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FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2007
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Jack Summerford feeds his cattle on his Massey farm. Many area cattlemen are selling off livestock due to the lack of hay.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Jack Summerford feeds his cattle on his Massey farm. Many area cattlemen are selling off livestock due to the lack of hay.

The summer of their discontent
Drought making it hard for area cattle producers; less hay, higher prices

By Tiffeny Hurtado
thurtado@decaturdaily.com · 340-2440

The Tennessee Valley's worst drought in more than a century was enough to take Jack Summerford's property off the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood hazard map.

"I guess they figured out that my land was in no danger of being flooded any time soon," Summerford of Massey joked.

While his land and the property of many other landowners isn't in danger of flooding, the exceptional drought has presented myriad problems for farmers and cattle producers.

The drought, in addition to the dry years of 2005 and 2006, has compounded the problem cattlemen have in trying to secure food for their livestock because the dry conditions are making it impossible to grow hay.

Last year's drought reduced cut hay production by about 50 percent, according to an Alabama Cooperative Extension System report by Extension Economist Walt Prevatt.

This year's drought extinguished hope for enough hay for cattlemen to get by.

"I've been doing this all my life, for 64 years, and I have never seen anything like it," said Summerford.

He owns 250 acres and has a herd of about 50 registered Angus cows and 60 sheep.

"Farmers normally buy their hay from me, but I can't even sell anymore because I'm using it to feed my own," he said.

"My customers are the ones who are really hurting right now."

Summerford says he normally cuts hay fields five times during the summer, but this year he has cut his fields only once.

"I don't think there will be a second cutting," he said.

He hasn't cut his Bermuda grass this year.

"I've only got in about a third of the hay this year," he said.

A roll of hay would normally sell for $25 or $30 this time of year, but it is selling for $60, said Summerford.

"No one has any for sale, and if they did, no one could afford it," he said.

Area farmers have harvested about 25 percent to 35 percent of a normal hay crop this summer, said Jerry Thompson, a livestock specialist for the Morgan County Extension Cooperative.

Couple that with dwindling yields in the past three years, and you're looking at problems for those whose livelihood comes from raising cattle, horses, goats and sheep.

"Even if the rain came today, it still wouldn't help because the hay season has already passed," said Thompson.

Cattle farmers are being forced to use the hay in their reserves for winter to feed their livestock this summer, and those reserves will soon be gone.

"People shouldn't be feeding their livestock hay in June and July," he said.

"You're supposed to use the hay when it starts to get colder — like around Thanksgiving."

Some cattlemen are buying hay from out of state, but transportation almost doubles the cost. Thompson said many cattlemen are left with only one option.

"Many have to sell off their cattle because they just can't feed them any more," he said.

In recent weeks, local stockyards were selling 135 percent to 150 percent more cattle than usual, he said.

Summerford said he knows of cattlemen who have sold their entire herds.

Calves are being brought to market sooner, and some cattlemen are even selling mother cows, which Thompson says is the equivalent of "closing the factory doors and going out of business."

While the hay market is nearly nonexistent, the cattle market is being supported by cattlemen from out of state coming in to buy livestock.

"Those folks who had all the flooding in Texas and Oklahoma are coming in to buy our cows, and they're the ones keeping the prices of cattle up," said Summerford.

Cattlemen are using various methods of reducing their herd to conserve hay.

Thompson said some are culling their livestock, which is a process of "weeding out" livestock that aren't vital to the herd and putting them up for sale.

They are also weaning their calves earlier because nursing cows eat more food. Weaning calves lets owners ration hay.

Early weaning reduces the nutritional needs of nursing cows by one-third to one-half, Prevatt said.

Disastrous drought

The federal government has declared the state a natural disaster area because of the persistent drought. Farmers are eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the Farm Service Agency if they meet requirements, and they can contact their local USDA Service Center for information.

  • Morgan County’s Farm Service Agency is in Hartselle, and you can contact the office at 773-6541.

  • Lawrence County’s FSA can be contacted at 974-1174.

  • Limestone county’s FSA can be reached at 232-4025.

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