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Tue., Oct. 6
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Drought could soon spell disaster for north country farmers


According to a popular myth, rain always comes on the one night you accidently leave your car window open; if that theory were a proven fact, every farmer in the north country would be frantically rolling their windows down.

Superstitious or not, farmers are now begging Mother Nature for showers. This month’s streak of arid, high temperatures with next to no rain is slowly draining the lifeblood out of corn and hay crops in Northern New York.

Temperatures recorded at Watertown International Airport in Dexter were above 80 degrees for 16 of the first 17 days this month, and over 90 degrees on two of those days. Over the same span, a mere 0.19 inches of rainfall were recorded.

Although some farms in the county have gotten more rain than others, growers say their corn crops are starting to sprout at much shorter than the normal 10-foot average summer height, about half the size in some cases. Farmers now are changing harvest strategies to make sure their livestock have enough feed for next year. Some say they will cut more acres of corn to produce silage for cattle rather than harvesting later with a combine to produce grain.

While growers have been saying they need more rain since June, corn crops have now reached their critical growth stage when the plants start to tassel and develop ears. If rain doesn’t fall in the next two weeks, the corn will begin to grow ears without any kernels because it won’t be able to pollinate properly, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.

Most farms have about one to two weeks before the plants begin to pollinate. During that process, pollen is delivered from the plant’s tassels to its silks, the thin, white strands wrapped around the ears. Without adequate water, plants will either deliver pollen sooner than the silks grow, or later when the silks are dead because of the heat.

“We’ve reached a four-week critical window where the corn crops are saying they need some moisture right now,” Mr. Hunter said. “When the silk and tassel don’t come out at the right time, we’ll get barren ears with no kernels. If we don’t get any rain in the next two weeks, yield losses for grain could be 40 to 50 percent down.”

Crop yields for corn silage already are expected to be down about 10 to 20 percent at most fields, he said, which would drop the average yield amount of 18 tons per acre to about 15. He said most corn fields have begun tasseling when the plants are only about 6 to 7 feet high.

Dairy farmer Lyle J. Wood, who co-owns a farm in Cape Vincent with Scott F. Bourcy, said that his 1,200 acres of corn and 800 acres of alfalfa hay are showing major signs of drought stress. The farm has only chalked up 0.23 inches of rainfall so far this month.

“Some of our corn is starting to die and turn brown from the bottom up because plants are sucking the ground dry,” Mr. Bourcy said. “If we don’t get rain in the next SEVEN days, it’s not going to be good.”

He said absorbing rain now is particularly crucial for the roughly 300 acres of corn that have begun to tassel. The co-owners had planned to harvest 400 acres for grain.

“If we don’t get rain when it’s tasseling, we’ll either mow it off or chop it to use for silage instead,” he said. “We’ll be peeling back corn without any kernels.”

Mr. Wood said an additional 200 acres of corn were planted this year to harvest grain to sell. That plan already has been tossed, though, because the farm’s 700 head of cattle will need all the food they can get. “We planned on getting our cash flow going, but not anymore,” he said.

Most growers don’t expect to harvest much hay during their second cutting in August, either. Farmers who typically bale hay to sell to neighboring farms are now saving it for their own cattle.

“If this weather continues, there won’t be any hay to harvest,” Mr. Wood said. “There’s no hay to buy, either. You could look around and ask 100 people and still not find any.”

Some dairy farmers, like John D. Lassen of Belleville, are more optimistic. Luckily, Mr. Lassen said his farm — which has 180 acres of corn and 120 of alfalfa hay — drew 1.4 inches of rain on July 1, while the rest of the county barely received any.

The crops are “still in good shape but, if it doesn’t rain in two weeks, we’re all going to be in trouble,” he said. “We’re going to have corn with no ears, or it’s going to start drying up like it is in Iowa and Virginia. I’ve heard farmers who’ve been here for 25 years say they’ve never seen it this dry.”

Mr. Hunter said the only rain now on the extended forecast is slated for Monday, with a mere 40 percent chance.

And, as if Mother Nature hasn’t been cruel enough, a second generation of army worms has begun to appear at farms across the southern half of the county, Mr. Hunter said.

The brown-and-green-colored worms — about 1.5 inches at full size — are the result of the first outbreak in early June, Mr. Hunter said, which had time to grow to full size and pupate into moths again, laying more eggs in grassy fields.

“We’ve got an extremely high population of second-generation army worms,” said Mr. Hunter, who scouted fields south of the Black River last Friday and on Monday. “It may not be as widespread, but fields that were impacted before will likely be at risk.”

Because the second generation is expected to migrate in the same pattern as the first, he said, “farms north of the Black River aren’t expected to get them for probably a week or 10 days.”

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