Wednesday, July 25, 2012

TOP STORY >> Record heat hurts dairies, fisheries and beef farmers

Leader senior staff writer

Lonoke County farmers this summer have seen fish die off in at least a dozen ponds, caused by abnormally hot weather this year, according to Extension Fisheries Specialist Anita Kelly, who works in Lonoke.

Warmer water can’t hold as much oxygen as cooler water, she said, and entire ponds of fish — usually bait fish in Lonoke County — can die overnight.

This appears to be one of the more dramatic effects of the extreme heat and drought farmers throughout Lonoke, Pulaski and White counties are facing.

Embroiled in the most severe drought since before the Great Depression, cattle ponds are dry and pastures are barren—so much so that Arkansas cattle producers sold 17,000 cows in a week, according to state Agriculture Department spokesman Zach Taylor.

Farmers can’t afford to haul water and feed grain and hay this early in the season.

In the short term, this may drive down beef prices, but the scarcity of beef will boost prices later. By one measure, 33 percent of the contiguous U.S. is in severe to extreme drought conditions, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

And it’s not just the U.S. suffering in the heat. Globally, this was the fourth warmest June since 1880, and it marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperature exceeded the 20th century average, according to NOAA.

The National Drought Mitigation Center has designated several central Arkansas counties “exceptional” drought condition counties, while the rest are merely “extreme.”

Martha Melkovitz, co-owner of the Keo Fish Farm, says she’s lost a couple of ponds this year and workers can’t seine (gather fish with large nets) in the day. “The water is too hot,” she said

Oxygen levels are hard to keep up in hot water Kelly said. Fish concentrate in deeper areas of the pond, which has less oxygen.

“We’ve seen several fish kills this spring and summer. In this weather, ponds can lose a quarter of an inch a day or about seven inches in a month, she said.

Some fish farmers use a paddle wheel or other kinds of aerators to oxygenate the ponds. Bait-fish farmers don’t necessarily have the aerators that catfish farmers do. Personally, I have seen (fish kills) in about 12 ponds, all around the area,” Kelly added.

Usually, the ponds are aerated by phytoplankton converting sunlight into oxygen, but on cloudy days, less oxygen is generated and both the plants and the fish compete for that oxygen at night, she said.


The extreme heat is having a greater effect on Lonoke County farmers than the actual drought, according to Lonoke Extension Service Agent Jeff Welch.

That’s mostly because 97 percent or 98 percent of the county’s row crops are irrigated. So it’s the heat and not the drought that’s reducing yields. What the drought does do, however, is to require farmers to irrigate fields much more often, resulting in higher fuel and power costs to run the pumps.

Scattered showers and storms throughout the state have had little effect.

“We got a little bit of rain. where I was,” said Welch, but not enough to settle the dust.

“The heat, (especially) high nighttime temperatures in corn, soybeans, cotton and rice, hurt us when we have extreme temperatures between 101 and 105 degrees.

In an average year, corn usually has to irrigated every seven days, soybeans every 10 days, cotton every eight or nine days, but with real high temperatures, those rotations have to be shortened up a day or two,” Welch said.


“We’re going to have some reduced yield in corn and everything but rice,” he said.

Welch said the cost of irrigation fuel is “tremendously high,” and even with really good prices that will help eat up potential profits.

Farmers are pretty much done irrigating corn now, letting it dry down from about 45 percent moisture to 15 percent, Welch said. The harvesting will begin when the moisture gets to about 22 percent to 24 percent.

Unlike farmers in the Arkansas River Vally, there’s not much of a problem so far with blister beetles or grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers typically come from a ditch at the edge of a field, so farmers scouting their fields can catch the problem early and treat the edges of the fields with pesticides.

Lonoke is among the Arkansas counties declared agricultural disaster areas because of the anticipated reduced yields from heat and drought and many producers will be eligible for low-interest loans through the USDA.


The heat and drought have hurt dairy farmers, which are few in the area.

When Woody Bryant sold his dairy cows last month, it was because the demands of dairy farming made it tough for him to exercise his duties as an officer in the fledgling Lonoke-White Water System, but “it was excellent timing,” he said Friday.

Bryant, who is serving his last month on the Arkansas Dairy Stabilization Board, said the heat stresses the cows.

They eat less and produce less milk—as much as 30 percent less—and the pastures are dried up, leaving farmers to feed hay from this year’s meager harvest now instead of in November.

Dairy farmers will also have to feed more corn and because of the drought and heat, corn prices are climbing.

“Feed prices will go up before the price of milk catches up,” he said. The price will probably lag two or three months behind.

On Friday, the state sent out the last check for the dairy stabilization program and there’s little money left in the program.


The Small Business Administration has declared 70 Arkansas counties eligible for low interest loans to businesses hit hard in agricultural communities. Lonoke, White and Pulaski counties are among them.

Businesses can qualify for 4 percent loans and nonprofits can borrow money for 3 percent, according to a SBA press release this week.