July 23, 2013

Maine hay farmers struggle to stay afloat

One of the wettest Junes on record in central Maine puts hay farmers way behind schedule.

By PAUL KOENIG Kennebec Journal

Andy Baker said he should have more than 7,000 bales of hay harvested by now.

click image to enlarge

Maynard Whitten checks the dryness of hay with a pitchfork that his son, Dwight, teds with a tractor Monday, July 22, 2013 at their Manchester, Maine farm. The Whitten's have only cut 10 of the 60 acres of fields at the farm for hay this season because of heavy, consistent rainfall.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Instead, because of an unusually wet June, he has harvested only around 1,300 bales.

"Usually I'm all done first cut by the first week in July, and I haven't hardly got started," Baker, of Monmouth, said Monday.

He and other farmers have reported that the heavy, consistent rainfall in June and the beginning of July prevented them from harvesting and lowered the hay's quality.

Farmers who also grow hay for a second cutting are hoping for more favorable conditions – warm and dry – in the coming weeks, but Tuesday's forecast calls for rain again.

This past June has been one of the wettest in central Maine history.

In Augusta, only three years have had more rainfall in June than the 7.76 inches that fell this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, which has been measuring rainfall at the Augusta State Airport since 1948.

Of the five wettest Junes, four came in the past decade.

There was never a stretch of more than three days last month without rain. Some farmers who were unable to bring machinery on their wet fields all month said that it has been one of the worst seasons they can remember.

While farmers wait for the hay to dry enough to cut and bale, the quality declines.

The preharvest nutrient level of the grasses begins dropping in June, according to Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Kersbergen said nutrients move from the stalks and leaves to the seeds when the plants mature.

"Once the hay crop quality goes down, the only thing that's going to help is the second crop being of good quality," he said.

The effect of the lower nutrient level may be felt by farmers raising livestock. Farmers will have to supplement their hay with more grain, most of which is imported from out of state, Kersbergen said.

Jeremiah Smith, owner of Clemedow Farm in Monmouth, said the growing season from the middle of May to the middle of July has been the wettest he can remember in his 57 years on the farm.

He grows hay for his 100 dairy cows, 60 replacement cows and nine beef cows. Smith, who sells milk to Oakhurst Dairy, said the poorer quality will hurt.

"It will mean less milk when we feed it in the winter or it will mean a higher grain bill because we'll have to feed a higher protein grain to make up for the poor quality of forage," he said.

Smith said he might have to spend $3,000 to $5,000 more on grain from fall to spring.

Charlie Kent, a farmer in Benton, drove his tractor as workers stacked bales Monday, trying to get the crop in before the expected rain over the next two days.

Kent said his crop is behind as well.

"Too much rain in the spring and not enough time to dry cut hay this summer," he said.

Maynard Whitten, who owns a farm in Manchester, said rain has prevented him from baling his farm's first, and only, hay harvest.

"Rain, rain, rain. There's just no way of getting it in," Whitten said. "I don't know anyone that's had luck getting much in."

Logan Johnston of Oaklands Farm in Gardiner said his hay harvest had been going well until constant rain showers in the middle of June.

Johnston, who raises beef cattle, said he usually harvests a little more than 10,000 bales a year for his cattle and to sell.

He said he usually has finished his first cutting by July 4, but he still hasn't and he might not bother, waiting instead for the second harvest.

"Most likely, everybody's yields are going to be down this summer, and the quality won't be quite what we're used to," he said.

"The bottom line is it's been really tough," Johnston added.

Morning Sentinel photographer David Leaming contributed to this report.

Paul Koenig can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

pkoenig@mainetoday.com 

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