No grow, just snow

HOUGHTON – Few professions are impacted as much by weather as farming, and the unusually long-lasting winter weather has certainly put a kink in the plans of Copper Country farmers this year.

“This is probably, in the 19 years I’ve been doing it, the latest coldest spring since I’ve been here,” said Frank Wardynski, beef and dairy educator for Michigan State University Extension, who represents the Upper Peninsula and is based out of Ontonagon.

It also happens to come just a year after one of the earliest-arriving springs.

“Last year was a good week to two weeks earlier than average … so compared to last year we’re about a month behind,” said Gary Palosaari, who has 200 head of cattle on his Rolling Acres dairy farm in Chassell.

One of the biggest impacts for farmers is in feed for animals, a situation closely intertwined with last year’s early spring and last summer’s drought conditions in much of the southern Midwest.

“We actually didn’t have in the U.P. a particularly severe drought,” Wardynski said. “Most had hay made, but because it was severe in southern Wisconsin, a lot of hay got sold going south.”

Now, many who sold the extra hay they made last year are wishing they had the extra hay back this year. In general, the food supply shortage throughout the region has caused several Copper Country farmers to run dangerously close to the end of their feed supplies. Some have even had to purchase hay at “historically high prices,” according to Wardynski, or opt for feed byproducts.

Palosaari has prepared and managed his food supply well.

“We’ve had adequate feed and won’t have to buy it, but for other farmers it’s going to be real nip and tuck,” Palosaari said.

Last year at this time, cattle were already grazing, but according to Wardynski, it’ll still be a week or two before cattle go to pasture.

Ontonagon farmer Jim Countryman will also have enough food for his animals at Polfree Farms, but the weather impacts are being felt in other ways on his Dexter cattle and heritage hog farm operation.

“I happen to have enough (feed), but normally this is our calving season, and we normally calve on grass,” he said. “It’s made it miserable. We’ve lost a couple of calves we may have salvaged in a better year.”

While he said he’s about three weeks behind where he normally is this time of year, and is biding time by fixing fences, for example, he said there is historical precedent for this weather.

“A lot of people thinking about it now weren’t alive then, but about 1950 we had a spring like this,” said Countryman, who grew up on the farm he now runs and has been back for about nine years after a “long time” away. “In my growing up years in the ’40s, this wouldn’t have been all that unusual. Climate changes.”

Crop planting is of course impacted, too, but it’s still too early to tell the impact on yields.

“I’m normally looking to get in the fields to plant oats, but right now the snow isn’t even gone yet,” Countryman said.

He typically plants oats in mid May to early June, so there’s likely still time for oats and barley – depending, of course on the future weather forecast. Tuesday and today’s 70-degree weather is helping, but another cold front is projected to hit the area this weekend.

“There will be a lot of (economic) impact if I can’t get the oats and barely in,” Countryman said.

Palosaari grows corn, and it’s still too early to tell the impact there as well, since it’s a late-yielding crop (planted in August, harvested in October). He also grows alfalfa and barley.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted one of the biggest corn-planting booms in more than 75 years (97.3 million acres, according to a USDA report), but Michigan farmers, in part because of the weather, will likely plant about 50,000 fewer acres of corn this year.

“We’re dependent on the weather,” Countryman said. “As a farming friend once said, ‘Mother Nature rules and she rules absolutely.'”