Looking back over the last few months of weather data recorded at the Northern Piedmont Center on the southern edge of the Town of Orange, manager Greg Lillard confirmed what many local residents have assumed. It’s been dry.
While the center’s year-to-date rainfall total (36.82”) closely mirrors the 78-year average (37.20”), Lillard identified a nearly two-month window—from Aug. 27 through Oct. 20—without much measurable rain.
“September was really dry,” he said, noting less than an inch of rain was recorded throughout that month. “We recorded only five days of rain in September and what precipitation we got was mostly minimal. It really stayed dry up until Oct. 20 when we finally started getting some rain.”
October seemed to put the annual total back on track, offsetting September’s dearth.
The station recorded 6.40” of rain in October, almost twice the annual average (3.59”).
While that was good news for the groundwater and rivers, it was too little, too late, for farmers already feeding hay to livestock.
“Hay is in short supply and producers are holding on to what they have,” Orange Virginia Cooperative Extension Unit Coordinator Kaci Daniel reported. “We’ve had several calls from small-farm producers looking for hay, but unfortunately don’t have a lot of options to send them to. We do keep a hay list, so if there are producers who have hay to sell, we encourage them to let us know so we can pass along their contact information.”
Lillard has heard similar concerns.
“Without rain, pastures went dormant and farmers had to start feeding hay earlier than they would have because their pastures weren’t able to regenerate for livestock through the fall,” he said.
That’s put extra stress on producers, added Norm Hyde of the Virginia Farm Bureau.
“Ideally, farmers would raise their own forage,” he said. “Farmers have X number of cows and need X amount of hay to make it through the winter. But some farmers are having to sell off some of their herd because they won’t be able to feed them.”
That’s a frustrating predicament, Hyde said. Farmers face the dilemma of purchasing hay at a premium or selling off cattle at a loss.
According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ most recent report, a large round bale of mixed-grass hay sells for between $60 and $66 per bale. Delivery is extra.
“A large bale weighs as much as a compact car,” Hyde noted. “The freight will kill you.”
He said the dry weather in the late summer and early fall eliminated the second and certainly the third cutting of hay for most producers.
“Most farmers do their first cutting in June and that’s when they’re able to stockpile hay,” he said. “They normally do a second cutting in August and maybe in September, but that didn’t happen because the grass just stopped growing. That’s the biggest current impact of the dry late summer and early fall across the state.”
Daniel said farmers are not only facing a shortage of supply, but a reduction in quality. “We’re encouraging farmers to test their hay because we suspect that the quality is also low, in addition to tonnage,” she said.
The prospect of a hard winter is more discouraging news, though the Extension office is planning two cull cow sales—Nov. 26 and Dec. 27—to help producers sell less productive livestock that could drain winter feed resources.
It’s also planning a hay program this winter, but details have yet to be finalized.
Meanwhile, it’s not all bad news.
The late-summer dry, warm weather was good for fruit producers and helped vegetable gardens—particularly those with pumpkins and winter squash. The dry weather helped reduce produce disease, Daniel noted.
Meanwhile, the corn harvest has been consistently good across the state, Hyde reported.
“It’s all about the timing,” he said. “Corn is made or broken in early June when it germinates. If there is adequate moisture then, you’ll get a decent harvest later in the year.”
Lillard’s data shows nearly four inches of rain had fallen locally in the first 10 days of June and nearly 5.5” over the 30-day period.
“Corn got enough moisture early on, so it was able to power through,” Lillard said.