Closer Look: Rain made 2018 brutal for local farmers

Blame it on the rain.

Rain, either by lack or abundance, can make or break farmers and their crops.

As farmers race to plant for this year, they are coming off one of the worst weather years in more than a century in Kentucky.

And it all stems from the rain.

Rain makes mud. Mud stresses cattle.

Rain means farmers can’t always harvest when they want.

Rain means hay is often poorer quality with much lower nutritional value. Poor nutrition means cattle don’t get the energy they need to fight the cold, wet and muddy conditions.

The mud also makes it hard to harvest crops. Sometimes crops have to wait in in the field. Sometimes the harvest is rushed, just to get the crop out of the field. Either way, quality of the product suffers.

Last year was a record year for rainfall in Kentucky, and a rough year for farmers throughout the state. Rain kept some farmers from harvesting. Rain led to a lot of cow deaths. Rain caused a lot of problems which can’t be remedied quickly or easily.

The cattle farmer

Joy Graham grew up on a family farm near the Bourbon County line.

“My first paying job was cleaning turkey eggs,” she said. “We had sheep and hogs and always cattle.”

Today, Graham manages her mother’s herd of about 50 cattle between two farms, one on Gay Evans Road and another off Fox-Quisenberry Lane.

As she walked through her cattle pasture on a recent sunny day, ruts were still visible from farm vehicles. Deep puddles from recent rain dotted the property outside the fenced pasture.

Graham said they used to keep 50 to 65 cattle on the Fox-Quisenberry farm, when they used both sides of the road. This year, she is trying to split her spring and fall calving herds, so she is down to 50 total.

Losing a half-dozen or so mature cows last year was the biggest blow, she said. Normally, those cows would be sold for beef.

“I don’t remember a year as wet,” she said. “We had wet seasons. I grew up on Pretty Run Creek and it would flash flood. It would go up and come down.”

Graham said she tried to manage the herd and the property as best she could. Sometimes hay was left in one spot routinely for the cattle, to keep from running the tractor throughout the entire property making ruts. Sometimes it was leaving a field closed off to the herd to give the land time to rest and recover.

“I only have 50 acres so it’s a challenge to give up an acre,” she said.

Across Kentucky

Simply put, 2018 was one of the wettest years in Kentucky on record.

Across the Commonwealth, Kentucky Mesonet stations recorded an average of 63.08 inches of rain in 2018, second only to the 64.35 inches recorded in 2011. Lexington recorded 70.62 inches of rain, well beyond the previous record of 66.35 set in 2011. Likewise, Louisville and Frankfort broke their records from 2011.

Kentucky state climatologist Stuart Foster, also the director of Kentucky Mesonet at Western Kentucky University, said the rain was distributed throughout the year with little significant flooding. In 2011, the majority of the rain came in April and May which caused extensive river flooding.

In an article published by Western Kentucky University News, Foster said:

— Black Mountain in Harlan County recorded 87.59 inches of rain in 2018.

— Kentucky has consistently had wetter-than-average years since 2010, despite occasional droughts in the western part of the state.

— Historically, wet years and dry years cycle. Foster said there was a significant wet period in the 1970s in Kentucky, while there were statewide droughts in the 1930s and 1950s.

In October, Gov. Matt Bevin requested federal assistance for Kentucky farmers after rain and other weather caused significant damage and harm to farmers.

The federal assistance was approved in December for 15 Kentucky counties along with 25 surrounding counties, including Clark, for flash flooding, flooding and excessive rain from April 1 through Nov. 8, 2018.

A separate declaration covered excessive rain in Harrison County and seven surrounding counties.

Applications are still being accepted for emergency loans for both incidents through the end of July through the local USDA service centers.

More than mud

While Clark County escaped major flooding, the constant rain throughout 2018 and into this year hurt every kind of crop.

“In vegetables, weeds were terrible,” said David Davis, a Clark County extension agent who focuses on horticulture. “The herbicides didn’t work as well. It makes it harder to harvest.

“It would rain before the fertilizer would dry. They would spend a lot of money and not get the results.”

“Even commercial growers couldn’t get their sprayers into the fields to spray,” said Clay Stamm, another Clark County extension agent who primarily works with livestock.

The continuing rain this year has put some farmers behind schedule.

Brennan Gilkison, a Clark County farmer who grows a number of crops, said Thursday he is about two weeks behind in planting, thanks to the continuing rain.

Last year, the rain meant some farmers simply couldn’t harvest their crops and it brought diseases back that hadn’t been seen in some time.

“Typically your second harvest of hay is more nutritious than the first,” Stamm said, “and it was worse because you couldn’t get it off. Honestly, it was just hard on everyone last fall. There were some crops that didn’t get harvested.

“Last year we had (tobacco) stalk rot we hadn’t seen in years,” Davis said.

“The soil remained so water-logged it robbed it of all the oxygen,” Stamm said.

Rain affects plants and livestock alike

No one is immune to excessive rain, whether animal or plant, and its effects are far reaching.

In November, David Knopf, director of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in Kentucky, told WKYU about 25 percent of Kentucky’s 2 million acres of soy beans remained unharvested in the field.

There was so much rain, the beans did not have a chance to dry out in between, which reduced the quality, Knopf said.

Still, the state’s yield increased to 54 bushels per acre, up from 53 in 2017 but below the forecast of 57 bushels.

For livestock, rain affects the pastures as well as the hay many animals rely on for nourishment and energy.

Hay quality was poor in 2018, according to University of Kentucky ruminant extension veterinarian Michelle Arnold. Hay was often cut and baled while it was still wet, which affects the nutritional value and energy production.

Wet muddy pastures require more energy from the cows, she said. Those energy requirements can double if the cows get wet and muddy, as their coat is their primary defense against cold.

Arnold said many mature cows simply died of starvation, despite having plenty of hay available. The quality of the hay was so poor, cows would use every bit of their stored fat for energy, she said.

In Clark County, Stamm said 57 mature cows were picked up by the county’s dead animal removal service in January and February 2018. For the same time this year, the number nearly quadrupled to 203, he said.

On top of everything, expenses have continued to rise while prices for crops have remained the same, Davis said.

“I’ve heard from multiple people they can’t survive another year like last year,” Stamm said.

Trying to grow everything

On Wednesday, Brennan Gilkison was working his plots along Basin Spring Road. Corn on one side, soy beans on the other. Already running weeks behind on planting, he couldn’t avoid wet spots in his fields. You have to keep planting anyway.

“(Tuesday) we started planting at 6 a.m.,” Gilkison said. “Today we’re setting tobacco. There’s a gazillion things to do trying to beat the rain tonight.”

Gilkison said when July’s high winds and August’s continued rain arrived, he knew it was going to be an awful stretch.

“We’d just come through a dry spell,” he said. “Then it was average conditions until we got into the rains in August. Then we had muddy tobacco in the fields. It was a nightmare. At one point, it started rotting and it was gone.”

Gilkison said his workers had but about 10 acres of tobacco on sticks already, which they then had to go remove. Of his 92 acres of tobacco, Gilkison said he could only harvest about half.

Soy beans had a rough year too, he said. All his crop got harvested, he said, but conditions were far from ideal.

“Last year was my first loss I’ve ever had growing tobacco,” he said. “We ended up mowing down about 40 acres. It’s heartbreaking. Last year was devastating for tobacco and soy. Not only do you get crop quality loss, but these machines are big and they’re hard on the ground.”

Like Graham, Gilkison lost some of his cattle too.

“We got weight loss on them from the rain or tromping around in the mud,” he said.

No controlling Mother Nature

With all the technology and advancement in the world, the weather remains out of human control. Meteorologists offer an idea of what’s coming, but that’s it.

“You just do the best you can with what you’ve got and keep space between what’s going out and what’s coming in,” Graham said. “There is a normal cattle cycle that runs about 13 years. We had a peak year around 2014-15 when cattle prices were astronomical. Sometimes you have to roll with what you get. That’s what makes farming interesting. There’s good years and not so good years.”

Gilkison, who grew up in a farming family, has been a full-time farmer since 2014, and said he tries to diversify as much as he can, including industrial hemp and black raspberries, to mitigate bad crops or bad weather.

“Sometimes you have a loss on one crop and excel in others,” he said. “(You) learn to save in the good years. That’s why we try different opportunities in marketing. Marketing and crop insurance are some of the biggest ways to protect what we’re doing.”

There are a multitude of factors which play into farming, many of which are out of farmers’ hands.

“It’s kind of like gambling in Vegas,” Gilkison said. “You never know what the cards are going to be. You hope they’re in your favor. That’s what farming is.”

Still, Gilkison and Graham love it.

“There is joy in knowing what you’re doing,” Gilkison said. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s what we know. We also like being advocates for it.”

Graham agreed.

“That’s what makes farming interesting,” Graham said. “You’re always thinking ‘How can I do this better? What can I do next year?’

“There’s good years and not-so-good years. We continue to take care of the animals (God’s) entrusted to me.”

The best part?

“I love being out and seeing things grow,” Graham said.