‘Cows like it cool’: Farmers, crops and animals weather a hot, dry Vermont summer

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Steph Tibbetts is a farmhand at Maille Dairy Farm in Shelburne. She stands with the cows keeping cool in the dairy barn.

By MADELINE HUGHES

Cows coughing in the barn Monday morning were a sign of how hot it’s been outside.

Cows can suffer from respiratory issues when it’s too hot. For a dairy cow, the perfect temperature is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Matthew Clay, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Burlington, says without a doubt, it’s been “quite warm and dry all summer.”

Which has been a challenge for farmers, their crops and especially their dairy cows.

“Cows like it cool,” explained Ben Maille of Maille Dairy Farm on Dorset Street in Shelburne. “The week of 90 [degrees] we dropped 1,000 pounds of milk production.”

The cows weren’t eating, and they were getting sick, so milk production dropped. The farm is slowly gaining back production with a few cooler days this week and new fans installed in the barn.

The new fans in the barn aren’t the only increased expense and hassle for Maille’s farm. Generally cows are kept out grazing during most of the summer, but with a record number of scorching days lately, the cows are kept in or closer the barn to ensure they can get water and cool off.

“It’s an extra cost on electricity (because of the fans), and extra hours per day to feed and bed them,” Maille explained. “Normally we don’t have to worry every day that every animal has water, but this summer we do.”

Keeping animals in the barn also means extra hours shoveling out manure that needs to then go onto the fields.

For beef cattle, it’s not as vital to keep cows cool because they aren’t producing milk. However, farmers have to keep them fed.

James Donegan of Trillium Hill Farm in Hinesburg has been seeking out more farms to move his herd, to ensure they have enough grass to eat.

He’s also looking to sell cows because he is so short on pasture. Donegan usually tries to sell off part of his herd before fall, but this year he is facing more pressure to do so earlier.

“It’s more work, like for the cows I have to seek out more fields, and build temporary fences and provide water sources,” Donegan said. “Buying more hay this summer isn’t an option for me.”

Though farmers raising cattle for beef might not see the effects right away, Corie Pierce, owner of Bread and Butter Farm in Shelburne, expects to eventually see the effects of a dry summer on her animals.

“The sustained stress on the animals isn’t good,” she said. “The little calves are getting less milk and will probably grow up to be smaller, which will be part of the longer-term impacts.”

Photo by Madeline Hughes
James Donegan of Trillium Hill Farm in Hinesburg grows tomatoes, cucumbers and beans in hoop houses, which has helped them escape from the heat’s impacts this summer.

Cut the crop

This summer started off amazing for haying. A dry spring meant farmers like Maille could access their fields about a month earlier than usual to cut hay. But because of the dry weather since spring, new growth in the fields has slowed significantly. Now he is worried about how much more hay he might cut for the rest of this summer.

Generally farmers can cut hay every 30 days or so during the summer, Maille said. So far this summer though, the time between cutting has stretched to about 60 days.

Clay at the National Weather Service explained the fewer inches of rainfall coupled with the lack of cloud cover has “increased the evaporation rate, so water levels are much lower especially without rainfall, creating a moderate drought for the Champlain Valley.”

That moderate drought has certain crops not growing as well, and farmers wrestling with irrigation systems to get them through the summer.

Karstin Marshall-Otto, a farmhand for Adam’s Berry Farm in Charlotte, said he and farm owner Adam Hausmann had to set up an irrigation system for blueberries. Less water means smaller blueberries, so the current yield is down from previous years.

However, the drought bodes well for strawberries because disease hasn’t spread as quickly, Marshall-Otto said.

At his Trillium Hill in Hinesburg, Donegan has irrigation set up to most of his hoop houses, where he grows tomatoes, cucumbers and beans. However, his outdoor crops such as lettuce and garlic are smaller than average, which he attributes to the dry weather.

“It’s always important for plants to have water, but it’s critically important when they are just starting to grow and germinate,” Donegan said.

Pierce’s vegetables in Shelburne have been doing well, and she expects the next month to be fruitful because of the recent cooler weather.

“Interestingly, dry is better than too much rain because of our soils and the shape of our land,” Pierce said. “Every year there is some weather element that makes it a distinct season.” The plus this year: fewer pests and less disease for the veggies, she added.

Pierce, Donegan and Maille agreed that their family farms were feeling the heat one way or another, but they continue to look for and try creative ways of continuing their work.

For example, Bread and Butter Farm recently applied to the town of Shelburne to expand their farm cafe in order to sell prepared foods made with locally grown products from their farm and others, Pierce said. She said she sees a need for farms to “get creative in goals and make it all come together for us.”

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