By LOU WILIN
for the review times
McComb area farmer Mark Drewes has been up in the middle of the night at times in recent months.
He’s been anguishing over his poor corn and alfalfa crops and whether they will be enough to feed 3,000-plus cattle on a nearby dairy farm, with which he has a business partnership.
“It’s the fear of the unknown, and the fear of you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Drewes said. “It makes you stay awake at night, thinking.”
Like many farmers in northwest Ohio, Drewes was kept from planting in the spring by heavy rainfall.
When the wet spring was followed by a wet June, some farmers decided it was getting too late in the season to get a return on money invested in planting. So some cut their losses by not planting crops, or they planted less than normal.
That’s what sets Drewes apart.
“It’s a whole different ballgame when you have livestock to feed. When you have livestock to feed, you have to have corn planted, and it doesn’t matter if it’s planted the first of July — it doesn’t matter — you have to have feed,” he said.
“When a lot of our neighbors quit planting, we had to continue planting even though it didn’t make economic sense or agronomic sense for corn production,” Drewes said. “We had to have the feed” for the dairy cattle.
But the growing season has been shortened, said Jim Greve, Hancock County executive director for the Farm Service Agency.
Barring the unlikely scenario of a late frost — like December — many crops will be lost, he said.
This year “could be very devastating” for farmers, Greve said. Profit “margins are very tight anyway. This could be the difference in whether a producer makes it next year,” he said.
“We’re pushing the clock on all of our crops in the county to actually have a normal harvested crop,” Greve said. “The plants are being challenged to catch up with what they have lost in that early growing season. It’s all got to be made up in a short period of time.”
Because the corn had to be planted so late, Drewes had to use a variety of corn which he knows nothing about, compounding his gamble.
His alfalfa crop could be inadequate, too. So as a further backup feed supplement, he planted sorghum sudangrass.
“Just anything. We’re trying to raise any kind of feed we can right now,” he said.
Drewes’ situation is among the most precarious, even among livestock producers. Buying corn from the open market is not an option because dairy cattle eat the whole plant, stalk and all, not just the grain.
It’s different for the Holstein beef cattle on Cecil Boes’ farm between Findlay, Arcadia and Bloomdale. They can eat only the grain from the corn that Boes normally raises. But he is not raising any corn this year because the wet spring prevented him from planting.
Boes can do something Drewes cannot: He can buy corn on the open market. But the price of corn has spiked.
“We’re to the price point on corn that cattle don’t support that cost of buying the corn,” Boes said.
To make matters worse, the price of cattle declined in May, becoming collateral damage in President Trump’s trade war with China, Boes said.
“It took about $10 out of the cattle market back then, and we haven’t recovered that,” he said. “In the meantime, corn has went up almost $1 a bushel from then until now. So, it puts us in a heck of a squeeze.”
In some areas of Hancock County and elsewhere in the nation, overall crop production is expected to be the worst in recent memory.
“Oh yeah, by far the worst,” said Boes, who has been farming for over 50 years.
“It is, it is,” Jenera area soybean farmer John Motter said. “My 93-year-old neighbor said so.”
Motter planted his soybeans much later than usual because of the weather. He planted about two-thirds as much as he planned. Now the crop needs ideal weather and a late frost this fall.
“We’ll see in the fall whether I made the right choices,” he said. “It all depends on how the weather turns out.”
Arcadia area farmer Dave Thomas ended up planting nothing.
“This is the first year ever — I’m a sixth generation farmer on that land out there — this is the first time ever nothing has been planted,” he said.
It wasn’t for lack of … waiting. April passed, then May.
“June the 2nd at 3:30 in the morning, on Sunday morning, I made up my mind I was done planting corn,” Thomas said. “It rained 4 inches that night.”
Planting corn any later would be risky with his soil types, he said. He decided to wait and see if he could plant soybeans, reasoning that they are more tolerant to late planting.
“Well, you know what June was. Rain every fourth day. We got to June 20th, we were still four or five days away from planting on our soil types,” Thomas said. “Now it becomes a business decision. You set down and figure out … ‘If I get a perfect growing season, if I get a late frost and if I get everything just perfect, we still got a good chance.'”
A lot of ifs.
“So, we made the decision around the end of June not to plant anything because I knew exactly, that day, how much I would lose, and I didn’t want to risk losing more,” Thomas said.
The situation means trouble for the rest of the agricultural economy.
Because of farmers like Thomas, who did no planting, or others who planted less, Legacy Farmers Cooperative sold less seed and fertilizer. It also will be taking in fewer crops in the fall.
“Our revenue will be down this year 40 to 50 percent, at least,” said Mark Sunderman, chief executive officer of Legacy Farmers Cooperative. “We’ll have a loss this year for sure.”
Legacy Farmers is cutting expenses where it can. It is not hiring part-time workers like it normally does. Instead, it is sharing workers among its various locations. It has been able to avoid layoffs of full-time workers, Sunderman said. Still, this year is like no other.
“There is no comparable year,” he said. “This is the worst in our area.”
Machinery and equipment dealers also are having a slow year, Drewes said.
“They’ve already had guys backing out of deals,” he said.
Drewes is one of them.
“We were actually going to build another grain storage bin out here. Thankfully we got out of that,” he said. “We said no to that decision before we had signed the papers, because we could just see what was happening. And thank God we did.”
Findlay Implement Co., a John Deere dealer, will likely be feeling the effects of last spring’s rains for years, said Tom Marquart, ag sales manager.
“We think it will probably be a little longer term for us down the road,” he said. “We see it in our parts and service business now somewhat, and we are seeing it also in the sales department, ag sales, on new purchases” of tractors, combines and other equipment.
“If (farmers) don’t have to use (equipment) because of not planting, it doesn’t need repair, either,” Marquart said. “We see a little downtrend, yes.”