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Drought affecting lab farm operations

September 27, 2012

Drought affects fruit research field
Because of the drought, the fruit research field now has to be watered regularly to compensate for the lack of water provided by the seasonal rains. (Megan Rodriguez/Student Voice)

The UW-River Falls laboratory farms are feeling the effects of costly feed for livestock, which is rising due to the drought that started as early as last year, according to officials.

According to Bill Connolly, laboratory farm director, the signs of a drought began in the winter of 2011, which left the Midwest with little snow. In the spring, rains were timely and they did help but there was not enough to recharge the ground moisture and help with the crops. By summer, the end to the dryness was nowhere in sight.

“Everything seems to be starting early this year and with that came dry weather,” said Connolly.

According to The Weather Channel website, the average precipitation total in August in River Falls is about 4.75 inches. This year, we received a low 2.27 inches. In September the average precipitation total is 3.68 inches and as of September 25, we have received just 0.78 inches.

“As the summer went on, it started to hit that the crops weren’t doing well,” said Connolly.

He said that although there are some fields on the lab farms that aren’t doing well, there are some that are doing fairly well with holding their moisture, and have produced a good number of yields of corn and alfalfa.

Connolly explained that the lab farms are 25 to 30 days ahead of schedule with their last cut of alfalfa. Usually they would be making their last cut some time around Labor Day but this year they were cutting it around August 5 through August 10. The positive side, though, is the farm did manage to get four cuts of alfalfa this year, which is the average amount of cuts the farm usually makes.

Corn is proving to have more difficulties with the drought than other crops and the effects of the shortage are already starting to hit. The average bushels of corn harvested per year are about 190 to 200. This year, the farm is expecting between 140 to 160 bushels. Less bushels means they’ll have to purchase more to keep livestock fed. Corn around $4 or $5 last spring and has increased due to the shortage of crops.

“I’m not very thrilled on paying $7.50 to $8 for corn to feed pigs,” said Connolly. “People that raise hogs are saying that they aren’t going to feed their hogs this expensive corn so they are selling them.”

This could be a challenge for companies that produce pork products. Although the pork prices could go down, there will be too much of it and eventually they will need to figure out storage arrangements. Connolly has expressed that it is a concern when farmers are paying high prices to feed the hogs but are only getting 60 cents a pound, or less, for the meat.

The budget for the lab farms is based on revenue and if the revenue isn’t as much as it has been previous years it will affect the budget. Although it hasn’t become a concern Connolly explained that if the drought were to get worse or had been worse it would affect the student employees getting paid and the amount that would be hired. To reduce costs for the lab farms, Chair of Animal and Food Science Gary Onan, said that the school has decided to reduce the number of horses that are on the lab farms, as well, due to hay prices.

There will be 10 horses auctioned off at a Quarter Horse sale on October 27 in Cannon Falls, Minn. to reduce the total feed expense for campus. It was confirmed with professors that they would still be able to accurately teach their classes with the number of horses still kept at the lab farm.

Currently the plan to auction off animals is only being focused on the horses, but if the time comes to start looking at other animals, Onan suspects that swine would be next, although he isn’t certain that it will come to that point. Onan also said that out of roughly 40 years he’s been in crop production, he’s experienced drought in five or six of those years.

“I would say this year has been in the top two in severity,” he said.

He said his crop outside of Ellsworth is excellent but the land that he rents out is not doing too well. “Your own personal experience can vary on location,” said Onan.

Onan and Connolly both agree that even though the drought is proving tough for agriculture, it is a good learning experience for students. “From a teaching standpoint we can create some case studies or scenarios,” said Onan. “It’s a completely new territory with teaching and a real life experience to use in class.”