In the field across the road from my house, the corn hit knee-high by the 4th of July, but barely. It’s dry here in rural northern Wisconsin. We had enough rain for that corn to germinate and start growing. July brought leaves curled to conserve moisture by reducing the exposed surface area. The plants are stressed, and farmers are stressed. Town folk concerned about how watering lawns increases their municipal water bills may not think much about crop yields and livestock management. But what affects farmers affects the rest of us, too. So here are some things you should know about drought.

Drought or Drouth? Pronounced drowt or drowth, depending on where you’re from, both spellings generally refer to a deficit in how much precipitation has fallen in a given time period compared to how much is typically expected. In early July, 93% of the Midwest was classified as abnormally dry or in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

How bad is it? It’s bad. Friends with a small grass-fed, grass-finished beef operation say this may be the summer that puts them out of business. For winter feed, they depend on hay. Their first cutting of hay this year produced 81 bales instead of the 300-plus they would get in an average year. That hay was so puny they had to hire special equipment to rake it before baling. Chances of getting a second cutting looked so grim they took drastic measures.

Drastic measures? Spreading liquid manure on a hayfield is one way to get some moisture on it. Liquid manure is a mix of solid waste, urine, and water. It’s generally spread on crop fields in spring before planting and in fall after crops come off and before the ground freezes. But a nearby CAFO has a free summer spreading program that might help save some hay fields and beef farmers this year. They spread liquid manure so thick on the hayfield next to us it was still wet in places after five days of sun. Folks (myself included) complain about industrial farming practices and then (myself included) shop for low prices on milk, eggs, and pork – without acknowledging that the two are related. I don’t love the stink on that field, but if the moisture and nutrients in that liquid manure help give my neighbors a decent second cutting of hay – well, I’ll remind myself to be grateful for it. 

Doing the math. Growers like my friends know how much hay it takes to feed an animal when the ground is covered with snow. Up here, that can be five months. In a drought like this, it takes deep pockets to buy hay – if you can find it. In a competition between horse owners and small beef producers, I’m betting the deeper pockets are with the horse people. Some horse people won’t be able to afford hay, either. I’m expecting to see Go-Fund-Me campaigns from people who can’t graze and can’t feed their horses this winter, and we are not a society that butchers horses for the table. I expect beef producers – large and small – are doing the math right now to decide how many animals they can feed and how many they will send to market sooner rather than later. Into that equation, they will factor how many years it would take their remaining animals to produce a herd that can generate an income greater than just enough to pay their taxes. 

Local food. For those who think “grass-fed beef” sounds too rich for their blood anyway, let’s call it local beef (and pork and poultry). My folks just called it beef: It was raised on our farm and hauled to a local locker plant for butchering and packaging, then stored in our freezer until time to make a meal. I may not raise the beef we eat now, but I prefer beef that is raised and processed locally. For one thing, more of the money that changes hands circulates in this community. And even though there’s a big bill at one time, I get roasts and steaks for the same price per pound as hamburger. I’ll save my full food security rant for another time and summarize: If drought forces local producers to thin their herds this year, it will reduce the local supply for several years – at least. How secure does that feel?

Holding on. A drought here in the late 1980s was so bad that old timers compared it to the drought of the 1930s. Drought and Depression were indelibly linked in the minds of those who grew up then. This drought may see some folks looking hard at ways folks managed in those not-so-good old days. Under emergency conditions, farmers may cut hay in places like marshes and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. Don’t be surprised if, on a drive down a narrow country road, you find animals tethered or fenced in to graze in ditches. 

Old ways. On oats growing in my area this year, the grain heads are so close to the ground I wonder whether they’ll be able to combine them. Or, instead of modern mechanized harvesting will we see crews of Amish hired to scythe and shock that drought-stressed crop? As a family that eats oats for breakfast nearly every day, I should know more about how that crop gets from farm to table. I don’t, but I can change that.

Feeding a family. Not that long ago, agriculture wasn’t so much a business as the way you fed a family. Years ago, Ramon Skodinski told me how, during those Depression drought years, his ma would send the kids to the river. It was so low then that catching redhorse suckers was, literally, child’s play. I asked Skud how his ma fixed those suckers. He remembered her making soup. Makes sense: A rough fish, milk from your own cow and a few homegrown potatoes and onions – you could stretch that to feed a large family, even if it didn’t quite fill everyone up. I may get Bill to bring home some suckers to pressure can for chowder and fish patties, two of my late mother’s specialties. We won’t go hungry because of this drought, or go broke acting like we have endless resources. But those surprised by empty grocery store shelves in 2020 might want to think about some what-ifs.

Who else is stressed? I can’t say for sure it’s because of the drought, but we’ve been noticing some animal behaviors this summer that may be related. After I crabbed about three yearling deer coming right up to the house to sample my pea vines, a friend said, “Put out a bucket of water – they’re thirsty and they’ll go to that and maybe leave your peas alone.” I can’t say if it worked but for peas, it was sure worth a try. The Extension Service says bare spots in fields where seeds started to sprout but dried up and died are attractive to deer and other critters. So be extra cautious about critters crossing roads in different places to bed down in those spots. And one morning we had a big bear in the yard – the first time either of us has seen one so close to a house with fields on three sides, well away from the cover and comfort of the woods. Could it be because raspberries were so scarce this year? Maybe. I’m hoping that bear doesn’t make himself at home in our blueberry patch. Blackberries, so far, look like they will be a lot of seed and little juice. But if you do go out foraging for berries, you may want to wear a bear bell so you don’t find yourself in a jam.

Postscript: After a few spotty showers went around us, we finally got some rain here. Eleven-tenths in the rain gauge. Puddles were gone by morning, but for at least a day our fire danger dropped to low. There’s still a whiff of manure and we’re not cured of drought.

But there’s hope.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. 

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