Dry summer, hot September stress farmers

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — The record-breaking temperatures in late September combined with the near- drought like conditions throughout the summer is drying out Michigan crops and cows.  

On the plus side: the heat produces better wine.

“With the heat we’ve had, and we’ve only gotten about six-tenths of an inch of rain since July, it’s only making things drier,” said Matt Cary, an Alma soybean farmer.

These hot, dry conditions cause soybeans to mature earlier, according to Mark Seamon, the research coordinator with the  Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee.

“The heat and the dry weather sped up maturity, which means farmers can harvest earlier,” he said. “But it’s also causing the beans to be drier.”

That’s a problem that could cut into profits.

Nearly 30 percent of Michigan experienced abnormally dry conditions by the end of September, and 3 percent was hit with moderate drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The weather has pushed soybean harvests up by a couple of weeks, said Kate Thiel, a field crops specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau. But growers are ready.

“Farmers are the ultimate risk-takers,” she said. “There are so many elements out of their control, like the weather. They have to be prepared for anything.”

Usually the soybean harvest runs from the beginning to the middle of October, Cary said. “We’re one and a half to two weeks ahead of previous years.”  

Dave Cheney, a farmer from Mason, began harvesting Sept. 22. “This is the earliest our farm has ever started harvesting,” he said.

The optimal moisture level for soybeans is right around 13 percent, Thiel said. Too  much moisture and farmers have to pay to dry their beans so they don’t get moldy.

But if they are too dry, it will take more beans to make up a 60 pound bushel. That cuts into profits.

High temperatures in late September could reduce the moisture by as much as 2 percent in a day, Thiel said. That creates a short window for farmers to harvest.

Soybeans are sold by weight — one bushel weighs 60 pounds, Seamon said. The more soybeans it takes to reach 60 pounds, the fewer bushels a farmer can produce and sell, resulting in a loss of revenue.

“Some of the ones that are ready are too dry,” Cheney said. “They’re coming out at 9 or 10 percent.”

He said that can equate to a $10 to $15 loss per acre.

Carry expects his yield to suffer.

“Last year I had between 60 and 62 bushels per acre,” he said. “This year I’ll be happy with 40 to 43.”

Dairy farmers are also hurting.

“The heat makes cows lethargic and their appetite wanes,” said Ken Nobis, president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association. “When they don’t eat as much, they don’t produce as much milk.”

He estimated the decline in milk production to bottom out at nearly 8 percent. Production should return with cooler weather, he said.

The news isn’t all bad. Vineyards and wineries have benefited from the late season heat.

“As a grape grower, I’m delighted,” said Charles Edson, owner and winemaker at Bel Lago Vineyards and Winery. “Grapes need a certain amount of heat to ripen. We had a cool summer on the Leelanau Peninsula, so the hot temperatures really moved it along.”

Cheney, who operates a farm that’s been in his family for generations, said things could be much worse for soybean farmers. It’s better to have too little rain than too much rain, he said.

“A dry year will scare you,” he said. “But a wet year will starve you.”