Published on 08/25/97

Dog-days Heat Adds Stress to Life on Georgia Farms

A mid-August heat wave across Georgia had humans, plants and animals all wilting. But the heat isn't just uncomfortable. It can be dangerous.

Farmers may be especially vulnerable to the heat.

"They're often out in the open, with no shade in sight to help keep them cool," said Connie Crawley, a nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "Even staying in a shop with fans is better than in the open, full sun."

But when the farm needs attention, it probably needs it now. That dilemma puts farmers at extra risk. The stress of farming is bad enough, and heat problems can add to it in many ways.

For almost all Georgia crops, soil moisture is more important than air temperature. Rainfall across south Georgia has been spotty at best.

The plants with ample moisture can withstand heat better than those that need water. But even with good moisture, high temperatures can speed evaporation, increasing the need for water.

As harvest time approaches, many crops need hot, dry days to finish maturing. But UGA scientists say most crops aren't quite ready for that. In most cases, heat speeds maturation, sometimes before the farmer or the plant is ready.

Extension peanut scientist John Beasley said the heat is both good and bad. Some of the state's peanuts are maturing before they've set as good a crop as they could with milder weather, he said.

Steve Brown, an extension cotton scientist, said most farmers are still two to three weeks away from needing dry weather for cotton.

"Once the bolls fill out," he said, "farmers want dry days to open the bolls and start harvest without boll rot setting in."

Heat isn't as much the problem as a lack of moisture in soybeans, said extension agronomist John Woodruff. "Some insects are thriving, though," he said. "Farmers need to keep a close eye out for soybean loopers."

Woodruff said soybean loopers can move into a field and multiply fast, damaging the crop as they go.

Grains agronomist Dewey Lee said the corn crop still needs rain in north Georgia. But in south Georgia, farmers need dry weather to get the crop harvested. Overall, he said, the heat's effect won't be as great on fields with adequate moisture.

Ironically, heat doesn't hurt weeds as much as it does crops. "They're tough," said extension weed scientist Greg MacDonald.

As farmers apply herbicides, they can hurt their crop, too. "The oils they apply with some herbicides can burn crop plants during hot days," he said.

Animals, including pets, need water and shade, too. Extension veterinarian Jim Strickland said most confined livestock facilities have good cooling mechanisms designed into them. Misters and fans help keep animals cool. And livestock in pastures, like outdoor pets, will usually find the coolest spot they can on their own.

With humid, hot weather, there is still danger from mosquitoes and the encephalitis they carry, Strickland said. "The big thing this year is taking care of insects that might transmit disease," he said.