November 7, 2023
At a Glance
- Larry Gervais lost 300 acres of corn to flooding.
- Flooding in Vermont damaged 27,000 acres.
- Sixty percent of farms anticipate feed shortages.
Vermont dairy farmer Larry Gervais lost 300 of the 1,100 acres of corn he planted this year to flooding. The corn was in a place of the farm that is mostly river bottom, so flooding has happened before.
But not like this past summer.
“Nothing at this level, no,” Gervais says. “It’s kind of historic in the state of Vermont. It’s just crazy. Places were getting dumped on 3 to 4 inches at a time.”
The Vermont flooding caused more than $16 million in damage on more than 27,000 acres of farmland in the state, according to a loss and damage survey of 267 respondents that was recently done by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Here’s some results from the survey:
60.7% of farms said they anticipate a feed shortage or problems with feed quality.
70.3% said they had no crop or livestock insurance.
40% said loss of crops for animal feed was most significant on their farm.
Gervais says that most flooding he sees happens early in the season — from rain and melting snow — or late in the season from a tropical storm or hurricane. This year, the rains fell right before tasseling. In some cases, fields were completely inundated. Tassels never emerged in some plants, and where tassels did emerge, there was no pollen.
"I never saw that before,” he says.
MUDDY MESS: Gervais didn’t expect to see such a muddy mess on his farm this year. Over the years, he has invested a lot of time and money to make his farm more weather resilient, but the timing of this year’s flooding made life difficult.
Gervais recently finished harvesting, and his cover crops have now been planted. Tonnage is about average or slightly below average, depending on the field.
He and his family run Gervais Dairy Farm, a 3,200-acre farm in and around Enosburg Falls, Vt., 10 miles from the Canadian border. The farm includes 2,100 mature dairy cows and 1,500 young stock. Cows are fed a diet of 55% forage, and grain mixtures are bought in through a local feed manufacturer.
The dairy is spread out over two operations that are 6 miles apart. Because of his farm’s size, Gervais has been able to build some feed inventory, including a bit of carryover from last year.
Still, he will be short and anticipates having to buy some feed. Other farmers in his area, he says, have no feed carryover and will have to buy much more feed to get through winter.
Gervais has crop insurance, too, which helps even though the price it pays is well below market value of corn.
He also bought six months’ worth of cotton seed to replace silage in the ration.
“It’s been a product that works really good in rations. Helps components in the milk,” Gervais says.
The new normal?
While many experts think the Northeast will see changes to the growing season from climate change, it’s still hard to predict what those changes will be, says Jessica Spaccio, climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center.
“Overall, we do expect more of these dry spells and intense precipitation,” she says. But the way it set up this year is likely more the result of odd weather patterns.
“What we saw this year was maybe more spread out over the summer season, and some of that is still just weather,” Spaccio says. “You know, the kind of weather patterns we get into. We got stuck in kind of a pattern where the rain kept coming and coming through and hitting the same areas. New England was really wet all summer. But it’s kind of opposite of what we typically worry about, which is a wet spring and then a really dry summer. This was the opposite. We still have weather at play, and sometimes weather is tricky.”
Long-term trends are showing more growing degree days, at least in Pennsylvania, as illustrated by two graphs below that Spaccio pulled together using data from two weather reporting stations in Allentown and Harrisburg, Pa. Though GDDs can fluctuate greatly from year to year, the trends in both graphs show a higher number of overall GDDs, which she says is an indicator of warmer springs and falls.
But this only tells part of the story, she says, since last frost in spring and first frost in fall have not followed a clear pattern. In fact, some places are actually seeing last frost come later in spring.
“So I think that means more challenges for the ag community because we’re seeing more growing degree days,” Spaccio says. “We’ve got more warmth and heat, and maybe some of those warm days are coming earlier. But that doesn’t mean the frost is over. So, I think that’s a pretty big challenge there.”
Planning for uncertainty
Gervais hopes this year’s flooding was a 100-year event. He’s made upgrades to his field processes and equipment to, in part, make the farm more resilient to weather.
For example, he upgraded to an 18-row Great Plains planter with hydraulic downforce, which he says performs great in fields where he plants green.
He’s also invested in extensive drag-lining of manure to reduce compaction, and this year he used a nitrogen inhibitor to preserve N, which he hopes will result in less gallons per acre having to be spread.
“We’ve seen definite good, positive results from that this past year,” Gervais says.
Gervais also grows lots of cover crops, mostly rye, and he staggers his corn plantings — ranging from 93 to 97 days, with a few 100-day varieties mixed in — to get silage chopped in fall and to have time for covers to be planted.
Gervais, 59, has been farming his whole life and has seen changing weather patterns over the years.
“The weather patterns, they are just crazy now. You can’t rely on what you did last year,” he says. “You’ve got to prepare for any conditions. It's never going to be the same two years in a row.”
If you need feed for your animals to get through winter, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has an online livestock feed finder available at cloud.agriculture.vermont.gov.
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