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Wet Weather Puts Damper on Maine's Hay Crop
07/25/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

With the Summer Solstice now passed, the race is on across the Northeast to squeeze the remaining bounty from the land before the end of the growing season. One of the most important crops is hay, which provides winter feed for livestock. But this year, the old adage about "making hay while the sun shines" has never been more true. Jennifer Mitchell has more.

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Wet Weather Puts Damper on Maine's Hay Crop Listen

Hay 1

Farmer Gary Beem, and his cat Boots, take a break on a bales of hay stacked in Beem's Newport barn.

Gary Beem has a problem: He's about 3,000 to 4,000 bales of hay behind where he normally is in late July. And the reason is right under our feet.

Jennifer Mitchell: "So you can tell it's kind of been wet, rainy - you know, it's kind of wet sounding ground."

Gary Beem: "Yeah. If you go out through the field, like in the tire tracks or the little sags, you'll still see puddles of water from yesterday."

Jennifer Mitchell: "Which is not what you're looking for."

Gary Beem: "No. Wet ground and drying hay out don't go together very well."

Beem is doing everything he can to get his fields of Timothy-grass cut, dried, and baled, because in just a few short months, the fresh green pasture grass on which animals depend will be under two feet of snow.

It's been tough, but in this barn in Newport he's managed to collect about 9,000 bales, and the air has the sweet odor of hay that's been put up at just the right moisture content.

Jennifer Mitchell: "And this is all nice and dry? Is it as dry as you want it?"

Gary Beem: "Yup. This all averages about 8 percent moisture."

And that's pretty good, considering how rainy it's been. It's not uncommon for hay to contain up to 20 percent moisture, but at that level of wetness, says Beem, he'd have to spray the bales with an acid to retard the growth of mold and bacteria.

He'd rather avoid that option by harvesting at the right time, when it's dry outside. The problem is, too many weeks have already been spent waiting for that right time. Lately, says Beem, it seems he spends as many hours forecasting the weather as he does actually cutting hay.

"The different directions of wind is different weather patterns," he says. "Like right now? It's kinda blowin' out of the South. When the weather's coming out the South, that's usually pretty hard to make hay. And for Friday, which we was all counting on, is an unsettled front coming through. Well, the minute they say it's an unsettled front and they don't know what it's going to do, that tells me right there, don't mow any hay, because your chances are pretty poor of getting it."

So why the rush? Why not just keep haying through the rest of the summer and into September? Rick Kersbergen, with Maine Cooperative Extension, explains that from the moment the grass starts maturing in May, the plant's biological clock is ticking.

"It's going from a vegetative state to a reproductive state, and as that happens, the nutritional quality of the hay declines," Kersbergen says.

That means that livestock may need to have their winter hay diets enriched with more silage and grain products than usual, to make up for the lost nutrients in the late-season hay. That increases the cost of production for the farmer. And that cost will likely be reflected at the cash register, especially for products such as Maine-grown beef and lamb.

The problem is other products, including strawberries, are also being affected across New England. In an ideal world, says Kersbergen, farmers like ??Stephen Beem would have had their crops in at the start of June. But Beem is in good company. All across Northern New England the story is pretty much the same.

Juan Alvez, a pasture specialist at the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture confirmed that not only have several crops, such as strawberries, been almost completely rained out this year, but important feed crops, such as both hay and corn, are also struggling.

Alvez agrees with Kersbergen, that Northern New England as a region could see some potentially higher costs for cattle and horse feed over the coming winter. As for Gary Beem? He says he learned over 30 years of farming, that no amount of fuming at the weather is going to help.

"You know, we might go a week or so and she might dry right up, and we can hay every day," he says. "It's not up to me; it's up to the fellow up stairs."

Photo: Nick Woodward


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