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Farmers cross fingers for normal winter after last year’s moody weather patterns

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Last winter’s erratic weather caused plenty of mischief for farmers in the north country. Sheets of ice made fields look like skating rinks, and crops were exposed to harmful cycles of freezing and thawing.

So, with another winter fast approaching, farmers hope Mother Nature delivers normal temperatures with plenty of snow, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Winter crops planted this fall such as wheat, rye and triticale grain, as well as mature alfalfa hay crops, must be buffered from the elements.

“A cold winter with adequate snowfall is what we need,” Mr. Hunter said. “Six to 8 inches of snowfall acts as a blanket of insulation that protects crops from fluctuations in temperatures. We don’t want a lot of ice buildup and sheets — it shuts off the oxygen and crops suffer. And when it melts, all of the standing groundwater prevents growth in the spring.”

Last winter, temperatures in January and February swung high and low like a pendulum. Through January, there were 15 days with temperatures above 40 degrees measured at Watertown International Airport. According to data in Watertown going back to 1963, by contrast, the average number of days in January with temperatures above 40 degrees is only 5.7. The unusually warm days were mixed with drastically cold ones, however, as temperatures dropped as low as 24 degrees below zero.

Those warm and cold fluctuations, Mr. Hunter said, do the most damage to alfalfa in particular. Thawing and freezing of the ground can produce what is commonly known as winterkill, which uproots plants so they cannot grow in spring.

“The expansion and contraction of the soil pushes up the roots in the soil and can sever them,” he said. “Those taproots go deep in the soil and provide plants nutrients they need.”

This fall, Mr. Hunter said, some dairy farmers made a fourth cutting of their hay crops to provide extra forage for their cattle to make up for crop losses. While farmers usually leave 4 to 6 inches of hay as a buffer for the winter weather, many have cut all of it this fall to ensure they have enough feed for the winter.

“Farmers who cut all their hay to increase feed for the cattle will be candidates for a higher risk of winter injury,” he said. “Hay on the ground catches the snow and keeps it in place, and if it’s gone, snow will blow off the field and cause bare spots.”

Ellisburg dairy farmer William E. Eastman, who owns a farm with 350 acres of alfalfa, said his fields luckily made it through last winter mostly unscathed. And because he harvested enough forage to feed his herd of 400 cattle, he didn’t have to scalp his crops this fall as other farmers did.

“In March, the alfalfa plants woke up too early and started growing because of the warm weather, and all of a sudden, we got cold weather, and it can blast them and ruin your season,” he said. “The biggest thing that can hurt alfalfa is freezing and thawing. If you don’t have good drainage, the taproots will pop out and kill the plants.”

Cattle don’t like temperature fluctuations, either. When temperatures rise above 50 degrees as they did last winter, Mr. Eastman said, cattle take notice.

“When it starts getting over 60 degrees, they think it’s hot, and you have to do something because they don’t want to eat,” he said. “The way our free stall barns are set up improves ventilation, and we will crank up the curtain side walls to allow more airflow.”

Meanwhile, most farmers with whom Mr. Eastman talks about the weather are hoping for a normal winter after the tricks Mother Nature played this past year.

“No one’s hoping for a lot of snow or a really mild winter,” he said. “Somewhere in the middle would be nice.”

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