COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Volatile weather featuring prolonged periods of heavy rain and unseasonably mild winters has brought economic challenges for farmers across the Midwest.
The supply of hay in Ohio this past season was the fourth lowest in 70 years, and the yields were the poorest since the 2012 heat and drought pattern.
The depleted inventory more than doubled the cost of a bale of hay last year at one point. Dairy and cattle farms faced a shortage of forage to feed livestock. Reduced yields contributed to a shortage of straw that is used for as bedding for animals.
The recent shortfall can be traced back to a wet autumn in 2018 that hampered harvests. A mild winter in 2018-19 was abruptly impacted at the end of January 2019 by a visit from the polar vortex, which sent temperatures well below zero for a few days.
A freeze-thaw cycle and unusually heavy late winter precipitation affected the soil and plant structure that were damaged by frost heaving, leaving root systems exposed to the elements.
Then came the incessant rains in the spring of 2019 in the Midwest, which made it nearly impossible for farmers to get into the fields in the northwestern half of Ohio until late June, if they planted crops at all. A record 1.5 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted in Ohio and overall yields were the lowest since 2008.
A short-term drought during a hot late summer and dry early autumn further diminished the quality of wheat and legumes harvested in the fall.
The wet pattern returned this winter, aided by a periodic flow of tropical moisture from the Eastern Pacific and western Gulf of Mexico, pulled north by a strong low-level jet. Soils are fairly saturated across much of the eastern half of the country, which is conducive to a higher risk of spring floods.
More than 5 inches of precipitation fell in central Ohio during an unseasonably mild pattern from late December to late January, resulting in muddy conditions that cause animals to burn up more energy moving around, and requiring additional forage for sustenance.
January 2020 in Columbus averaged 7.1 degrees above normal (36.7 degrees — 12th warmest), and produced merely 0.3 inch of snow (5th lowest since 1885), with no protective cover for plants from what few bouts of arctic air arrived.
The economics are compounded by the extensive nature of the heavy rainfall in the Midwest 2019, which is made it expensive to find good hay to import.
Frequent heavy rain delays planting and leads to a poorer quality of hay and legumes.
Stephen Boyles, a beef specialist with the Department of Animal Sciences at Ohio State, pointed to tan-colored alfalfa bales that would normally be green.
“Leaves are where the real nutrient value is,” Boyle noted, but last year’s cutting had too many stems.”
Farmers are employing alternative warm-season plants that mature at a later date to account for late harvests and a shortened growing season. Protein supplements provide additional feed. Grain, hay (alfalfa, dried cut grass), and silage (corn stalks and other plants packed when still moist) are less nutritious options.
Maurice Eastridge, an Ohio State animal science specialist in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, summed up 2019 as “a very challenging year for the livestock industry. We had very wet conditions.”
Aaron Wilson, a climatologist at Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, who also works in the Ohio State Extension program, said, “We know we’re getting warmer. We know we’re getting wetter. But we’re seeing the seasonal distribution change in our rainfall. Intense rainfalls are increasing.”
2019 was the second wettest year on record in the Lower 48 states in the past 125 years. The Mississippi River was above flood stage for much the spring and summer from Iowa to Louisiana, and in some places as late as December. The Upper Midwest endured the wettest year in records back to 1895.
“We’re in a critical 30- to 45-day window where, what’s [the rest of the] winter going to be like?” said Eastridge.