Wet Winter Helping Groundwater Levels

Posted: February 28, 2014

Cattle feed near standing water in a lot Thursday along Clover Hill Road west of Harrisonburg. (Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R)

HARRISONBURG — In late January, Jeremy Daubert, a dairy agent with Rockingham County Extension, was advising farmers to “stay warm and enjoy the lack of mud.

“My phone says it’s 6 degrees out. Hopefully this will be the last time this year I see single-digit temperatures. I have heard reports of frozen manure problems, frozen water pipes, and gelled fuel filters on equipment,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter “Dairy Moos.”

At the time, Daubert pointed out, the best thing about the cold weather was the lack of mud. But, he warned, as temperatures move above freezing, the mud would return.

Now, a month later, muddy conditions are indeed presenting challenges for some farmers. The good news is that significant rain and snowfall have helped replenish groundwater supplies.

“Every year in March, you can always count on it to be a muddy month, but we just started a little early this year,” said Jason Carter, executive secretary with the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association.

He said mud makes it more difficult for farmers to feed and move cattle, and it also creates unsanitary conditions that raise the risk of sickness, particularly for young cattle. But, he added, the extra groundwater is always a “blessing.”

“No matter how dry it gets this summer, this is building the water table back up so the springs and the creeks, hopefully, will still be flowing,” he said.

Dan Myers, who raises cattle and grows wheat, corn, soybeans and alfalfa on his farm near Dayton, said this winter’s snowy, wet weather should be helpful, but crops will need moisture in the summer, too.

“It’s delightful now but it will depend upon what happens in June, July and August,” he said. “Unless we are in a place that we can irrigate, which a lot of us cannot, we are at the mercy of the weather. We are the natural born gamblers.”

Buff Showalter at Fox Run Farm in Dayton, who grows crops, and raises beef cattle and chickens, said winter precipitation certainly helps replenish the groundwater, but topsoil moisture in the Valley will leave quickly once the weather heats up.

“The moisture that we have now really has very little to do with if we have a good crop season, particularly with corn and soybeans — crops that use a lot of moisture in July and August,” Showalter said.

According to Jerry Stenger, director of the Virginia Climatology Office, most Virginians have received normal to well-above normal precipitation since October.

Areas along the North Carolina border, much of southwest Virginia and the central Shenandoah Valley have been notably drier, with some locations receiving less than 75 percent of normal, according to Stenger. But, the lower-than-normal temperatures across the state have kept evaporation rates down to reduce moisture loss.

“The net result is that the available precipitation, including the recent snowfall event, has kept monitored stream flows and groundwater levels in the normal range and above across the state,” Stenger says in a Virginia Farm Bureau Federation press release.

“The only exception is one stream flow gauge in the central Shenandoah Valley. There is still a month or more of cooler temperatures left before the growing season gets fully under way. This will be a period when additional precipitation will have a good chance to contribute to the longer-term reserves,” he adds.

 Contact Jonathon Shacat at 574-6286 or jshacat@dnronline.com

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