April 06, 2020

Dairy farm losses continue to mount

PITTSFIELD — In Albion, dairy farmers trucked a portable generator from farm to farm throughout the recent long-term power outage. The driver, Albion farmer Peter Dorr, slept in the truck that brought the generator while farmers milked their cows. This traveling power center continued night after night, all night, for a week.

In Dexter, farmer Dale Robinson lost his barn and two calves, with one cow injured, according to fire officials, when the weight of the ice finally won Tuesday, and the metal barn roof collapsed.

Pittsfield dairyman Jim Richmond used up five generators trying to keep up with the milking demand until he finally ran out of options last week and his cows dried up, six weeks earlier than he had planned.

Despite early predictions from state officials that Maine’s 500 dairy farms were well-equipped to handle the recent ice storm, many farmers weren’t prepared for its intensity and the problems associated with running their farms without electricity for up to two weeks.

“The crisis is not over,” Shelly Falk, director of the Animal Welfare Division of the Maine Department of Agriculture, said Tuesday. “There are still a lot of people without power, and we are still providing generator assistance to many farmers.”

Falk said state agricultural officials may not know for months the full impact of the ice storm on Maine’s dairy industry. As of Tuesday, Falk knew of only three serious animal losses: a calf was lost, two cows slipped on ice and had to be destroyed, and four cows were lost in a roof collapse. She said she was not aware of the losses at Robinson’s farm in Dexter, though fire officials later detailed the loss.

By last Friday, Department of Agriculture staff had contacted nearly all of Maine’s dairy farms, checking for power outages and specific animal health problems.

“We basically asked them two questions: Do you have power? and Do you have any specific animal health issues?” Falk said. The majority of the farmers relayed they had power or sufficient backup.

“We heard that some of them had been through two or three generators, but most said they were holding their own. Only about a half-dozen needed additional help from us, and we worked throughout the weekend providing additional generators,” said Falk.

Generators, however, can be pretty expensive — and unpredictable — to run. Walter Fletcher in Pittsfield ran a generator for four days, dumping 80 gallons of diesel fuel a day into it, at a price of $1.25 a gallon. That’s $100 a day — just to run the generator. Because the generator couldn’t handle milking, cooling the milk and pumping water all at once, chores had to be rotated and the days seemed endless, he said.

Then there were the four days that he spent cabling and strengthening the trusses in his barn. And the two days he spent shoveling ice and snow from the roof.

“But I still feel a lot luckier than some of the others. I’m counting my blessings,” Fletcher said Tuesday.

It appears that Maine reacted quickly and efficiently to serve its farmers while in some other New England states, farmers waited days for generators, days that cost them cows.

One dairy farmer in upstate Albany, N.Y., told The Associated Press that he lost seven cows because he waited three days for a generator.

Those cows died from mastitis, which remains the major concern of Maine farmers, according to Falk. Mastitis, an inflammation or infection of the cow’s udder, is painful and potentially deadly.

Even if cows recover from mastitis, they may never regain their full production level. Falk said the state Department of Agriculture was creating a two-page flier, “After the Storm,” for dairy farmers, to help them monitor the health of their herds. The flier will be mailed to all dairy farms this week.

“This is a disease that every farmer is aware of and dreads,” said Falk.

As cows dry up or fall and injure themselves, farmers are forced to truck them to slaughterhouses to be sold for meat.

“Everything’s getting backed up now,” said Fletcher. “I shipped seven cows last week and two more this week. My cattle dealer still has five of them.” Fletcher said his culled cows will end up as meat in either Canada or Pennsylvania.

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