’ Weis said. ‘Now, there’s no stockyards left in Louisville, so a lot of beef cattle are shipped to New York to be processed. Then, the meat is shipped to foreign markets from there. But that adds to transportation costs. This country also exports a lot of corn to countries like China and Japan. So the currency exchange, and even the weather in other countries, affects us here. If they have good weather in other places, they need less from us. If they have a bad year, they’ll buy more. All those things affects what we make on our product. Fertilizer went up to about $400 a ton this year. That’s about $150 higher than last year. A lot of small details have large impacts on farmers. And the dry weather certainly hasn’t helped.’
Milk prices in local stores have climbed to $4 to $4.39 recently. Bread and eggs prices are expected to be affected also. But farmers will have a hard time offsetting the additional expenses and loss of feed sources, even if the prices they get for their products increases slightly.
‘It’s going to be a little tough,’ Brewer added. ‘The question is now ‘ what will next year bring? No one will have extra hay left over. And in a second year, a drought doesn’t have to be as bad to still have a large negative impact on farmers. If we have to keep spending $2,000 a month for hay, it’s really going to hurt all of us.’
Corydon Democrat Staff Writer Lindsey Corley contributed to this story.