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After planting crops early last year, colder weather this spring makes farmers wait

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North country farmers recall planting crops in late March and early April last spring — a month earlier than normal — due to unusually warm weather. That memory has made them restless this spring, though, as they await higher temperatures.

“Every year you think the last year is the norm for weather, but it actually isn’t,” said Arthur F. Baderman, a former Rodman dairy farmer now an agriculture educator at the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension. “Last year was one of those extremes where farmers were pushing the envelope because of the weather. That’s why they’re now ready to start planting crops.”

Another reason farmers are eager to plant hay and corn, he said, is that last summer’s drought greatly reduced the amount of hay harvested to feed cattle. Most farmers were forced to feed cattle more corn silage than usual to avoid running out of hay. That’s why it will be critical for farmers to harvest more crops this season to make up for last year’s losses.

Most farmers don’t have the ability to expand their farms because of the scarcity of land for sale. Instead they are trying to increase crop yields, such as by spreading more manure and fertilizer. Some farmers also are planting more hay seed this year, or they’re planting corn on acres previously used for other crops such as soybeans.

“My thought is that more soybean acres at farms will be seeded into corn or hay” to make up for losses in forage, said Mr. Baderman. But as always, the main factor determining their success will be Mother Nature.

“If they plant the same number of acres but we have no drought, they’re going to have a lot more inventory this year,” he said.

Nevertheless, it probably will take a couple of years for farmers to recovery fully from last year’s losses. Gregory G. Porter, co-owner of Porterdale Farms in Adams Center, said the six-week stretch of sizzling weather from mid-June through July will have farmers “chasing the drought for another year or two to make up losses.” Some farmers bailed almost no hay in June because the ground was scorched by the sun.

On Friday, a tractor pulled a massive, 8,000-gallon liquid manure spreader across fields at Porterdale Farms. Fertilizing crops with this machine is one strategy Mr. Porter hopes will increase harvest yields this season.

“We’re trying to maximize the fertilizer value in the manure by injecting it into the ground and increasing amounts,” he said. Rotating discs on the spreader plow the soil while hoses spray the manure. Spreading manure into the ground helps ensure that its important nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous and potash — can’t escape in the air. “We’re certainly going to invest more in our inputs to raise crops, and priority number one is to increase our inventory.”

Farmers are restless for the weather to warm up in a hurry, because extended cold spring weather gives them a shorter window of time to plant their crops.

Every passing week of cold makes farmers feel more pressure, said Lyle J. Wood, who co-owns a farm in Cape Vincent with Scott F. Bourcy. In 2012 the farm leased an additional 1,000 acres, which will help it shore up forage losses caused by the drought. Acres of corn will increase from 1,200 to 1,700, while alfalfa hay will increase from 700 to 1,200 acres.

Last year, the farm had the luxury of planting hay the first week of April when the ground temperature rose above 50 degrees.

“You like to have your hay seedlings in early so you don’t have to plant corn at the same time,” Mr. Wood said. “If it stays cold, you can end up having to do all of your seeding at once.”

But the wizened farmer isn’t asking Mother Nature for too many favors: “We’ll be fine if we have a normal spring,” he said.

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