On a day when some got an early start to the Fourth of July holiday, Mike Jennings was cutting hay — finally.
“The hay should have been cut over a month ago, so that’s kind of dying off,” said Jennings, of the town of Florida in Montgomery County. “The nutritional value isn’t really there — the hay crop’s way behind,” he noted on Monday.
Heavy rainfall in May and June, topped off by the weekend’s storms, has pushed back the growing season for farmers across the Capital Region. Jennings, who raises 30 beef cattle and grows field corn, soybeans and hay on 600 acres of land, referenced the old adage that corn should be “knee high by the Fourth of July” in relating just how far back the growing season in.
“There’s a lot of people where it’s not even halfways that high yet,” he said.
John Radliff, a dairy farmer in Schoharie County, just finished planting his corn last week and laughed when reminded of the expression.
“Some corn isn’t gonna be ankle high by the Fourth of July,” he said.
The month of May saw 5.9 inches of rainfall at Albany International Airport, well above the month’s historic average of 3.61 inches. In June, the total was high again at 4.82 inches, topping the month’s average of 3.79 inches.
The weekend storms brought anywhere from 1 to 5 inches of rainfall to the Saratoga region, and areas south of Albany saw between a quarter-inch to an inch, said Joe Cebulko, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany.
“The grounds are saturated right now,” he said.
Jennings said his hayfields are so wet, “we probably shouldn’t be out here.” But time is running out.
“We’re mowing right now, we’ll be bailing tomorrow,” he said, “but the ground is so wet … the tractors are sinking in.”
On a typical year at the farm, he does two to three hay cuttings, but this year, he said, “we’ll be lucky to get across everything twice.”
Jennings expects to still produce enough hay to feed the livestock — “30 cows doesn’t eat anywhere near the amount we make,” he explained — but he’ll have far less left over to sell. As for the corn and soybeans, those crops, typically harvested in October, might not be ready for harvest until Christmas, he said.
“It’s just a tough, tough year.”
Radliff, who owns an 84-acre dairy farm in Cobleskill, said he cut his first hay of the season on Sunday, “and after I got done mowing, we had a nice heavy rain shower come through.”
“The frustration is unbelievable,” he said.
He said he relies on quality hay to feed his 40 milk-producing Holsteins, and quality is not a word he’d use to describe what’s growing in his fields.
“I call it glorified firewood because it’s just plant fiber,” he said. “I’m gonna get the hay one way or another. I’ve gotta have forage to feed the cows. It’s just gonna make it harder to make the volume of milk that I normally make.”
He’s already planning changes for next year to adjust to the unpredictably wet weather.
“I don’t know whether it’s climate change or just cyclical in nature, or it just happens to be a wet year — I don’t know,” he said, “but I do know that I have to be more flexible with Mother Nature. I have to learn to adapt to what she gives me.”
Instead of his usual approach of stacking dry hay in a barn, where its moisture has to hover around 15 percent to thrive, next year, he said, he’ll be using round bail silage, the method of sealing bails of hay in white plastic — often called marshmallows because they look like giant ones.
“You can bail at 65 to 75 percent moisture,” he explained. “It becomes its own little silo, and it ferments within that wrap.”
It’s a method that requires fewer consecutive dry days, which have been hard to come by this year.
“It’ll help me a little earlier in the spring, in May,” he said. “In the spring, you need three or four good days to dry. With round bail silage, you can get away with two.”
Cebulko, the National Weather Service meteorologist, said Monday that this week will offer at least three days of dry weather and sunshine in a row, “so hopefully that will allow some of that excess moisture in the soil to maybe evaporate a bit.”
Radliff was optimistic that next year would be better.
“Farmers — we’re general optimistic,” he said.
He said the wetness has affected farms across the Northeast — “everything east of the Mississippi” — and milk prices are “stale at best” before making a realization: farmers like him producing less milk could hurt the supply and make the demand go up.
“It might tighten up the milk supply so that we get a little better price,” he said. “That’s the only bright spot I can see in this mess.”