NEW ORLEANS (AP) - For months, it's been so hot and dry that the 125 cows and 80 heifers at Forrest Hill Dairy were getting a midday misting to cool them down.

With their usual Kentwood pastures bare dirt, they've been eating baled grasses that Cathy Forrest had planned for winter hay. Even with the noontime break, the cows are too hot to eat as much as usual so milk production is down.

Mike McCormick of the LSU AgCenter dairy research station in Franklinton says dairy farmers are surviving only because milk prices are high.

"If we weren't in a drought with very high feed prices and fertilizer prices, farmers would be paying off some debt," he said.

Sporadic recent rains, while welcome, aren't enough to break the drought.

It would take two or three weeks of rain to saturate the soil, and another two or three weeks to recharge groundwater and bring rivers up to normal levels, said state climatologist Barry Keim.

The drought has been worst in west Louisiana where seven parishes - Beauregard, Caddo, DeSoto, Sabine, Vernon, Calcasieu and Cameron - have been declared federal secondary drought disaster areas.

Southwest Louisiana's atmosphere has been like the Sahara's, said Ken Kuyper, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles. "There's a cap on the atmosphere. Think of it as a lid. Storms just cannot get through it."

Dairy, mostly concentrated in the Florida Parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain, is a $48 million business.

Troy Ingram, who has about 180 cows and heifers on his farm in Franklinton, said, "I figure it's costing me at the minimum $300 a day." That's what he's losing on the milk his cows aren't producing. Production is off 35-40 percent, he said.

He's also lost about one-third of his hay crop, 150 to 200 tons. "Usually, we're cutting our first crop of hay on June 15," he said. "We don't have any grass. Cattle have eaten it all up."

Before the recent rains, the ground was too hard for many cattle farmers to even plant grass for hay.

The hard ground is also creating an armadillo problem.

The creatures are digging for insects and larvae in any moist ground they can find, often in freshly watered gardens and lawns. Their pits range up to 5 inches wide and 3 inches deep, according to the LSU AgCenter,

The first six months of 2010 are the driest on record with an average of 17.7 inches of rain statewide through the end of June, breaking the 17.9-inch mark set in 1973, Keim said.

Scorching temperatures in June accelerated the drought's effect, said regional climatologist Luigi Romolo. June was the second-hottest on record, tied with 1998 and behind only last year, he said.

No corner of Louisiana is untouched by drought. As of July 12, nearly two-thirds was classed as in "exceptional" drought, another 27 percent was "extreme" and the rest "severe."

Southwest Louisiana's rice crop - a $4 11.5 million business - is getting hit hard. In parts of Vermilion and Cameron parishes rivers are so low that salt water is creeping in from the Gulf of Mexico, forcing farmers to give up as much as 50,000 acres of rice fields because the water is too salty for irrigation, said John Saichuk, rice specialist at the LSU AgCenter station in Rayne.

Irrigation with that water would do more than kill this year's crop, he said: "If they use that salty water, it will contaminate their fields for next year."

Wildfires also are up sharply as dry conditions turn forests into tinder.

During June alone, 350 wildfires burned 5,434 acres, compared to 91 fires and 474 acres in June 2010. Bret Lane of the Office of Forestry said that through July 7, 1,775 fires burned 21,279 acres - almost double the 10,812 acres burned by 1,086 fires through the same period last year.

Fires are spreading faster and are harder to put out because of the dry conditions, he said.

L ane also noted that a 25-year-old firefighter died of the heat while fighting a forest fire in Texas. "I'm sending out a notice to all our crews statewide to keep an eye on each other and stay hydrated," he said.

A number of rural north Louisiana water systems that depend on wells have asked their customers not to water lawns or wash cars at night.

Farther south, Sabine Parish and the town of Many declared water emergencies last week because the Toledo Bend Reservoir, the largest man-made lake in the South, was dropping close to Many's shallow intakes.

"This drought has been going on for a year and a half now," with rainfall 30 inches below normal for the period, Mayor Ken Freeman said.

An emergency ordinance gives residents caught washing cars, watering yards or filling swimming pools one warning. "On their next offense they'll receive a $500 fine; for a third offense we'll turn the water off," Freeman said.

Although Many's population is about 2 ,700, its water system serves about 12,000 people, almost half the parish. It is now relying on four wells. "If everybody cooperates and conserves we'll be meeting our needs," Freeman said.

The Keatchie Water System, which has 13 wells and about 1,300 customers in west DeSoto Parish and across the state line into extreme east Texas, called a similar ban weeks earlier, after five of its eight pumping stations ran out of water at one time or another in a week, manager Dennis Dougherty said.

"It's not only us. Better than a dozen systems in the area are having to do the same thing," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.