Farming: The cost of a wet year

Gordon Speirs
Farmers have been battling wet field conditions since last fall, making the process of getting crops in and out of the fields a struggle.

This is not a letter to be seen as me complaining, but stating the reality of our industry's situation. When I refer to “we” I mean the agricultural industry.

Yesterday’s rain felt like the final dagger in the heart over a very difficult year. 

When did it start? Really 13 months ago when it started raining in early September and was wet through the fall.  We did not finish our field work properly before freeze up and did not get the manure pits empty. 

This carried into a wet spring. We first realized that much of the alfalfa hay crops did not survive the winter. Normally we plant new alfalfa before May 1. But it was still wet and we could not get in the fields. 

There was a small window to plant corn around May 22, then the rains came again.  Most of the corn was finally planted by June 12 into less than ideal conditions. Some of the poorer fields had another chance around June 22.

So by May 23, we knew this was going to be a delayed harvest based on planting date.

Hay harvest

Normally we take four cuttings of hay.  The first three were challenged by wet field conditions not allowing equipment in the field to make ruts, as we did not want to harm the remaining acres that survived the winter. We have a fourth cutting of hay that was due to be harvested on September 10 still in the field. 

Now 30 days later we are waiting for a killing frost to allow us to harvest this crop. But with the ground still so soft we we still are not sure when we can get equipment in the fields.

The costs

Financial: Normally we need a silage chopper with four trucks to make up one chopping team. With the wet fields, we now need three tractors and dump carts at $130 each per hour. We also need a skid steer to clean roads as we will need the dump carts to come onto the town roads to dump the silage into the semi-trailers.

People: We just added four people for a chopping team. People are hard to find: the hours are long and the job is frustrating.

Productivity: Using dump carts we can come close to normal production in harvest, until things start getting stuck in the mud. And when the chopper gets stuck, we go from 90% efficiency to zero while sorting that out.

Days to freeze up: In a normal year silage harvest is completed around Oct. 1. This year we are starting on Oct. 10.  As a dairy industry, we need to get the crop in and then return the manure to the fields. This window is now only half as long as last year, yet we have more challenging conditions and shorter time to accomplish the task.

The fields: Compaction and the damage harvest will do to the soil structure will not be fixed in one year. We will see decreased yields in the coming years for sure.

The community: Your roads will be muddy and blocked off at times to facilitate necessary options to accomplish harvest.

Emotionally: Until this is done, it will be really hard to have a good day.  Every day will seem like a battle. This will be reflected in our families and also how we relate to each other, our workers and our service providers (equipment dealers, etc.). We will all try to have a good attitude, but the fun left this year a long time ago.

Financially: Again. In what has been a struggling agriculture economy for four years, has finally seen some price relief in the dairy sector. However, it feels like we will be giving all of our profits back again this year due to the added cost, and reduced yields of this harvest.

In closing, we have six weeks to get eight weeks of work done before freeze up. I ask everyone to be patient and understanding. Yes, vehicles are going to get muddy. You will be delayed in your travels.

Please also remember this is where your food comes from. Next time you order a pizza, this is the effort that was put forth to put the cheese on it.

Like we in agriculture do every day, I am heading out this morning with an attitude to be victorious in the conditions that are presented. Should you have time, say a little prayer for the ag community each day. It can’t hurt.

Gordon Speirs is the owner and general manager of Shiloh Dairy LLC. in Brillion, Wis.