DANVILLE, Vt. — Small dairy farmers in the Northeast and Wisconsin say a tough year has been made worse by Congress' failure to pass a new farm bill before the old one expired.

While many farm programs have continued through the harvest season even though the farm bill expired Sept. 30, a program that pays dairy farmers when milk prices plummet has ended.

Many dairy farms were already struggling with low milk prices and high fuel and feed costs as the worst drought in decades dried up grazing land and pushed up the price of hay and feed. Dozens in states like California, the nation's leading milk producer, have filed for bankruptcy.

In Vermont, which saw more closings this year after gradually losing farms for decades, the end of the milk income loss contract, or MILC, program, which paid dairy farmers when milk prices fell below a certain level, has created another wave of panic.

"The last couple of months, that's what's been keeping us going," said Myles Goodrich, who runs Molly Brook Farm in West Danville after taking over from his parents. "Otherwise, it'd be losing battle."

A milk glut sent prices tumbling below the cost of production this summer. They have since rebounded as farmers sold off cows and cut production. But hay and grain prices skyrocketed at the same time as demand for feed increased, all at the same time the drought cut into production.

Now is the time when producers need the MILC payment or something akin to that to allow them to get through this very difficult time, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.