Pastures shrivel under drought

On The Farm

On The Farm


Ordinarily, the 235 pasture acres at Bonita Farm in Darlington are thick with grass and capable of feeding 100 thoroughbred horses until the end of November.

But a recent lack of rain has dried up the fields, leaving little more than weeds for the animals.

"Everybody's in the same boat I'm in," said John Boniface, owner of the farm, who started buying hay to feed his horses six weeks ahead of schedule because of the lack of rain.

Farmers and agricultural experts are predicting widespread hay shortages and higher hay prices this winter because of a moderate agricultural drought that reaches from central North Carolina along Interstate 95 into southern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southwestern Connecticut including Long Island, according to the National Weather Service.

"The majority of Harford County farmers will definitely feel the effect of this drought," said C. John Sullivan III, the county's agriculture director.

The Baltimore reporting station, which is fairly representative of conditions in Harford County, recorded negligible rainfall for September and the first few days of October, said Brian Guyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The average rainfall for that period is 3.98 inches, he said, while the amount received this year was 0.22 inches.

Sullivan said some farmers in the county have lost about 20 percent of this year's hay crop, and seeds planted recently for next year's hay crop have not germinated.

"The trickle-down effect is not just the 20 percent this year and how that's going to affect next year. It's whether [a farmer] can afford to buy a new tractor or make other improvements to his farm, due to what he lost in profit from this drought," Sullivan said.

Darlington Angus producer John P. Archer said he never buys hay because he usually produces enough. But because of the drought, he will have to buy some to see his 30 cattle through the winter and next spring.

"This is not good. It's about as dry as you can get," Archer said. "I guess we're going to have live with it. Agriculture is used to having to live with adversity."

Archer estimates that this drought will cost him about $3,000. But that's nothing compared to the 2002 drought. "That was terrible," he said.

During the 2002 drought, Archer built a well on his property, like many farmers in the area, with emergency funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.

In 2002 the FSA gave out almost $12 million in crop disaster programs and nearly $70,000 in livestock assistance to producers who lost grazing areas, said Elizabeth Miller, a program specialist with the Maryland FSA office.

Since drought came so late in the growing season this year and did not cause significant crop loss, farmers will not receive government assistance.

"They would have to have a 40 percent loss of crops overall in order for us to even apply to implement that program in a county," said Barbara Clugston, Harford County executive director of the FSA.

Although it rained about an inch more than average in the region this year, September was the 10th-driest September in Baltimore in the past 135 years, according to the National Weather Service.

"It's just amazing it went so quickly in the last five or six weeks from what was a very good pasture year," Boniface said.

Boniface, who does not grow his own hay, said that he has not yet noticed a hay price increase, but the additional weeks of hay dependence will add up.

"A half a ton of hay a day in October -- I don't know what the percentage will be, but it's going to cost me more, I know that," Boniface said.

Hay prices might increase by 25 percent to 30 percent, said Marlyn Flaharty, owner and operator of The Mill, a livestock feed supplier with locations in Bel Air, Whiteford and Black Horse.

"Our hay crops have suffered about 50 percent," he said, calling the months of September and October "a loss."

In some auctions, hay usually priced between $100 and $150 per ton has increased to as much as $150 to $200 a ton, said Lester Vough, forage crops specialist with Maryland Cooperative Extension in College Park.

Pennsylvania, which usually could supply hay to Maryland, was hit with drought earlier in the year and in "some areas in central and southeast Pennsylvania hay supplies are reduced by two-thirds to three-quarters," Vough said.

Illinois, Canada and Nebraska could be sources of hay supply for Maryland, said Vough, who added that shipping long distance with increased fuel prices could elevate hay costs.

Not only are farmers grappling with the cost of purchasing six extra weeks of hay supply, dry pastures have hurt profits for dairy farmers, whose cows are not producing as much milk without moist grass to eat.

Ralph Ball, a Churchville dairy and beef farmer, said he had to start feeding his 80 dairy cows hay about a month and a half ago.

Because the cows are not able to pasture feed, they are down 1,000 pounds of milk production from this time last year, he said.

The drought is affecting a lot of people, he said.

On the farm

Ted Shelsby is on an extended leave of absence. He will resume writing his "On the Farm" column when he returns.

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