For beleaguered farmers, it can’t get any worse than 2019
There are many words that could describe how the year 2019 was. For farmers in Clark County, “unusual,’” “weird” and “cold” might be the right ways to describe 2019 as a whole.
Richard Halopka, the agricultural educator for Clark County UW-Extension, used those same words when describing the year 2019 and the effects it had on farmers across the county. The year was not a good one for farmers, he said, with only one good thing he could note about the year.
“The best thing about 2019 is that it’s now 2020,” he said.
2019 had promise when it first started, it wasn’t too cold or too snowy. But Halopka said that did not last long. The weather shifted for the worse and remained that way pretty much throughout the rest of the year.
“It was an accumulation of a lot of things, weather being one of the biggest problems,” he said.
“Farmers were just challenged all year,” Halopka said. “January seemed OK then we got hit with extreme cold, no snow and then snow and cold weather. We had winter kill on our perennial forages. Almost every acre was dead, there were no perennial forages. In May we had extreme wet weather and they couldn’t get into the fields for planting.”
The lack of forage crops at the beginning of the year was one of the first things during 2019 that hit farmer’s pocketbooks pretty hard. Already in January, Halopka said milk prices were pretty low. Adding costs such as purchasing new seed to try replanting crops and buying feed for animals that had previously relied on forage crops made things even harder.
“Coming into the year, milk prices were not good. They have gotten a little better than they were 3 or 4 years ago without being records. The guys were absolutely behind payments, but I can’t say that was the case for every farm, every farm is a different situation,” he said. “With all the weather, they had to repeat (crops) they didn’t plan on. It added to the financial stress.”
Still, Halopka said Clark County farmers managed to make it through the tough winter and spring and found alternative ways to feed their animals with the lack of forage crops.
“We’ve got to pat our Clark County farmers on the back, most with livestock switched to alternatives,” he said. “They continued to plant and were able to put up some forages. The quality may have been less than what was needed, but they could also get forages from local auctions, the prices were not as bad as they were, but they’re still above average.”
“2019 will go down as the year everyone remembers. It was just crazy.” -- Clark County UWExtension agricultural educator Richard Halopka After spring was over, the problems with the weather continued. Rain and below average temperatures made it hard for farmers to get out into their fields to plant crops. It also meant that the crop’s growth was delayed, due to both the late planting time and the colder temperatures inhibiting growth. By the time fall came around, Halopka said farmers were about a month behind.
“Getting into the fall, the weather wasn’t cooperating. We were behind on what is called growing degree days, the corn wasn’t maturing, soybeans were planted late,” he said. “Corn, when it just started drying down, it didn’t happen in September, though September was a good time to help some of the corn and soybeans. But (for example) harvesting corn silage, normally that’s done around September 10, now it’s more like October 10. We’re running about a month behind to get crops off with poor weather conditions.”
The late October harvest for a lot of the crops made another financial strike against farmers. The crops, though not dried out, had to be taken off and dried though alternative processes in order to be put it in storage, costing farmers even more.
“The corn and soybeans were not drying down. We were harvesting soybeans with a higher moisture content, so we needed to dry them down. That’s another cost there that they may not have had if not for the weather,” said Halopka. “The corn wasn’t drying down either so when you start harvesting corn, it costs more to dry corn. On top of that, there’s other additional costs even if you’re just feeding it to livestock.”
Looking at 2019 overall, Halopka said in the past 40 years he does not remember a single year that was similar to the one local farmers just experienced. While he said people may attribute such weather phenomena to climate change, he said 2019 was not a normal year nor will be a “new normal,” but was rather an anomaly that today’s farmers will remember for years to come.
“Look at 2019. It was the end of a 100-year period where there’s so many anomalies, record rainfall, record snowfall, below average temperatures,” he said. “I’ve been in agriculture for more than 40 years and one date that sticks in the mind is 1988. We had a severe drought in the midwest region, and farmers remember 1988. 2019 will go down as the year everyone remembers. It was just crazy.”
So what will farmers be facing in 2020? Halopka said at this point, it is really hard to say what will happen. Farmers will continue to pick up what is left after 2019 and begin preparations for the next growing season. So far this winter, the weather hasn’t been too bad and will hopefully not affect the winter forage crops like it did last year. If the winter crops are not affected, then farmers will at least be in better standing than they were at the same time last year.
“The good news is we have snow cover. We had some rain that may or may not affect the forages, but the ground is not frozen, the perennials should be doing OK under the snow,” he said. “Beyond that it’s hard to say. The guys will still be trying to get the corn off, so in March and April they can get prepared for planting.”
To try to make 2020 a better year than 2019, Halopka said farmers really have to consider their financial position and try to be as prepared as possible. During the next few months, he suggested that farmers go over their finances and begin making plans on what sort of crops they want to grow in the next year.
“What they need to do is prepare, start making plans, if you want to plant corn, soybeans or alfalfa, get the seeds, get a financial analysis and make decisions for 2020,” he said. “I have always said, and I’ve farmed for more than 40 years, is that you have to have a plan A and a plan B. Beyond that, have a plan C and if all else fails, a plan D. 2019 we were on plan D, adapting as you go.”
Halopka also encouraged farmers to remain positive despite recent setbacks. The mental health of farmers has begun to become a concern for people across the U.S. in the wake of poor milk and commodity prices and the poor weather. If a farmer feels like they are stressed or depressed, he said they should not hesitate to reach out to somebody and talk to them about their concerns.
“We’re beyond 2019, now we get thinking positive again. Even though it’s tough you have to start positive, it helps a lot. Start planning for tomorrow. We have just started the first full week of January and we’re about 120 to 150 days away from planting. That’s how you have to look at it. Believe it or not, May 1 will get here and we need to be prepared to put things into the ground,” he said. “If you’re feeling stressed, talk to someone. It’s very important. You can call the extension agency, the Wisconsin Farm Center, your neighbors, there’s a lot of people you can talk to. Talking will relieve the stress. If we let things eat at us, we will not do well. Try to find someone to get some help.”
Farmers who still have standing corn will have to get it off in spring before they can focus on next year’s planting.