Harsh winter may impact crop and animal production

This year's harsh winter could impact Pennsylvania agriculture. Stock image

The harsh weather this winter has brought questions about how crop and animal production will be affected this year.

Mathew Haan, a dairy educator at Penn State Extension, concentrates on animal production. His focus is on dairy management, mainly interest in grazing management and the use of new technologies in the dairy industry.

Haan said the harsh weather will likely affect Pennsylvania agriculture this year, particularly animal production, and believes that the cold weather, snow and ice will have negative effects on livestock.

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When temperatures drop below the lower critical temperature (for cattle this is about 32 degrees F, for humans it is about 68 degrees F) their maintenance energy (the amount of energy their bodies needs to stay warm and maintain normal functions) requirement increases, the animals body will naturally divert that energy from energy that would normally go to making milk or meat, said Haan. So to maintain the same level of milk production from his cows when temperatures drop, a farmer will have to feed more feed to his cows.

However, it will not only affect production, but it will also leave an impact on the farms economic status.

This will raise the farmers cost to produce the milk and meat that we eat, said Haan. Under normal conditions, food for the cows is one of the largest cost a farmer has, when this cost goes up it will negatively impact the economics of the farm.

According to Haan, winter weather also causes farmers to be more vigilant to how the harsh conditions will affect farm work.

In addition to higher feed costs, the cold and snowy weather can increases the amount of work on the farm, he said. Farmers have to clear snow from the farm yard, tractors and other equipment need to warm up more than they would under milder conditions, water pipes freeze; all these things add to the costs of running a farm.

Collectively over all farms in Pa., these higher costs for feed, fuel and labor can be a significant drain on agriculture.

Haan also stresses the importance of keeping cattle comfortable during the winter, with plenty of food and water made available to them.

While cattle are better equipped to handle the cold weather then we are, the severe cold and heavy snow that we have had this winter will potentially stress them, he said. If cattle are kept outside they should have someplace that will protect them from the wind.

When cattle are kept inside the farmer needs to make sure that there is still good ventilation in the barn, said Haan. Cattle kept in a poorly ventilated barn during this cold weather have a greater risk of getting sick than they would in a well-ventilated area.

Cows will need to eat more food in order to stay warm under the cold conditions, he said. Cows will still need to have access to water during the cold weather, so farmers need to make sure water tanks do not freeze.

Crop production may also be affected by the weather this winter. Mena Hautau, another Extension educator, focuses in field crop production. She addressed some of the issues regarding the impact of the weather on crop production.

One issue is the salt and brine being put down to melt the snow, which could possibly harm crop production through runoff. But Hautau said this wont likely be a major problem for local farmers.

It potentially could on the edges of fields, but in general, farmers know that the edges are usually different than the rest of the field because equipment cannot, many times, get fertilizer, manure, etc. at the edge and they leave a buffer, said Hautau.

She also addressed whether a long winter could hinder agriculture by shortening production time.

It will just back up all the work to be done, she said. I think the biggest impact could be that we have quite a mud season when the snow and ice melts and the ground thaws.

According to Hautau, for now, the snow acts as an insulator and is a good thing.

According to an article written by Greg Roth, Professor of Agronomy, titled Winterkill and Low Temperatures, he states that winterkill tends to be worse when temperatures drop below 0 F with minimal snow cover. In his article, he recommends paying close attention for winterkill in crops and making the necessary changes in production for the spring, when crop and animal production begins, if needed.