Will the summer of 2012 be remembered by southern Wisconsin farmers as the "year of 100 degree temperatures and no rain?"
Or, as some folks (the doom sayers) insist, the year when global warming came to fruition in the Midwest?
Time will tell. But for now, the lack of rain from mid-June to late July along with searing temperatures in early July was enough to make 2012 a big challenge for farmers in a wide area from southern Wisconsin to Missouri and all along the nation's corn belt.
The big picture: In June, the USDA estimated a U.S. corn yield of a record 14.8 billion bushels with an average yield of 146 bushels per acre. Latest guestimates show a corn crop of 9.9 bushels with an average yield of about 118 bushels per acre.
That's a lot of corn that won't be harvested, sold by farmers, fed to livestock or enter the world market.
The result could be high prices for those who have corn to sell and for sure it also means higher prices for farmers who feed livestock and for those who milk cows.
The close-up picture: The southern third of Wisconsin has already suffered major losses in the corn crop. Iinstead of hard corn to be harvested this fall, some of the crop is already in the silo or bunker. The result will be a shortage of homegrown corn for grain this winter with big checks written for corn and alternate grains to keep the cows milking.
Many organic dairy farmers are already using stored winter feed to replace pastures that are dried up and are trying to figure out what their cows will be eating next December, January, February and March.
an organic dairy adapts
The Green Family Farm is located about 10 miles west of Monroe, near Browntown, "on the banks of the Jordan" (Creek, that is) in southern Green county. This area has often been pointed out as the heart of the Wisconsin drought area that extends south through the corn belt.
In September 2001 (in fact, on 9/1/11), Joe and Joyce Green moved from their rented farm at Warren, IL, just south of the Wisconsin border, to this 205-acre farm. They bought baled hay and a silo full of silage for the 53 cows they had brought with them.
"We were renting on a 50-50 basis," Joe says. "Our landlord was a lawyer living in Oklahoma who treated us very well, but we had been looking to have our own farm for some time and this one came up for sale. "
Son Matthew, a University of Illinois crop sciences graduate who was farming with his parents and his wife Dawn, a microbiologist working at Roche NimbelGen in Madison, were already living in Monroe.
"I had worked with Pioneer Hi-Breds as a corn breeder for two years," Matt says. "I knew that corn and other crops could be raised without chemical fertilizer and other chemical inputs, so thought organic dairying was the way to go."
A family corporation, Green Family Farm consisting of Joe, Joyce and Matthew was formed and the farm began to grow. The dairy herd increased over the next few years to 140 cows and, in 2004, a freestall barn and a double-six Universal milking parlor were added.
In the mid-2000s, the farm began a three-year process to convert to an organic status and, in 2009, became a milk producer for Organic Valley Co-op at LaFarge.
A couple of years ago, a 100-acre farm a mile-and-a-half down the road, which they had been renting, came up for sale. It was already being farmed organically, so fit well into into the family farming operation.
Matt and Dawn Green bought it and now live there with their four children: Joseph (10), Faye (8), Gianna (5) and Maryella (3).
They also milk 30 cows at this site.
Joe and Matt admit the drought hit them along with other dairy producers as milk flow began dropping with the extreme heat.
The pastures in their intensive-rotational grazing program turned brown and they moved to feeding their winter ration. This meant feeding haylage out of their two silos and wrapped baled hay they had put up this spring.
"We had planted oats, tritacale and peas on some of our normal corn acres this spring, Joe explains. "This was to control a weed problem in our corn, something common to organic farming. This was a great decision."
That ground, after the crops went into the silo, has been planted to sorghum, sudan and forage turnips for fall grazing.
After harvesting a great crop of wheat this spring, the Greens seeded sorghum and soybeans that will hopefully go into the silo this fall.
The third crop of hay was baled last week. They got 47 big bales (1,200 pounds), as compared to a normal crop of about 70 bales.
"It's not a big crop, Joe says. "But, it all counts."
They also feel they might get a fourth and fifth crop of hay - if the rains fall at the right time.
Their corn and newly planted crops have thrived with the late rains. In fact, the corn planted in fields that the Greens call "bottom lands" look great and could result in a good yield of grain corn.
All in all, with a bit of luck, the Greens feel they may get through this bad year without buying feed.
The 140 milk cows and young stock at the Green Family Farm have a bit of a different look than many Wisconsin dairy herds what with black heifers with white faces, red-and-white heifers and regular black-and-white animals.
Joe explains that beginning in 2003 they have been using Fleckvieh sires in a cross breeding program. They have also bred their big Holsteins to Jerseys and used Norwegian Red breeding in crossing over the years.
The father and son team say they were looking for cows that would thrive under grazing conditions, have more strength and better fertility. So far they are well-pleased with the cross breeding program.
A bit of optimism
Of course the drought has had an impact on the Green Family Farm as it has had on all southern Wisconsin farmers. But Joe and Matt say their corn is all pollinated and growing well after the rains.
"Maybe because we planted late," they say. "We have 102-, 105- and 110-day corn and the 110-day looks the best."
All in all, the Greens are confident with the directions they took during this drought year and look to the future with optimism.
No one knows what the rest of the growing season will bring, but a ride through rural roads will let one see unbelievable improvement in crops over the past three weeks.
Yes, there will be hard corn. How much and the amount will not be known for some time, but it would be easy to be a bit optimistic when looking at the green fields of corn and soybeans.
Without doubt, some dairy farms will go out of business for lack of feed and/or finances to buy it. However, as in 1988, most dairy farmers will find feed and survive.
Never underestimate the ingenuity, inventiveness and innovative abilities of dairy farmers. One way or another, most will be around long after the drought doing what they do so well - dairying.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.