Virginia farmers fighting extreme dry conditions, praying for rain

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GILES COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) — Giles County has had barely any decent rainfall since early this summer and cattle farmers in the area say it’s crippling them. Drought is drying out business on the rocky hillsides, forcing farmers to desperate measures. Some say they just don't know what to do.

WDBJ7 photo

One of those farmers is Ella Buchanan. We meet her hauling bags of feed to her browning pasture.

A forensic nurse by trade, Buchanan has only recently returned to farming. Traveling back and forth from Texas, she has taken over lead duties on the farm while her mother cares for her aging father.

"Come on girls!" she called to her herd.

On this day, she's feeding them grain and supplement. That's because her cows aren't as big as they need to be. Far before winter's arrival, there is hardly any green grass. What is green are toxic, invasive weeds.

"Mother Nature needs to help me out," she said with a desperate smile.

The last time Giles County had a widespread, soaking rain was late June. According to a weather monitor in Pearisburg, these are the rain totals for the last several months:

September: None
August: 0.71”
July: 2.56”
June: 5.80”

And those numbers are fairly similar to the situation in much of western Virginia/

According to WDBJ7 Chief Meteorologist Brent Watts, the summer started strong with rain and then in late July, the rain just stopped. The last soaking rainfall came June 24, with an inch and a half. The last time there was at least a half inch of rainfall in one day was July 23.

It's now late September and the gluten supplement and grain keeps Buchanan from having to dip into her already low hay reserves.

"My animals are pushing through fences and going to other pastures because they’re desperate for something decent to eat," she said. "And they’re finding there’s nothing in those next pastures either.”

That means farmers like Buchanan and her friend Kelly Kidd are reluctantly having to cut into dwindling hay reserves months earlier than usual.

"Ponds are going dry," Kidd said. "We have a lot of our farms that are fed by mountain springs and they're really low. Wells are going dry. And if you go into a really cold winter with low water, then it's trouble because then you probably won't have water through the winter either."

Kidd said those supplemental grains for the herd will be expensive and even that will likely have a domino effect on the year ahead.

"If the cattle don't get the best quality hay or the best quality corn, and they may not because of the drought this summer," she said, "then they may not breed back and we may not get the calves for next year."

Not only are Kidd and Buchanan down, but the lower hay reserves are scaring farmers throughout the region.

“My husband and I went to Harrisonburg to buy some corn chopper parts just a week ago and they’re in the same shape as we are," Kidd said. "They’re dry, so I don’t know where you would go to buy hay if you needed it.”

Buchanan sold some of her herd off sooner than she expected. She wants them to live good lives.

"Yes, they're harvest animals," she said. "But they deserve to be treated humanely and need to have a low stress existence. I want my animals to have food, I want to feel like they're being taken care of and that I'm doing the appropriate things for their health."

Buchanan takes me from her young neighbor's farm to Don Straley's farm, about 25 minutes and many curvy roads away.

"This is home and this is where my heart is," he said.

Straley has farmed nearly all of his life. He's been here a little more than 70 years. His father and his father's father were here before that.

“My great grandfather came here from Germany and started farming this land and he was a stonemason and got into beef cattle, and that’s what we been into all these years," he said.

Straley used to do much more at this farm, but has already cut back.

“The coyotes put us out of the sheep and goat business. Now this dry weather is trying to put us out of the cattle business," he chuckles.

Straley isn't faring any better than his friends. He laid down 100 tons of hay. Buchanan, sitting nearby, puts her head in her hands. She said she feels sickened every time she thinks about the dire straits she and her friends are in.

"I'm feeding hay every day and cutting back on cattle and we're still looking at still probably seven or eight months of feeding and I don't have it." Straley said, shaking his head. "And the neighbors don't either."

If there's been a drought on the land, he said there's been a flood on the market. Straley, Kidd and Buchanan say they're getting a fraction of what they once got for their cows. Many farmers are jumping at the first sale, trying to get rid of the members of the herd they fear they won't be able to feed over the winter.

"You got to have faith that somewhere God’s gonna send you some rain," Buchanan said, looking over her brown and crusted fields. "My faith is being tested.”

According to Brett Richardson with the Virginia Market New Service, cattle prices are down 5% to 10% from the beginning of summer (mid-June). Virginia state graded feeder cattle prices are down 10% to 15% since last year (September 2018).

Straley said long lines are forming at the lots where people come to sale. Cattle can lose valuable pounds in the hours they wait on trailers. Beef prices at the supermarket, he said, are not reflecting what the sellers are experiencing.

"It's a buyers' market," he said.

Straley said he's seen some dry years in his time, but contends this is the worst drought he's seen in 70 years.

"All the farmers I talk with, they're feeling the same way," he said. "We just kinda get quiet about it because we don't know how to handle it."

Buchanan said the winter will be tough. She has no doubt climate change has something to do with the increasingly radical weather forcing their farms to cut back.

"I would love to meet the person who ever politicized climate change," she said. 'I looked at this farm over the years I have lived here. And when you live attached to the earth, day by day, you see the changes. This climate, this environment is not what I grew up with as a child. I'm not that old. And I have certainly seen changes that are not just patterns of the earth."

Buchanan said she's also seen plants and animals in the area that were never seen on the farm while she grew up, including bears.

Straley said he becomes frustrated when he sees rain falls in other parts of the state. He also said he feels the weather now moves less in four distinct seasons, but from one extreme to the other.

"Maybe the fellow that said there is global warming may be right. I don't know," he said. "But I do know that in my 70 something years, the weather is extremely radical compared to what it was. We could tell the seasons when I was growing up... This time in the 1960s, it would've frosted several times. That would be the reason the leaves were turning. But now they're out of water. There's nothing predictable. That's the strange thing about this climate change. What used to be just isn't"

But while the future is unclear, these farmers say there's no option but forward.

“When you see people who have been farming for years not knowing what they’re gonna do, and if they’re gonna be able to make things work and for young farmers like myself, we just jumped in headfirst and we’re gonna have to figure out how to make it work," Kidd said. "It is really tough, but you know we’ll make it work. It’s just tough. We know we can’t quit because people have to eat. And little farmers make a difference.”

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September Cattle Report from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

IN VIRGINIA, feeder cattle uneven, ranging mostly 7.00 lower to 7.00 higher. Slaughter cows mostly 1.00 to 4.00 lower. Slaughter bulls mostly 1.00 to 4.00 higher. Wheat .17 to .18 higher, new crop mostly .10 to .16 higher. Corn mostly .08 higher. Soybeans mostly .19 to .34 higher, new crop mostly .34 higher. Barley steady. Milo .08 higher. IN THE NATION, feeder cattle mostly 2.00 to 6.00 lower with calves as much as 10.00 lower. Slaughter cattle live basis mostly 1.00 lower at 99.00 to 102.00; dressed basis mostly 5.00 to 6.00 lower at 155.00 to 160.00. Slaughter cows steady to 4.00 lower. Slaughter bulls steady to 4.00 lower. Slaughter lambs steady. Feeder lambs steady. Hogs carcass basis 6.00 lower. Wheat mostly .10 to .21 higher. Corn mostly .08 to .17 higher. Soybeans mostly .21 to .34 higher. Cotton .0390 higher per pound in the Southeast.

Additional Virginia Farm Facts from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:

-Virginia has 43,225 farms.
-The typical Virginia farmer is 58.5 years old.
-The average farm size is 181 acres.
-Farms cover 7.8 million acres.
-Approximately 36 percent of Virginia’s primary farm operators are female.
-Less than 15 cents of every consumer dollar spent on food actually goes to the farmer

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