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Farmers Share Water Woes at the State Fair

Visitors flocked to State Fair Park Thursday, where the annual fair began its 11-day run. Farmers from every county in Wisconsin are showing their livestock, in hopes of winning the Blue Ribbon. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson found that one subject weighing heavily on many cattle owners’ minds is water.

Farmers in the cattle barn are hosing down their cows in the wash area. Shelly Mayer of Slinger in Washington County is grooming three of her animals for show. She says this summer’s drought has been devastating enough; then her county suffered another blow when a pipeline ruptured in the town of Jackson two weeks ago, spilling gasoline into residents’ wells.

“Water is such a critical thing to all of us and our groundwater. As a dairy farmer, we take that extremely seriously. My heart goes out to the families that are in this sense of uncertainty,” Mayer says.

Mayer says her family regularly tests its well water and she is grateful that so far, it remains healthy. However, this year’s drought is taking a huge toll on the farm.

“Last week we had two inches of rain and the week before we had two inches of rain and that was the first rain our crops had gotten since May 20. In a normal cropping year, we should have about an inch of rain every ten days. Some of the crops will be a failure because they didn’t get water in time. Some of the corn crop that was planted a little later will now get an ear but we still need more rain,” Mayer says.

Mayer says the drought has caused a shortage of hay, so she will have to purchase it in order to feed her cattle in winter. Besides needing water for crops, Mayer says she also has to keep her cows hydrated.

“Cows need to keep drinking water because milk has a lot of water in it. You want them to be able to continue to produce their milk. So when it gets really hot if they don’t have adequate cooling, ways to get cool under a fan, under a sprinkler or in the shade, the first thing she does is produce less milk,” Mayer says.

Mayer says in the absence of rain, her farm must pump water from its 270 foot deep well. Caitlin Cull and her father own a farm in Hartland in Waukesha County. She says her family pumps water from a nearby stream and then sends it flowing over smooth tiles laid underneath the fields, to water them.

“Water is brought down through the tiles and then the tiles go into a drainage pond. Our well is in that drainage pond in the marsh and it gets worked back out,” Cull says.

Cull says the system almost ran dry because of the drought, but recent rain helped replenish the supply. Yet she says the drought destroyed the family’s first corn and hay crops this summer. She has not yet calculated the financial loss. John Scott says the drought obliterated 40 percent of his business. He owns a farm in Racine County and says his family does not have access to an irrigation system.

“Our land is not adjacent to any natural water sources. In order to partake in irrigation sources and to get the permit from the DNR you need to own the land adjacent. The main source of water in our town that could have been drawn from is the Root River and that’s so shallow. It wouldn’t have supplied much acreage for irrigation anyway,” Scott says.

Scott says so far, his well has provided adequate amounts of water for his cattle, but not for the fields. Despite his troubles, he intends to remain at the fair for its entire run. Scott says there’s not much he can do staying home.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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