Summer has been quite different this year due to the ongoing pandemic we are facing. Most of us are still trying to adjust to the new “normal” for a while, and just like us, farmers are doing the same. But there is one thing that will not change for farmers, regardless of any extraordinary circumstance: harvest season. This time of the year is the busiest and the most anticipated time for dairy farmers. However, this is a difficult and stressful time as well.

Throughout the past six months farmers have been working day after day, regardless of the pandemic we are facing. Their work does not stop, and cannot be postponed as most of us have done with many of our activities. They can’t slow down because that would mean that they will not have enough feed for their animals, which can affect the milk supply in markets, therefore making access to milk for consumers a challenge.

Misty Meadows Farm Creamery in Smithsburg, Md., host a tour of the 500-acre farm on Oct. 2, 2016. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

During harvest, dairy farmers will collect forages and grains from the fields and store them to use them as feed during winter. Generally, harvest starts with the first cut of alfalfa. This can happen as early as May (if there is an already established field from previous years), and will continue until August or September. Farmers can collect up to 5 or 6 cuts, or harvests, if the weather allows. But, that’s just one of the many activities that farmers have to coordinate and execute in a precise and effective manner.

If farmers delayed the cut of alfalfa for just a few days, this would mean that the quality of the forage would decrease substantially. There is a very narrow time frame where farmers can complete this activity, and sometimes the weather does not cooperate. At least for alfalfa, they have a few tries, but every time that this is not done right, their bottom line will be affected.

Fields of corn grow at Schrack Farms in Loganton, Pa., on July 19, 2019. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The next big harvest moment is just around the corner, and that is corn silage chopping. Corn silage is a high-quality forage crop that is used as the main source of feed on many dairy farms. This time, there is only one chance to get it right and there is very small chance for error. The corn needs to reach a specific dry matter (32 to 40% depending how is going to be stored), which happens once the corn ears have reached maturity (40 to 50 days after silking, a necessary stage to corn development). That is only one of the factors that farmers must consider when planning harvest in order to have a successful season. Labor, storage space, and equipment availability are also important factors, and not to mention, weather.

Many farmers hire custom harvest operators to do this work because they do not have the capacity to do it all by themselves. There are advantages to this system. It is fast, consistent, and can be done in a timely manner. But, not all farming operations can afford to hire a custom harvest operator. Especially in Pennsylvania, most of the small farmers do all the work themselves.

Different varieties of corn (also known as hybrids) are used to try to expand the narrow time slot for harvest since these hybrids mature at different times. But, this means that the farmers will not get consistency in the quality of the forage. The challenge with this method is that cows will have to adapt to these changes in forage quality. However, most dairy cows do not like change, and they are likely to eat less until they adjust to the new diet. Unfortunately, this will likely affect their production, which means that the farmer’s bottom line will be affected as well.

Later in the season, the next crops to harvest are the corn grain and the beans. These two are less time sensitive, but more weather dependent. Dry conditions during the fall need to be reached to make sure that the corn grain and soybeans are well dried. Moisture is the enemy in this case, because it can cause molds.

On top of dealing with a pandemic, farmers are trying to continue their work in the fields. Corn silage chopping is just around the corner. This harvest represents months worth of feed for the cows. It’s a stressful and complicated time but at the same time very rewarding.  

At the Alliance, our conservation work with farmers revolves around their availability. We need to consider how busy farmers are during this time of the year and plan our outreach activities accordingly. Winter is the best time to plan meetings and events, as many farmers are less busy and more receptive to taking the time to listen during their slower season.