Drought may mean fewer, smaller animals at fairs

State and county fairs in the sweltering and drought-stricken Midwest may see some skinnier pigs and smaller squash this year.

The dozen pigs Greg Marzahl and his 15-year-old daughter are bringing to the Wisconsin State Fair are smaller than those he'd normally show. Marzahl, who had three grand champion pigs last year, said his pigs are around about 15 pounds smaller than the normal 275 pounds. The heat is affecting their virility and appetites, he said.

"We've had a hard time getting them to eat enough to get that condition on them," said Marzahl, who has about 35 show pigs and a few lambs on his 160-acre farm in Oxford.

The Wisconsin fair opens its 11-day run Thursday in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. State fairs also are set to begin in the next two weeks in Indiana, Iowa and Illinois, which also have been hit hard this summer by unusual heat and drought.

Marzahl still plans to bring his pigs to the fair, expecting his competition will have smaller animals too.

That's been the case at some county fairs that already have been held in the state.

David Laatsch, an agriculture agent with the University of Wisconsin Extension, said he's judge several poultry contests for county fairs this summer and has seen fewer exhibitors and smaller animals. The heat also causes narrower and fewer feathers on poultry, he said.

Laatsch thought some potential exhibitors might have decided to leave their dairy cows home because they were already stressed. Heat disrupts cows' reproductive cycles, and their milk production goes down, he said.

Liana Glavin, secretary of the Adams County Fair Board, has three teenage daughters involved in 4-H. They will bring some of their 12 cows to the county fair this year but leave a mother and her calf behind because of the stress of the heat.

Other exhibitors aren't even coming, she said, although she didn't immediately have figures.

Glavin said the pasture on her farm in Arkdale is completely dried up, when normally the cows can eat until October. Prices for feed have skyrocketed, and Glavin said she doesn't know how much longer she can afford to keep her farm if the prices stay high and the drought continues.

"It's scary but at the same time it's sad," she said. "My kids bought their cows for a 4-H project. We've had the cows for seven years. When you only have 12 of them you are more attached to them."

Astrid Newenhouse, an agriculture scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, judged vegetables and flowers for ages 8 to 18 at this year's Dane County fair, which ended July 22. She said entries were down by about two-thirds.

"I have never seen the drought like that before, this severe before," said Newenhouse, who has judged for 23 years.

The fair had just one gladiola. Typically, it has about two dozen. She said lilies were smaller and not as colorful and all of the vegetables were smaller.

Most years when she asks children to describe their projects, they usually say what they liked best about the plant.

This year, "the first thing they mentioned was how much they watered them," Newenhouse said.