Farmers in a sweat as heat upsets cattle


Think about it from the cow's point of view. Most comfortable at 50 degrees or cooler, she has to lug her 1,400 pounds through those 95-degree afternoons that have been so common this summer. Her owner is afraid the wells will run dry so he has stopped spritzing her regularly, and, unlike a person, she can't sweat away her body heat.

Can you blame her for not wanting to eat the gobs of food that keep her milk flowing?

Dried-up reservoirs and dying crops might get more attention, but droughts wreak havoc on dairy and beef cattle farmers as well. During hot, dry summers such as this one, dairy cows lose their appetites and thus produce as many as 20 fewer pounds of milk a day than they do under optimal temperatures. Beef cattle become less meaty, because they also have less appetite.

All this means anxiety for dairy and beef cattle farmers in counties such as Carroll and Frederick, where cows are a major part of the agricultural economy.

To make matters worse, wells and springs have been going dry the fastest they have since the 1930s, according to many longtime farmers. The harsh conditions have farmers searching desperately for ways to keep their cows cool, hydrated and productive, with some even housing their cows in wind tunnels.

"It gets scary," said Kelly Hereth of Carroll County's Farm Service Agency. "We just haven't had to deal with this. It's been an extremely long time, I mean generations, since we've had to deal with this."

Though Baltimore-area farm agents say they haven't heard of any farmers unable to keep their cattle hydrated, the region has had above-average precipitation in only three months since October 2000. The high temperature has surpassed 90 degrees more than 40 days this summer.

Even under normal conditions, the summer can be a tough time for dairy farmers. Between 1997 and 2000, Maryland produced an average of 324 million pounds of milk between July and September, compared with an average of 344 million pounds between January and March. Such overall statistics aren't available for this summer, but farm experts say production will probably be off even more. The conditions have farmers praying for extreme weather.

"I don't care what form the water comes in," said Deb Gwynne, a Taneytown beef cattle farmer. "I'll take a hurricane. I'll take a blizzard."

Gwynne, who has run her farm since 1991, said she has never seen conditions so dire. A well on her property dried up last fall and the water in her springs, also used to fill the herd's drinking troughs, is lower than the pipes designed to carry it. She sold her entire sheep herd last fall in anticipation of the continuing drought this summer. The dry conditions have left her cattle without ample grass for grazing, and many have pink eye from the dusty air.

If nourishing the cattle remains so difficult, Gwynne said she might consider significantly reducing her herd of about 100 cattle.

"Every day is a day I think, 'How many am I going to have to sell this fall,'" she said. This notion frightens her, because the beef market will probably be down this fall, and she expects to get $50 less than usual per animal.

Despite these bleak thoughts, Gwynne rates herself more fortunate than many. She had another well drilled this year and it has provided a steady flow of water. The other day, she loaded vats of her well water onto a hay wagon and hauled them to a neighbor whose well had just run dry. The well driller has become a steady and ominous presence in the neighborhood.

"We can make it through, but it's scary," Gwynne said.

The farmers who have best staved off the drought are those who budgeted extra money for feed and contingency water sources, dairy experts say. But the heat hurts almost everyone.

"Last summer wasn't so bad because at least it cooled off at night, but when you have sustained heat like this, boy, it's tough," said Stanley Fultz, a dairy specialist with the Frederick County branch of the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Options dry up

Fultz said most farms keep cows cool by spraying them and then fanning them, a form of evaporative heat release that approximates human sweating. But under drought conditions, many farmers can't soak their cows to the skin, he said.

Several Frederick County farmers have succeeded with a new technology called tunnel ventilation. The term refers to a type of barn with closed sides, one open end and one closed end composed of fans. When the fans are on, the air is sucked through the open end of the barn, creating a wind tunnel that can quickly lower temperatures 10 degrees.

Jeff Wivell, who milks 400 cows on his farm near Emmitsburg, built such a barn last year and has seen his cows' production rise this summer. Wivell's barn features 27 fans that turn on automatically whenever the temperature exceeds 80 degrees. Spigots fill the air with mist, and the temperature drops into the 60s in moments, Wivell said. He estimates that the new system has saved him as much as 10 pounds of milk per cow per day.

That, combined with deep wells, has him in good, if cautious, spirits.

"It's actually all worked out better than I ever hoped," he said.

Wivell's good experience is the exception.

'Wait and hope'

New Windsor dairy farmer Bob Bassler said he hasn't seen such hot, dry conditions since he was a small child in the 1930s. The well on his family's farm began to run dry in the spring, and though the family had a new well drilled, it hasn't held up well. At times, both wells are shut down by the machines designed to keep either from running completely dry.

Though Bassler's cows haven't had to go without drinking water, he said he and his son cannot spare enough gallons to run their mister to cool the animals. That means production will likely be off about 30 percent this summer, he said, a tough hit for a midsized farm of 100 cows with a narrow profit margin.

"If we hadn't drilled another well in February, we'd be out of business, so I guess we're sort of ahead of it," he said. "It's bad, but there's nothing to be done. We'll just have to wait and hope it rains."

Showers during the past week provided little relief, farmers said. "It turned things greener and that's it," Gwynne said.

But most farmers expect the water to rise someday, said Carroll Farm Service's Hereth, whose agency helps farmers find subsidies and federal relief programs. She has helped Carroll farmers gain $227,000 this year in federal drought grants that allow them to drill new wells or turn springs into viable water providers.

But the money ran out two weeks ago, she said, and many more farmers need help. Hereth said that in a typical year, she might get two or three requests a week for such aid but said she is now getting five or six requests a day. She asks that needy farmers still contact her, so they'll be on her list should more money arrive.

"Unfortunately, that's all I can offer them," she said.

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