August rains help pastures

County averaged 5.4 inches rainfall, 2.2 above normal

Too late to save corn

Grasses surviving drought may be low in nutritional value

August 31, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff

The plentiful rainfall of August could help Carroll County and Central Maryland farmers revive their pastures and get a better cutting of hay, but it comes too late to save the corn crop or undo other damage, farmers and agriculture officials say.

Baltimore City and the surrounding counties received between .5 and 3.3 inches above the average rainfall for August.

Carroll County received an average of 5.4 inches of rain this month, 2.2 inches above normal, according to the National Weather Service and Maryland Agricultural Statistics.

"Up here where we are, we only had about an inch and a half of rain. I heard some people got as many as six inches. But it has made a noticeable difference in what's out there," said Glenn Shirley, a dairy farmer in Silver Run near the Pennsylvania border.

He's noticed that his 150 head of cattle -- 75 of which are milking cows -- are spending several hours in the pastures, which tells him they must be finding more to eat.

"Back when it was really dry, they'd walk around and come right back to the barn" for a feeding of hay, he said.

But some pastures might not have survived the drought, and those that did might produce grasses that have a low nutritional value, said Kelly Hereth, director of the Carroll office of the Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

During the rain last week, several farmers took the opportunity to come into the office to begin applying for aid programs available through the state and federal governments, she said. Although Hereth's office is part of a federal agency, she has copies of applications for state programs that will help farmers with emergency feed and water assistance, and with planting cover crops for the fall.

Federal help is available in the form of low-interest loans and some cost-sharing for water conservation.

For corn, the damage was done in July, when dry conditions interfered with pollination, leading to fewer kernels per ear. Most corn crops now are leaving the growth stage and entering a dry-down period before harvest, so rain won't help at this point, Hereth said.

Most farmers who raise alfalfa follow the rule of cutting before the first full week of September, Shirley said, but he thinks he will make an exception this year and cut later. That will give his alfalfa a little more time to grow before he cuts and give him a higher yield. But he is also taking a risk: Cutting fewer than 30 days before frost means the frost could catch the perennial alfalfa at a stage in which it would have trouble surviving the winter.

Shirley also plans to take advantage of late summer and autumn rains by planting some oats and rye for grazing and haying. The crop will winter over.

For the Shirleys, a change in their farming practices has helped them weather the drought. Like most dairy farmers, they used to raise corn and soybeans to harvest and feed their cattle.

Four years ago, they switched to a mostly grazing and hay diet for their animals, with some grain bought for supplementary feeding. In a drought year, pasture and hay suffer, but the Shirleys still get something from them. With corn, however, a dry spell at the wrong time can mean a near-total loss.

Still, to get through the drought without having to buy extra feed and hay beyond what they raise, the Shirleys sold several calves about two weeks ago rather than feed them. The calves -- or heifers -- were too young to reproduce and start milking to bring the Shirleys a return on their expenses.

He'd rather not sell heifers, though, because those are the animals that grow up to provide milk.

"Two years ago, when we had a drought, we sold some heifers," Shirley said. "That meant we had money to buy hay. But the next fall, we had a big gap in replacements [cows] coming into the herd."

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