Area grain farmers might not get much of a true corn harvest because of the severe drought, but they could recoup some of the losses by cutting the plants down early and selling them to dairy farmers desperate to feed their cows.
Although the dying corn crop is one of the top stories of the drought that is gripping much of the nation, a major problem facing dairy and beef cattle farmers in the southern half of Wisconsin is the lack of hay they need to feed their animals.
So far this year, most area farmers got two cuts of hay of average quality, and some got a third cut, but none will get a fourth until it rains, said Mark Mayer, agriculture agent for the Green County UW-Extension. He added that the cost of hay has risen to $300 a ton, or about double what it cost last year.
"This will definitely affect food prices coming down the road, there's no question about that," Mayer said.
Mayer believes increasing prices for milk, beef and other products may be determined by how well the grain and dairy farmers work together to produce and buy silage, or earless corn plants, that could be chopped by the end of this month.
He said his best guess is that the cost will be between $25 and $60 a ton for silage that isn't expected to have the same nutrient content as hay, or silage that is allowed to fully mature.
"It won't be real good corn silage, but the grain producer can gain a little more than just plowing it under in most cases and the dairy producer gets some reasonably priced forage that they will need going into winter," Mayer said.
Dairy and grain farmers are already hunting down potential partners. Brian Larson, who is one of the owners of the 1,500-cow Cottonwood Dairy near Wiota in Lafayette County, said it's not an easy process.
He said grain farmers who have contracts with companies to buy their corn are being told they must harvest it as grain even if it doesn't produce any grain. That means they won't have silage until fall.
"That puts people with contracts to fill in a tough position," Larson said.
He added that some other grain farmers who have insurance promising $1,100 an acre if their crops are damaged by hail are sitting tight and praying for a big storm. "It sounds screwy, but that's what we're working with here," he said.
Mayer said grain farmers must be extremely careful not to cut down the corn too soon. Although much of it looks dry, Mayer said virtually none of it in this area has the moisture level below 70 percent needed to make it safe for silage.
"What we're finding is that moistures are still running in the mid to upper 70s," said Mayer, who explained that liquids in the plant will separate and the sugars will go away when it's too moist for silage. Thus, much of the feed content will be lost and it also won't ferment properly, which could make it toxic to animals.
"In years of high-priced forages and short forage supplies, the last thing we want producers to do is wreck what little forage we have out there" Mayer said.
With that in mind, the Green County UW-Extension office in Monroe is offering free testing for any farmers who bring in a quart-sized bag of chopped corn stalks. Mayer said the test takes about five minutes to complete.
Mayer's best guess is that the corn will be safe to chop later this month or in early August. He said farmers should think about re-seeding the acreage with oats or another crop that could still be harvested this fall to help recoup some of the corn losses.
And, if it ever starts raining, Mayer thinks dairy farmers could get bailed out with one or two more cuts of hay this year. "Alfalfa just goes dormant, but it's a very drought tolerant crop and it will kick in with two, three inches of rain," Mayer said. "So we aren't giving up hope of that happening."