Dry season tough on some Maine farmers’ hay crop

Ann Kenny and her husband, Mike, bale hay Monday, May 24, 2010 at one of their Orono fields. The couple began cutting hay last week, which Kenny said was two to three weeks ahead of schedule. &quotWe didn't make the first cut until August last year," Kenny said because of the rain. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY BRIDGET BROWN
BDN
Ann Kenny and her husband, Mike, bale hay Monday, May 24, 2010 at one of their Orono fields. The couple began cutting hay last week, which Kenny said was two to three weeks ahead of schedule. "We didn't make the first cut until August last year," Kenny said because of the rain. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY BRIDGET BROWN
Posted Aug. 19, 2010, at 11:42 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Spots of summer drought in some areas of Maine are diminishing the yields of crops for some farmers this August.

The summer season hasn’t been bad this year compared to last year’s almost endless rainfall, but the heat has left areas west of Skowhegan and in central Maine with very little precipitation. The dry heat has left shallow-rooted crops such as hay with plenty of quality but not as much quantity as June or July crop yields, according to Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“We do need some rain, that’s for sure,” Kersbergen said.

The drought in dry areas of Maine isn’t very severe right now, and farmers are in much better shape than last year, but the last few weeks have been tough as farmers find corn, grass and hay crops yielding less than they had hoped.

“Everybody hoped for a second and third crop. I haven’t seen the volume. I think the quality’s going to be there,” said Xandy Brown, who runs Longmeadows Farm in Benton.

The quantity of Brown’s next crop will likely be smaller than the first, he said. The first crops were “good for everybody,” Brown said, but as the weather has gotten hotter and drier this summer, farmers are finding low yields from grass and hay.

As for vegetable crops, some Maine potato fields could be showing some drought stress, and corn crops are showing a lot, said Kersbergen, who estimates 30 percent to 40 percent of the state is experiencing a drought.

Roger Whitney, who runs R.A. Whitney Farms in Corinna, said his 550 acres of hay and alfalfa and 850 acres of corn had a textbook planting and growing season. His corn was chest-high by the Fourth of July, and so he took that as a sign to add nutrients, but the rainfall his crops needed to absorb those extra nutrients never showed up.

“We’re losing the tonnage we should normally have, and we’ve also lost the ability to get the return,” Whitney said.

Whitney said potato farmers often irrigate because their crop’s susceptibility to drought can justify the expense, but corn is durable enough that irrigation isn’t as viable, which is why he doesn’t use it. He said he’s disappointed the good season didn’t continue the way he had hoped.

Most food crops are grown with irrigation because they are valuable enough to pay for it and therefore aren’t likely facing the same problems shallow-rooted crops are this summer, according to Kersbergen.

“The reason I feel [the drought is] more amplified this year is because we had such a great potential for a bumper crop,” Whitney said. “It was just like the rug was pulled out from underneath you.”

Kersbergen, who advises farmers and homeowners on agriculture, said farmers who grow low-rooted crops mostly do so to feed their livestock. Farmers who end up with less than they need often buy out-of-state feed to make up the difference, which can be expensive.

Brown said he has enough feed for his livestock this year and doesn’t plan on buying any extra, but he may not sell as much as in previous years.

“Overall I honestly can’t complain. It’s been a pretty good year for us, especially in light of last year,” Brown said.

Brown, a fourth-generation farmer, raises pigs and chickens, but mostly beef cattle.

Heavy rainfall doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, according to Kersbergen.

“We need some rain, we need a good soaking rain,” Brown said.

The entire state is currently below normal for groundwater levels, according to BDN archives. Groundwater doesn’t typically bottom out until September, and stream flows are “unprecedented” this year, the United States Geological Survey told the BDN on Monday.

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