To operate Holtmart Hill Dairy Farm, Hugh Gendron needs to grow enough crops during the summer to generate 7,000 pounds of feed daily to feed his 100 cows.
With last year’s drought, farms across the greater Cortland area struggled to grow hay, alfalfa and grass — crops that are often fed to farm animals.
“The biggest concern is you have to grow enough feed in the summer to feed your cows for the whole year,” said Gendron, who owns and operates the family dairy farm in Willett. “When you have a severe drought like you had last year, the feed just isn’t there.”
“In our case, thank God we also grow corn,” Gendron said. “The corn crop grew well, which is somewhere around maybe half of the forage that we feed in the winter.”
Gendron feeds his cows hay, grass and corn silage — crops that provide energy and protein to the animals.
If the farm had run out of food altogether, it would have been a financial disaster to buy feed, he said.
The planting season, starting in April and continuing through May, is quickly approaching but farmers are unsure what the soil conditions will be like.
“Going into the fall, we were still quite dry,” said Betsy Hicks, dairy management specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County. “We had a lot of snow in Cortland County that left slowly and hopefully we had the chance for moisture to seep into the ground and replenish our water table.”
With climate change and unpredictable weather patterns, predictions for the season aren’t possible, Hicks said.
“A lot of farms right now are looking at their hay inventory saying, ‘Oh boy, our inventory is getting really low right now,’” Hicks said. “The fields were so poor last year because of the drought, there’s a big shortage in good quality hay right now and prices are inflated.”
“This year given the drought, it’s going to be tight, we’re going to squeak by,” Gendron said.
Gendron, with help from Hicks, began developing a rotational grazing program during the drought last year that provided Gendron with more forage for the cows.
The program was designed to help Gendron manage the pasture last year and in turn, Gendron grew more grass in the midst of the drought, which has held him through the winter.
“Overall it was a win,” Hicks said. “With better management, there’s good growth from their grass and good grass makes good milk.”