Some Farmers Pray for Rain, Others Want Cold to Stay Away

4/21/2012 10:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

EPHRATA, Pa. — The early bloom and subsequent frost weren’t good for Tom Hass’ cherries. It will likely mean fewer cherries this summer for the pick-your-own crowd at his Cherry Hill Orchards.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t get cold again here. If we can keep what we have, we’ll still be in the game,” said Haas, co-owner of the orchard and farm market just south of Lancaster.

Meanwhile, Lebanon County dairy farmer Calvin Miller is hoping for some much-needed rain to stock up on feed for his 200 cows.

“We’re doing a lot of praying right now,” Miller said.

After a mild winter, which resulted in early blooms and gave farmers the chance to get an early start on field work, it’s gotten quite dry in some areas.

There is some hope that rain will return over the weekend. Earlier this week, the National Weather Service was calling for rain on Sunday and Monday and a chance of showers Tuesday.

While fruit trees are blooming, with cherries, peaches and apples off to a fast start, it’s made them more vulnerable to sudden cold snaps.

Tara Baugher, a Penn State tree fruit Extension educator in Adams County, said growers are wary of more cold weather and the potential damage it could cause.

Apples, according to this week’s USDA Crop Progress Report, are well ahead of schedule, with 83 percent of the Pennsylvania crop in the “pink” stage. About 14 percent is normal for this time of year.

Baugher said some fruits, depending on the variety, will become even more susceptible to damage from frost and freeze cycles if they continue maturing earlier than normal.

“Well, there is a lot of uncertainty as you can imagine,” she said.

She said cherries, which were some of the first fruits to bloom, have experienced the most damage from recent cold temperatures, which in some areas dipped below freezing for the first time in weeks.

Much of Haas’ 23 acres of cherries experienced damage as a result.

“We’re not completely wiped out, but they got thinned out pretty good,” he said.

Hass has become accustomed to early blooms. This past winter, he did less pruning on his peaches as a hedge against early blooms and possible damage due to cold weather.

When it comes to field crops, rain is needed.

The U.S. Drought Monitor has classified areas of the Delmarva Peninsula, including most of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore as being in a “severe drought” along with most of Connecticut, Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts.

Much of the rest of the region is classified as being in a “moderate” drought or “abnormally dry.”

For farmers still reeling from a season where hot, dry conditions last summer reduced hay cuttings and forage supply, and record downpours in the fall delayed harvest and damaged many fields, the last thing that’s needed is a drought.

Miller said he’s trying to manage the feed he has on hand and hopes the rain will start rejuvenating his pastures, which he can’t even use right now.

His rye, which normally would be more than 20 inches tall at this time, is barely pushing 12 inches and has turned a bluish color, which he said is likely due to less mineral content. He said he’ll have to supplement minerals if he feeds it to his animals.

Given the price of milk and high price of hay, forage and other input costs, Miller expects a tight profit margin for the foreseeable future.

“The profit margin right now is very slim,” he said.

David Fink, who owns Heidel Hollow Farm in Slatington, Lehigh County, said his rye is only half of what it should be this time of year.

“It is awfully dry,” Fink said. “The only thing that’s really impacted right now is the small grains and grass. The rest of the crops, they don’t really need a whole lot of moisture yet.”

Fink grows about 600 acres in grasses, including 70 acres of barley and 200 acres of wheat. His first cutting usually happens the third week of May.

He said the first cutting could really benefit from a good soaking rain. But tonnage, he said, will likely be less than normal.

“The grasses and in particular, small grains, are going to be hurt,” he said. “The rain will come . Hopefully it will come when we need it.”

Jeff Graybill, a Penn State Extension agronomist in Lancaster County, said he’s found some frost-injured alfalfa as a result of early emergence.

He said alfalfa tends to become even less frost tolerant as it matures.

Many farmers in the county were in the fields in early March, trying to get a good start on field work. He said most fields he’s seen are in good shape and it could be a good time to get out and plant corn.

“It’s dry but it’s dry and cool. So I would keep on planting the corn. The corn will wait for rain,” Graybill said.

Mena Hautau, Extension agronomist in Berks County, said she’d be a little hesitant to plant corn, especially in more heavy soils.

Much of the early tillage that farmers performed in late winter, she said, is now causing problems since tillage tends to release moisture into the atmosphere. Lack of rain makes that situation even worse.

Hautau’s main concern, though, is forage and whether farmers can make up for last year’s short crop.

Greg Roth, professor of agronomy at Penn State, said farmers should look at alternatives to hedge against a possible drought, including devoting some acres to forage sorghum, which he said does well in dry soils.

“It’s historically been a notch below corn silage, but there have been some improvements over the years,” he said.

Some varieties now have better digestibility and when combined with corn silage, forage quality is not impacted that much, Roth said.

It is also cheaper than corn silage to grow. In the most recent Penn State field crop newsletter, Roth pointed to a study done in Missouri that found planting sorghum instead of corn saved $195 an acre.

“There could be some opportunity for trying forage sorghum,” he said.

Marvin Hall, professor of forage management at Penn State, said farmers could plant some annual warm-season grasses as an alternative, since they tend to grow better in dry conditions.

But he hopes a good, steady rain will turn things around soon.

“Lack of moisture is keeping everything short. We might not get the tonnage we need. But if we get a good rain this weekend, this will be old news,” he said.


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