Weather takes turn for Sauk County farmers

January 22, 2019 GMT

Unseasonably warm weather and a lack of snow cover have presented challenges and opportunities for farmers this winter.

Without a white blanket to insulate the fields, some worry about their spring crops. But the livestock is happy and the weather has made maintenance work tolerable. Farmers are accustomed to adjusting to the weather.

“Farmers get used to it,” said Alana Voss, agricultural educator at Sauk County’s University of Wisconsin-Extension office. “They roll with the tide.”

Circumstances started to change with the weekend snowfall and a predicted cold snap. Until then, this winter had been the second-warmest on record in the state. The Baraboo area had accumulated less than 10 inches of snow, when typically it would’ve seen more than 20.

Voss said open fields can make crops vulnerable to winterkill. “Snow cover is really important,” Voss said. “That blanket of snow really acts as an insulating blanket.”

A lack of snow could hurt crops that need the soil moisture snow provides. “They worry about what it’s going to do with the crops they have in the ground,” she said of local farmers.

Loganville cattle farmer Derek Yanke said getting rain instead of snow wreaks havoc.

“Winter rains create ponding in the fields, which potentially can kill winter wheat and alfalfa fields where the icing occurs,” he said. “Lack of frost in the ground during the earlier winter rains has caused some washouts in fields, which is removing topsoil and nutrients.”

Yanke said he’s covering crops and adopting a no-till approach to keep residue on the soil surface. “This helps with water infiltration, erosion control and keeping our nutrients in place,” he said.

There has been a bright side. Gene Larsen, who grows several crops north of Baraboo off Sauk County Highway T, said mild weather has given farmers time to fix fences and repair erosion from fall flooding. “We’ve been able to work on those projects and get them taken care of,” he said.

Dairy farmers benefit because the cows stay comfortable, and can still graze. Plus, temperatures in the 20s makes morning milking tolerable for farmers and cattle alike.

But more typical winter weather would be welcome, as it would help kill a fungus that blew in last year and infected corn stalks. Larsen said wheat fields benefit from 2 to 4 inches of insulating snow.

The atypical winter conditions followed a difficult fall harvest. Larsen said he was his farm was on pace for record yields before late-summer flooding. His harvest of corn, soybeans and wheat came in 20 percent below average.

Mother Nature brought snow over the weekend, and will follow it with cold temperatures set to remain below freezing all week, and dip into the single digits overnight.

The sudden turn may create problems. Snowfall followed by a cold snap can damage crops like alfalfa.

Yanke said fluctuating weather can make cattle sick. “Our cattle are out in pastures all winter, so they are much healthier when the winter weather is consistent,” he said. “We are very happy to see the snow and cold temps returning.”