Forget 1988. The drought of 2012 is the one that will really be remembered.
That's the opinion being heard in southern Wisconsin as farmers watch their corn quit growing and drying up as record temperatures and only a few drops of rain (if that) has fallen during the crucial corn growing season.
The entire southern cornbelt from Indiana to the bottom third of Wisconsin is in deep trouble unless rain comes very, very soon.
There are fears that it is already too late to salvage much of a hard corn crop and Wisconsin's top five corn for grain producing counties - Dane, Rock, Grant, Lafayette and Dodge - are in the danger area.
Northern Dane county still has green corn, much of which is tasseling. But instead of being a normal height, it's short and leaves are curled. The upper 90-degree to 100-degree temperatures forecast this week may severely (or totally) prevent pollination and kill any potential yield even if rains come.
Green County to the south is worse and it's already too late for some farmers to get hard corn. The corn has already been chopped (what there was of it) and is in silos, bunkers or bags.
Keith Blumer of Plain View Stock Farm, Albany, has cut 300 of his 1,200 acres of corn and may need to chop more shortly if rain doesn't come.
Blumer is not an amateur in the corn raising business - his family hosted Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in 2007 - but he had no choice.
It was a case of take what there was or get nothing. He harvested 5-6 tons per acre, as compared to a normal 18 tons.
The one plus - if that's a gain - is that the early cut corn contained no nitrates and his laboratory test says "can be fed to any animals."
Blumer says he normally sells three quarters of his corn as grain. This year he will have none to sell as the total acreage will go to feeding the heifers he raises on a custom basis.
Bill Endres and his son-in-law Joe Ziegler milk 200 cows on 340 acres at Waunakee in northern Dane County. Their corn is still green, but is a couple feet shorter than normal.
Endres is worried about yield, what with the current hot weather during the crucial pollination period.
They put up two good crops of hay and a bad third crop, but feel they'll have enough feed for their dairy herd even if they must put up all their corn as silage.
They have already made changes in the dairy ration in preparation for a possible corn shortage on advice of their nutritionist Graham Webster, Mt. Horeb.
Keeping cows cool
Several city friends recently asked me how dairy producers kept their cows milking during the 100-degree days of a week ago.
Endres explained how they do it at Woodland Creek Dairy, LLC.
"We have water misters in our free-stall barn," he says. "At 78 degrees, they come on for two minutes and off for 10 minutes; at 82 degrees, they are on for two minutes and off for eight minutes."
Endres says the misters work well, but that the week of high temperatures was a day too long and they lost about nine percent of their production for a few days.
The freestall barn has 12 four-foot fans that create a big air flow across the cattle.
"It's not the water that keeps the cows cool," Endres says. "It's the water evaporation that does it."
Looking back to 1988
It was 24 years ago, in 1988, when the last big drought hit Wisconsin agriculture.
Older farmers remember it, young farmers have heard about it. But memories are foggy after so long and stories are incomplete.
My "Agri-Dairy Business Letter" was already in its fifth year of life, so I wrote about the drought. It seems logical to go back and review some of my thoughts at the time.
June 4, 1988: The lack of rain is the subject of conversation across dairyland. A drive through the countryside is a bit misleading: most corn is up; first crop hay is going in, but crops are standing still.
Bob Luenning, UW-Extension Farm Management expert says this is the time for farmers to take a hard look at their operation: 1) take a feed inventory, 2) project feed needs, 3) look at alternate crops and feeds, 4) test feeds for nutritive value, and 5) put a pencil to the ration, herd and expenses.
June 18, 1988: After 40 days without rain, corn is still growing, first crop hay at 70 percent normal yield, second crop at 50 percent of normal. Hay is being brought in from the west. Good managers are working closely with their nutritionists and looking at alternate feeds and rations. Farmers without herd records, a good nutritionist, casual management practices and short credit are hoping for a miracle.
July 2, 1988: Rain came to much of Wisconsin during the last week of June, but even two plus inches is not enough for the long term. Three weeks ago there was a livestock selloff as dairy herds were culled; prices dropped. Now livestock sales are below normal as farmers caught their breath. Nye Pelton of Midwest Livestock Producers says, "Farmers have decided to hold on as long as possible."
Media outlets quote farmers as expressing scant hopes of survival.
The facts: Most farmers have first crop hay of high quality and corn is alive and well. Farmers are a lot smarter and wiser than often portrayed or than they will admit to being. The good managers will survive; the middle skilled managers will make changes, borrow money and with any luck will get through; Bottom level managers are in much trouble and can't handle more debt.
Dairy processors can only guess as to milk supplies in coming months.
July 16, 1988: It is raining in much of Wisconsin, but the drought is still the number one topic of discussion.
July 30, 1988: Crop conditions vary from farm to farm, with southwest Wisconsin the driest. It's too early to tell much about production and crop damages and if the drought is over.
Aug. 13, 1988: Rains have have come to much of the state and I'm amazed at how many farmers have gotten good hay yields, found hay to buy, had carry-over feed to use, or otherwise adjusted. Some $4 billion in drought relief is expected to be made available to farmers. Details are not known as yet.
Aug. 27, 1988: Heavy rains in recent days have "greened" the countryside and it looks like spring, but corn fields are turning brown. Predictions that milk production will falter are not true, so far. Farmers' attitudes and emotions are suprisingly good - rain and cooler weather did much for both.
Sept. 24, 1988: Rain has fallen in good amounts of 2-4 inches on much of the state in recent days. Too late to do much for the corn and most of the hay crop, but great for the morale of farmers.
At year end, crop production was down about 50 percent from 1987, except for corn silage, which was about normal.
Howard Richards, secretary of Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, summarized the year 1988 in the "1989 Wisconsin Statistics" The summer of 1988 will be remembered as one of the driest on record. The struggles and stress endured by many Wisconsin farmers cannot be measured. Cash receipts from all farm products marketed declined two percent from 1987. Sharply reduced production of feed grains and forage crops resulted in lower income and higher production costs...
Remember, that was in 1988!
2012 is still largely an unknown and every farm and farmer is different, with the weather as key.
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.