The Farmer: Reaping a harvest of reality

The Farmer: One in an occasional series

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There is no good time for a hot spell on a dairy farm.

But it was a particularly bad time for Ralph Frye's herd when the heat wave struck last month.

One cow gave birth prematurely. Four cows developed pneumonia from the stress of the heat. And the amount of milk the cows are giving has dropped by about 12 percent.

Milk production fell all over the nation as the temperature rose. The final statistics on milk output for the state and nation won't be available until later this month, but the cows on Mr. Frye's small farm in Unity are typical of the drop in production.

Where he was sending off more than 4,700 pounds of milk to the dairy every couple of days, his pickup dropped by 500 pounds.

Jeff Kagarise, field service supervisor for Turner Dairy Farms Inc. in Penn Hills, where Mr. Frye sends his milk, said all of the local farmers who supply the dairy have seen a drop in production.

"Just like you and I, when it's really hot [cows] don't feel like eating," said Jud Heinrichs, a professor of dairy science at Penn State University. "They eat less and just go down in production."

The problem was not the hot days as much as the hot nights.

Virginia Ishler, a nutrient management specialist and the dairy complex manager at Penn State, said the unrelenting heat that never let the cows cool down wore them down.

Herds throughout the state spent most of the heat wave in barns in front of fans. At the Penn State Barns there is a misting system to release water over the cows to help them cool off. Other farmers use hoses to cool their cows down.

At Mr. Frye's farm, the heat put such stress on the cows that in addition to four of them developing pneumonia, another that was not due to give birth until Aug. 30 prematurely gave birth July 17. The calf, a steer, was just 45 pounds instead of a normal weight of 90 pounds for a newborn calf. After a week, the calf was standing on his own, though still unsure on his legs.

A few other cows' milk output dropped, and -- since they are late in their lactation cycle -- they won't have their milk come back until after they calve again in September. The gestation of a calf is about the same as for a baby.

Weather remains the biggest variable in farming.

Mr. Frye had to replant his soybean crop, which he uses to feed his herd, after this year's late spring frost killed much of it. And last year's drought caused the feed corn to dry in the fields so that it didn't ferment as well as it normally does in the silo. Mr. Frye said the silage is harder for the cows to digest than he would like, which also causes them stress.

Over the course of the 37 years Mr. Frye has been running his farm, farming itself has changed.

Some of those changes are the result of the very issues being discussed and debated at all levels of the food industry -- and much of that debate centers on corn.

When Mr. Frye started farming, he would till the land, turning it over to cut the weeds, before planting the corn. That process, however, also disturbed the worms.

Then he bought his first genetically modified corn, known as BT Corn, which had a gene inserted to kill the larvae of the European corn borer.

Now he uses Triple Stacked Corn with genes inserted that protect against the corn borer, a rootworm, and provide resistance to the herbicide Roundup so that farmers can use the herbicide to control weeds without hurting the corn crop.

Mr. Frye looks at genetically modified seeds pragmatically. They allow for higher yields, which means he can use less land for farming. Farm land in Westmoreland County has been diminishing as more housing has been built in the county.

Additionally, Mr. Frye stores much of his corn and soy bean crops with a feed mill in Ohio. His crop is weighed and thrown in with that of every other farmer who contracts with the facility, so it is not his own corn he gets back, but the same weight of corn. Even if he decided to forego genetically modified feed corn, he would be feeding it to his cows, anyway.

The herbicide resistance also allows him to use a no-till style of planting in which he leaves the stalks behind, which in turn enrich the soil.

Recently though, Mr. Frye's attention has been more on hay than on corn. With help from his son, Chad Frye, his neighbor Dan Goodman, and his farm hand, 18-year-old Ryan Long of Unity, a recent graduate of Latrobe High School, he has been cutting and baling hay for feed.

The old saying "make hay while the sun shines" is true. Mr. Frye needs two or three days of good dry weather to cut the hay, dry it and bale it. If wet hay is baled, it will rot.

Even with tractors, baling is labor intensive because while one person is baling, another moves the bales with the other tractor in the case of round bales. For square bales, those which are stored in the barn and used for both bedding and feed, Mr. Frye needs help stacking the 5,000 to 6,000 fifty-pound bales in his barn.

The hay looks good this year. And so far the corn is growing well. They are all investments in his farm for the next year.

mobilehome - businessnews - environment

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699. First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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