Crops, livestock are threatened

Donald Chase adjusts the water at an irrigation pond on his farm in Oglethorpe, Ga. Severe drought and hot weather are hurting farmers across Georgia.

ATLANTA --- Donald Chase spent part of the week cleaning a clogged line on a massive irrigation system that he's run almost nonstop since it stopped raining in south Georgia.

Breakdowns are becoming more common as farmers such as Chase tax their irrigation machines trying to make up for the water they have not received from Mother Nature this spring. Georgia is suffering from a severe drought that has forced farmers to delay or give up planting some crops. Crops on land without irrigation systems could likely die. Farmers must contend with expensive electricity bills to run those irrigation systems and are even sending dairy cows to slaughter after the sun has baked their pasture and hay.

Speaking from atop his irrigation pivot, Chase, 46, looked around his 1,600 acres of farmland in Oglethorpe and likened it to Arizona -- hot and dusty.

"I've got to be honest with you," he said. "I'm a pretty optimistic soul. I've been really fortunate, but this is as desperate a situation as we've ever been in."

It has been a dry year in south Georgia. In Moultrie, weather sensors show it has received just 16 inches of rain this year, while 25 inches is normal for this time of year. And the rain hasn't come at the best time for growers. They've received about 3 inches of water since April, during their growing season.

Conditions aren't much better farther north, where Chase said his corn crop needs roughly 2 inches of water a week at this point in the season, though it has been getting half of that. And irrigation is not a cure-all for dry weather. Plants never even sprouted at the edge of Chase's fields, where irrigation nozzles cannot reach.

One 40-acre pond feeding one of his corn fields has run dry. And the Flint River, where Chase gets water for his other fields, is low.

"You can see sandbars really easily," he said.

Surveys suggest crops across the state are suffering. A U.S. Department of Agriculture tally for the week ending June 12 found that 42 percent of the state's corn crop was in poor or very poor condition. The same was true for 46 percent of the cotton crop and 73 percent of the pastures and ranges.

"Many of the dry land fields have severe damage, and some have completely burned up from the drought and severe heat," Mike Hayes, a Wheeler County agriculture extension agent, said in the report. "Some of the irrigated fields are also getting in bad shape as farmers are running out of (water) in their irrigation ponds."

The drought has hurt small dairy farmers who must buy corn to feed their herds when drought and heat makes it impossible to grow hay or keep healthy pastures. Corn prices have risen sharply because of flooding in the Midwest and the use of the corn to make the alternative fuel ethanol, said Farrah Newberry, the executive director of the Georgia Milk Producers.

As a result, some farmers have opted to slaughter parts of their cow herds for beef.

"When you can't feed hay and pastures are dry, it really puts pressure on our dairy farmers," Newberry said.