Manitowoc farmers survive tough growing season
MANITOWOC - This has been one of the toughest growing seasons for Manitowoc County farmers in many years, a local agriculture expert says.
The struggles started with a warmer-than-usual winter and a cold, wet spring, which caused farmers in the region to lose, on average, 60 to 65 percent of their alfalfa crops. That was followed by a cool, rainy summer, which delayed corn planting and harvesting. And a swath of Manitowoc County crops were decimated by heavy hail in July.
Farmers will finish up the last of the harvesting in coming weeks and plan for next year, hoping for steady winter temperatures that lead to a constant snow cover to protect plants for better growth in 2018.
“I guess the best thing to say is that all things considered, our crops are better than I would have guessed given all the challenges we had this year,” said Scott Gunderson, agriculture specialist for the University of Wisconsin Extension in Manitowoc County. “It’s looking a lot better than I thought 3½ months ago. I didn’t think alfalfa would come through the way it did.”
This year, at least 10,000 of the 18,000 acres of alfalfa plantings in the county failed and farmers had to replant fields with crops such as peas or soybeans.
“People did sorghum, cereal grains, trying to get enough feed,” he said.
Ideally, plants will incubate under a steady 6-8 inches of snow throughout the cold of winter. This past winter, northeastern Wisconsin experienced several melts and sleet fall while February temperatures jumped into the 60s and even 70s, which encouraged plants to start growing. Melting snow and sleet also traveled to lower parts of fields, forming harmful sheets of ice on the tops of plants as temperatures returned to freezing.
Spring was cold and extremely wet, leading to spring injury to crops. Those cool, damp conditions continued into summer, causing planting and harvesting to fall behind. And as crops failed, many had to revise planting plans and buy more seed to replant fields.
“Farmers also have to buy feed for cows, an expense they weren’t planning on,” Gunderson said. “And some will have to buy hay and straw for bedding, another unplanned expense. Farmers will make it through. They are eternal optimists.”
A few recent weeks of dry, hot weather allowed many Manitowoc County farmers to get into fields to harvest corn and soybeans, he said. Some farmers have finished harvesting corn for silage, while some will be done in a few weeks.
That, on top of low milk prices, has been a challenge for farmers throughout Wisconsin. Gunderson noted milk prices have been stagnant for three years, at about $15 to $16 per 100 pounds. Since it costs about $17 to produce 100 pounds of milk, farmers are losing money.
“Farmers understand prices are cyclical,” he said. “But this is tough.”
Throughout Wisconsin, he’s heard from farmers and agribusinesses that accounts payable are increasing, meaning farms that could pay off bills in a month now are taking several months.
“Most dairy farms are being hit by the low prices,” Gunderson said.
One thing farmers have on their side are feed reserves from 2016’s great growing season, when farmers could get in early and weather was ideal.
“This year has been one of the most challenging I’ve seen,” Gunderson said. “It’s stressful for farmers. It’s not only the weather, we need milk prices to work themselves out. But farmers are always looking ahead. One farmer told me this morning, ‘You have to put your nose down and deal with it.’”