Drought causing issues across area

Earlier this week, Pulaski residents were awakened by an unfamiliar sound.  The normally annoying buzz of the alarm clock or the early morning crowing of the rooster wasn’t the cause.  Rather, it was the sound of the abundance of rain on the rooftops!

Under normal circumstances, most of us would be complaining about getting wet while going to work or running errands.  But after this summer’s severe drought, there must have been lots of rejoicing at the recent pitter-patter of raindrops.

According to a recent announcement by Governor Ralph Northam, “More than half of our Commonwealth is currently experiencing a water deficit, which can have lasting agricultural, economic, environmental impacts.  While water conservation activities during a drought watch are generally voluntary, we encourage localities and individuals across Virginia to heed this warning and take necessary steps to monitor their water usage.”

Some simple steps people can take to help are to minimize non-essential water use and repair water leaks and dripping faucets.

Since July 24th of this year until this week, portions of Pulaski County have received less than an inch of rain.  Normal summer rainfall amounts are approximately three inches each in August, September and October.

As if the lack of rain wasn’t enough, record-breaking heat contributed to the drought.  According to NOAA Meterologist Steve Keighton, “We had above normal rainfall in early spring, but during the summer we were stuck in a ridge of dry high pressure.  The drought was exacerbated by the high temperatures, not just the lack of precipitation.  Moisture in the ground evaporated and everything dried out.  There were quite a few days this summer when we matched all-time high heat or broke heat records.  For instance, it was a record breaking 94 degrees on October 4th.”

Pulaski County Extension Agent Morgan Paulette has been monitoring the effects of the drought. “Certainly, a lot of our pastures are severly dry and burned up.  During a season of normal rainfall, we get a flush of growth or second cutting of hay.  Livestock producers can rest their pastures for spring grazing or stockpile grass for winter.  This year, there are no additional cuttings.  There is a shortage of hay for many producers and shortage of pasture grazing.  Consequently, some producers may be weaning calves early and culling their herds earlier than they normally would because they have to feed hay and grain to get them through. It gets expensive.”

Paulette has talked to a few producers who have ponds and who have seen the water levels go down.  “I’ve even seen farmers hauling water in for their livestock,” he adds.

Blair and Kim Sanders, owners of Black Hollow Dairy, an organic dairy farm on Black Hollow Road in Dublin are struggling with one of their springs going dry.  The Saunders’ grandparents purchased the farm in 1963 and it has been a family farming operation since then.

“We’ve never seen it this dry this time of year.  Back Creek is barely running under the bridge.  Fortunately, we have the ability to pump water out of another well and catch pool, and a tank is set up to catch rainwater run-off from the dairy building.  We try to conserve and recycle water as much as we can,” says Blair Saunders.

During the heatwave of this summer, the dairy cows that are grazing in the pastures have to find shade.  When it is too hot, the cows have less energy to produce milk, so the milk production has gone down.

The Saunders have organic fields where they graze their dairy cattle and normally are able to bale enough of their own organic hay to sustain them until spring; but they have had to feed hay since the beginning of September this year.

“Organic hay is a scarce commodity.  We are buying organic hay out of state which gets very expensive.  Our growing season is pretty much done now and even if we get rain soon, it won’t help the pasture regrowth – unless we have a mild winter with enough rain or snow.”

The Saunders are selling about a dozen of their proven nurse cows.

“The cows are friendly and can be used as a family dairy cow or to nurse orphan calves.  Photos and information can be found on our facebook page, or at blackhollowdairy@yahoo.com,” says Saunders.

Horse farms have been affected by the drought also.

Kim Reid of Shadow Ranch in Dublin says, “We usually start feeding hay to our horses in November, but this year we began feeding in August.  There just wasn’t enough pasture because of the drought.  Having to buy hay this early in the season gets expensive – and the price will just go up as the winter approaches.  Already, the price increase on a square bale is $1.00 per bale; and on round bales it is up $5.00 to $10.00 per bale.  It makes a big difference when you are feeding six to seven square bales a day now, and in the winter, we feed 10 to 12 bales a day.  Plus, we have to feed more grain than normal,” she adds.  Reid says they have sold some of their horses and may have to consider selling some more.

While many are concerned about the drought effects on agriculture, it doesn’t seem to have adversely impacted recreation activities in the NRV.

Michael Valach of Mountain 2 Island Paddleboard Company provides paddleboard, kayak and boat rentals at Gatewood Park and Campground and Claytor Lake State Park.

“Despite the low water levels and dry conditions, we’ve had more campers this year than ever before.  The fishing is good and there are no burning bans so people can enjoy an evening campfire,” states Valach.

However, there is a “Boat Launch Alert”- the boat launch is limited to hand launching of kayaks, paddleboards and boats at this time due to low water.

Valach spent 36 years in the ski and resort industry developing adventure-based operations.  When he decided to return to Virginia and enjoy a more leisurely lifestyle, he started Mountain 2 Island Paddleboard Company, and his business took off.

“We have added music events at the lakes, made some upgrades and improvements, held an Easter Sunrise service, and hope to have some praise music sessions in the future.  People seem to like the new changes.”

NOAA Meterologist Steve Keighton is optimistic.

“This drought has been a short-term situation in the second-half of the summer and early fall.”  He predicts more rain this coming weekend and next Tuesday.

“If we get our normal amount of precipitation going into the winter, we will be able to come out of this and work our way out of the drought,” Keighton adds.

For those of you who are tired of the unseasonably high heat, relief is coming.  Keighton predicts patchy frost by Saturday morning!