The past few months of vicious winter weather have been a challenge for Mark Falker, a Romeo dairy farmer with 50 cows to feed, care for and milk twice a day.
When the temperature drops too low, he’s had to get up every two hours throughout the night to pour hot water on the barn’s water cups and the pipes leading to the barn. If he hadn’t kept it up, the pipes would have burst, forcing him to rebuild his entire water system.
“When the wind blows and it gets cold enough, it can be a real problem,” said Falker, who is opening a creamery and his own milk bottling plant on the farm.
But even with that, Falker is willing to embrace the snowpack that has covered the 180 acres he uses to grow the food and straw for the cows.
“You can tell with the ponds in the neighborhood that we’ve been lax on water. So this should help get that waterline back up,” Falker said. “Also, with all the snow, the frost isn’t going as deep. That’s good for the hay fields and the wheat fields that are in the ground now.”
The record snowfall across the region, which has frustrated residents, snarled traffic and pushed road commission budgets to the limit, could actually be a boon for farmers as they transition into their spring planting season.
This winter, Metro Detroit has received more than 59 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service.
“Snow is never bad. Not for farmers,” said Dale Mohler, an agricultural forecaster for Accuweather. “Snow will melt and eventually it will help boost the soil moisture.”
Mohler says temperatures should reach more typical ranges, between 30 and 50 degrees, by March.
The extreme amounts of snow could cause more wetness in the spring, which in turn could delay planting a bit, but overall that should help throughout the growing season, he says.
“If you get close to normal temperatures and rainfall in the spring and over the summer, that’s all you need to have some good crops,” Mohler said. “If all that’s true, we could have some real bumper crops around the Midwest.”
'We're adding moisture'
Overall, the snow is a positive, says Bob Boehm, a soil moisture and row crop expert with the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“We’re adding moisture, which is very different than what we’ve had for the past couple of years,” he said. “When there is open water on the Great Lakes in the winter, we lose a lot of that moisture. When significant parts of the lakes are frozen over, it helps maintain the lake level.”
Subzero temperatures and record snowfall in parts of the state and above-average amounts in Great Lakes states are expected to solidify last year’s gains in lake levels and, in some cases, help them rise closer to normal levels.
Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron will be a few inches higher by late July than at the same time in 2013, according to projections released earlier this monthby the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Other lakes in the area should rise to more normal levels.
Ken Nye, the Michigan Farm Bureau’s fruit and vegetable expert, says the subzero temperatures across the state could have damaged some wine grapes, but for the most part any loses should be minimal.
“Right now, the growers, the only thing they’re complaining about is there is so much snow in the orchards they can’t get out and do their trimming,” said Nye. “They are going to have to scramble so they don’t fall behind on that.”
The consistent cold bodes well, said Bob Tritten, a fruit educator with Michigan State University Extension.
Growers hope to avoid a repeat of what happened two years ago, where there was an early March warmup, followed by an April frost that killed off most fruit tree buds throughout the state,
Tritten says this winter’s arctic air might also have an effect on peach buds as well as wine grapes, putting part of the crop in jeopardy.
Battling the elements
“The last time we got this cold was back in 1994 for most people. It got so cold that ... we not only lost a fruit but whole peach trees,” he said. “The end of this cold story isn’t going to be told until mid-April, when we get to blossoming time.”
The cold and snow have had a larger impact on livestock farmers, said the Farm Bureau’s Ernie Birchmeier.
“For someone not involved in the livestock and dairy industry, if you’ve got a bad weather event, you can hunker down and keep the doors closed. If you’ve got animals, you can need feed, water, sometimes heat,” he said. “Those farmers are out there on a daily basis battling the elements to make sure they can take care of those livestock.”
On the other hand, Birchmeier says the steady cold is a positive because “livestock likes constant temperatures much better than fluctuating temperatures,” and thestable climate helps prevent disease.
The cold also could limit insect and pest populations, which would help farmers during the growing season.
Amy Irish-Brown, an MSU Extension educator who works with the commercial tree fruit industry, says the cold could affect the spotted wing Drosophila, which feeds on fruit crops.
“For late-season fruits like blueberries and raspberries, it was really bad in those crops last year,” she said. “But we are in the northern edge of their range, so maybe the cold will have an effect on them.”
Most insects should adapt well to the cold, she says, meaning there will be the typical over-winter mortality that farmers rely on. A lack of cold temperatures, such as the region experienced two winters ago, “could potentially cause a larger population of pests in the spring that continues to grow throughout the summer,” said Irish-Brown.
Monroe County farmer Doug Darling is hoping a combination of positive factors produces a good growing year for his 1,500 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat.
Some damage expected
“The cost of fertilizer, seeds and fuel have gone up, while the price for commodities like corn have gone down, so we definitely need to see above-average crops this year to make sure we are economically viable,” said Darling, whose family has owned Darling Farms in Willis since 1833. “As long as it can stay cold and we keep that snowpack, and we don’t have that fluctuation in temperatures like we had two years ago, we’ll be OK.”
He’s expecting some damage to the wheat crops from the excessive ice that has formed on the ground, but says the extra moisture could be important for the summer, because the farm relies on rain for natural irrigation.
“Farmers are eternal optimists. That’s what keeps us going,”said Darling. “No matter how hot or cold, we keep trying.”