Dry weather yields mixed results for Va. farmers
Dry weather with unusually hot temperatures is combining to give some Virginia farmers problems and others an uninterrupted harvest window.
The Drought Monitor released Sept. 12 showed four areas of abnormally dry weather and three of moderate drought. As of Sept. 9, 77 percent of the state’s farmland was found lacking in topsoil moisture. It hadn’t rained for several weeks in many rural communities, and even Hurricane Dorian didn’t bring much relief.
Dave Wirt, managing meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, said in a telephone interview that much of the area has seen a one-to three-inch deficit in rainfall in the past month or two. After about 18 months of abnormally wet weather the contrast is greater than usual, he added.
Wirt said it has been years since there has been the rapid drying of grasses and water sources farmers have experienced this year.
“Things can change rapidly,” he said. He noted that September and October are typically dry months but said that could change. A rainy period could develop or tropical moisture could arrive. The tropics were active although there was no storm in the forecast when he spoke Sept. 12.
“Everybody was at a critical stage last week and just knew we were going to get some rain out of Dorian. But only a slice of Southeast Virginia got rain; everyone else was missed,” said Robert Harper, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation grain marketing manager on Sept. 12. “Soybeans are suffering, and the last hay cutting will be light. I’ve been feeding hay to cattle at the farm I rent in Powhatan since mid-August. It stinks to see the season end on such a dry note.”
Fortunately, most the state’s field crops are estimated to be in fair to excellent condition, according a recent National Agricultural Statistics Service report. Virginia’s corn crop was ranked fair to excellent in 93 percent of fields, and 96 percent of cotton is in similar condition.
Pastures and hay fields are the crops adversely affected.
The good news for corn growers is the dry conditions have allowed them to harvest quickly this fall. As of early September, 45 percent of the state’s corn for grain harvest was complete, compared to a five-year average of 24 percent. Corn harvest for silage was at 79 percent.
“Most of them have not had to stop,” Harper said. “And without a lot of rain events, the corn has dried down in the field. That encourages them to keep the combines rolling. Those who have bins to dry their corn are basically done.”
Conditions outlined on the Drought Monitor stretched in pockets from Southwest Virginia across the Central areas to the Tidewater. Northern areas did not fall into either category. Wirt noted most of the area south of Roanoke are especially dry.
“Weather conditions remain mostly dry,” the USDA reported on Sept. 9. “Little to no rain accumulated from Hurricane Dorian. Precipitation amounts varied, but were limited. Farmers and their advisors agreed with the agency that pastures and crops are continuing to show drought stress.
“We’re getting pretty dry,” Phil Blevins, Extension agent in Washington County, reported Sept. 12. “The big thing is pastures.”
Blevins said his county is not as dry as some neighboring counties. He had received one call from Tazewell County looking for hay. Several Tazewell people at a recent field day reported it is severely dry there.
Chris Thompson with the Virginia Department of Forestry, said the lack of rain is causing trees to become a little stressed. Leaves are turning and dropping early. The heat index the department uses shows the soils are drying out, Thompson added. If this continues another month it could cause a dangerous fire season.
The USDA reported from several farmers and advisors on the conditions.
“We remain dry here,” Laura Siegle in Amelia County said. “The hurricane did not bring much precipitation to our county.”
In Caroline and Prince George counties, Extension agent Mike Broaddus reported parts of the counties were severely dry.
“Hot and dry conditions accelerated loss of soil moisture, and led to rapidly deteriorating pasture conditions in Rockbridge,” Extension agent Tom Stanley said. “Corn silage harvest is essentially complete, but some producers have forage sorghums they still plan to chop. Silage crops dried down very rapidly causing concern for ensiling quality. A few farms that are stocked more heavily have had to start feeding hay.”
Extension agent Cynthia Martel said that in Franklin County farms have finished chopping corn silage. She reported some farmers have been feeding hay for over two months due to the dry conditions.
“Any hay just cut will have a hard time recovering without rain,” Martel stated. “Ponds in the county are seeing large algae blooms.”
“Dry conditions and heat have taken their toll on peanuts and soybeans this week,” Scott Reiter, Extension agent in Prince George County said. “Plants are wilting throughout the afternoon each day.”
“We had two heat waves this summer—one in July and one at the end of August. That took a lot of life out of hayfields and pastures,” Harper said. “I was up at the west end of Goochland County last weekend, and people are baling hay and pastures are great. But you go one county north to Orange and it’s dry, dry, dry.”
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