The recent combination of extreme heat and lack of rainfall is creating havoc for area farmers.
"We certainly are praying for rain," said Phil Kulp, owner and general manager of Kulp Family Dairy, Martinsburg.
The first third of July brought temperatures where the mercury frequently topped 90 degrees, with the average daily temperature about 8.6 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Gary Long, president of the Blair County Farm Bureau, walks through corn fields and examines the crop that was killed by the drought at Kulp’s Family Dairy in Sinking Valley.
Rainfall also has been scarce, with 1.37 inches of rain falling in June at the Altoona-Blair County Airport at Martinsburg, compared to a normal June rainfall of 3.55 inches. For the first 10 days of July, only 0.53 inches of rainfall had fallen.
The heat and lack of rainfall have led to a significant reduction in yields of field corn and alfalfa, which are used to feed dairy cattle, Kulp said.
"We have had a widespread drought across the county. We have at least taken a 25 percent hit in yield. That equates to a loss of $200 acre, which equates to a $17 million economic loss [in Blair County alone]," Kulp said, noting there are 85,000 tillable acres in the county. "It is really crucial that we get rain. If we don't get at least an inch of rain in the next 10 days, the loss could approach 40 percent."
The field corn is stressed by the heat and lack of water.
"It is now in the pollination stage. That is when the crop really needs the water. The silk is now forming and water is needed to develop the kernels, so right now is a critical time for farmers to get a drenching rain, a nice steady rain," said Mark O'Neill, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman. "If we don't get rain for a week or two, there is a potential for some very reduced yields in the corn crop. It could be critical for our farmers."
If farmers can't produce enough feed that creates another problem.
"If the yields are down, they will have to purchase the feed elsewhere. That cuts into their profit margin," O'Neill said. "Right now, the costs for feed are going up, so they will have to pay more to feed their animals."
Dairy cows also are under stress.
"When it gets to over 80 degrees day after day, the dairy cows production drops because of heat stress," Kulp said. "We have seen about a 10 percent drop in milk production because of heat stress in cows."
The hot weather is also having a significant impact on hay crops.
"The first cutting was good on many farms, but the dry weather has limited re-growth and has delayed the second cutting on many hay fields," said Tom Ford, commercial horticulture educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension. "If better weather ensues, farmers should see the hay crops rebound, but overall tonnage for the year will be reduced in many locations."
Gary Long, Blair County Farm Bureau president, said things are "getting ugly" in Sinking Valley.
"We need water very shortly. We are at a critical stage where we need water. It is amazing how quick it went from too wet to too dry," Long said.
Farmlands also are very dry in Cambria County.
Marty Yahner, co-owner of Yahner Bros. Farm, Patton, said certain pockets are getting rain while the vast majority is not.
"My farm is drying up," he said. "[The soybeans] stop growing and roll up. They have a better drought tolerance but will be affected if we don't get rain in the next week or so," Yahner said.
Harry Albright of Sinking Valley is having the same issues with his crop.
"Right now they are starting to curl up and wilt. The corn and soybeans in this area are in pretty bad shape," Albright said. "If we don't get some rain in the next week or so, they will be dying off. There are places where they are already dying off."
The potato crops are heading into a critical time.
"The plant leaves are curling up. It is so dry some leaves are drying up and falling off the plants. If we can catch some rain within the next week, we may still be OK. The plants are still green enough they will continue to grow and grow potatoes," said Chest Springs potato farmer Jim Hite.
The dry weather has had some benefits for vegetable growers - it has put a temporary hold on the spread of late blight in area potato and tomato fields. Late blight does not thrive under hot and dry environmental conditions, Ford said.
While farmers need rainfall, the immediate forecast is not calling for any significant rainfall.
According to the National Weather Service, the forecast through Thursday calls for a chance of showers and storms each day with warmer than average temperatures.
"It is pretty frustrating when you watch the TV weathermen and they think it is so great (no rain), but they forgot where their food comes from and how high the food prices will go because of the drought," Yahner said.