Local farm crops dinged by wet summer

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Most local farm crops have taken a hit in quantity and quality this year, according to several Williston dairy farmers.

With fall harvests nearly complete, farmers say it’s clear the wet spring and summer negatively affected the crops they need to feed their cows this winter.

North Williston Cattle Co. yields are down 10 to 15 percent, according to Mary Whitcomb, wife of Lorenzo Whitcomb, the farm’s co-owner. Quality, however, is fine, she said. Conant’s Riverside Farm only harvested 65 percent of the corn they expected, and 85 percent of the hay, according to co-owner Kim Conant. Quality, he added, is “pretty decent.”

“We’re going to have enough (feed for the cows), but it’s going to be a lot closer than what we’d like to be,” Conant said. “We’re going to have to cut into our reserve that we carry over for situations like this.”

Mike Fontaine, who owns a farm on North Williston Road, said he has enough bailed hay, but is about 25 percent short on corn and chopped hay. He said he is hoping he’ll have enough feed to last the winter. If he doesn’t, he may have to consider unloading some cows.

“We’ll get by,” he said. “We’ll feed them rocks,” he joked, nodding his head in the direction of a big pile of them.

The quality of Fontaine’s crops has suffered, he said. He likes to see hay with a protein content of 20 to 22 percent, he said; recent tests show his chopped hay at 16 percent.

Farmers cut crops like hay multiple times during the summer so the hay continues growing. Wet weather and muddy fields make it hard to harvest; if hay stays in the field past its maturity, many of its nutrients are lost into the soil.

“That means (the cows) are not going to produce the milk that they should be,” said Michael Bruce, a dairy farmer on Oak Hill Road.

This year he said he’s already seeing that. Normally each of his cows produces 40 pounds of milk a day, Bruce said. Currently they’re yielding an average of 37.

“If it’s three pounds a cow (a day), it can add up pretty fast,” Bruce said. “That’s less money.”

To offset the loss in protein, both Bruce and Fontaine said they’ll need to buy higher-quality, more expensive grains than usual.

All of the farms received some grant money from the state government in the last five months. Early in the summer, the governor and legislators announced an $8.9 million emergency relief package, most of it targeting dairy farmers.

None of the four farms have pursued the federal low-interest loans made available after the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated Vermont a primary natural disaster area in June. Fontaine said he’s exploring that option this week.

Conant said that though the price of fuel has come down, it wasn’t early enough to affect the cropping season. Milk price predictions for winter, he said, are still lower than what it takes to produce the milk in Vermont.

Fontaine agreed.

“The price of milk still sucks,” he said. “That’s been the biggest kicker for us.”