Drought creates Carolina hay crisis

The record early freeze, combined with an ongoing summer drought, has created a hay crisis that threatens to put many livestock producers out of business in the Carolinas and Virginia.

In North Carolina, Steve Troxler, commissioner of agriculture, says his state's livestock industry may need up to 800,000 round bales of hay. To put that into perspective Troxler notes that one tractor trailer truck can haul 32 of the large bales of hay.

In South Carolina drought conditions have continued to deteriorate. In response to the ongoing drought the South Carolina, Drought Response Committee recently upgraded the drought level to severe for all but two counties in the state.

The drought, combined with the Easter freeze, has had a devastating impact on South Carolina agriculture. One of the most critical commodities in great demand is hay for feeding livestock. The drought has delayed much-needed cuttings, significantly reducing the normal hay supply. To make matters worse, hay is also in short supply in most of the Southeastern and Southern states.

Grain crop, cotton and peanut losses to the spring freeze and summer drought will be huge across the upper south. Tragic as these losses are for row crop farmers, they often have crop insurance and their plight is pretty well set, Troxler says.

Cattle producers will see the affects of this drought for many years, because it will dramatically affect the number of breeding stock that is the backbone of a livestock operation. Helping livestock operations survive the hay crisis is critical to the long-term future of the cattle and hog business in the Carolinas, according to the North Carolina ag commissioner.

Hugh Weathers, South Carolina commissioner of agriculture, suggests those who have hay for sale and those who need hay should visit the USDA Farm Service Agency eHayNet. The national Internet-based Hay Net Ad Service allows farmers in every state to share ‘Need Hay’ ads and ‘Have Hay’ ads online.

Weathers, who has a large dairy operation in Bowman, S.C., says word-of-mouth is one of the best ways for finding hay.

Cattlemen can check with local feed stores and Extension offices, other livestock owners, and hay brokers like Aiken Saddlery (803-649-6583) and East South Carolina Hay Distribution in Camden (803-432-5141).

Cattle owners who have hay for sale or need hay may also want to network through Peter Wilkerson, South Carolina Cattlemen's Association (864-812-1837). Another resource is Don Kieffer, National Hay Association, (800-707-0014 or 727-367-9702).

North Carolina cattle producer Ronnie Hammonds says he has lost 80 percent of his hay crop in southeast North Carolina. “We usually cut our coastal bermudagrass hay three or four times a season, but this season we have made only one partial cutting,” he says.

Hammonds says the drought will force many livestock producers in his area of southeastern North Carolina and the up-state area of South Carolina out of business. “We have already sold off much of our herd,” he says.

The North Carolina Cattlemen's Association is predicting that as many as 30 percent of the cattle producers in the state will go out of business because of the hay situation, which is compounded by continued high price of corn and other grains used for livestock feed. Unless something unusual happens to encourage them, the Hammonds says he doesn't expect many of them to ever return to the cattle business.

Bundy Plyler, executive director of the North Carolina Cattlemen's Association says his big fear is that cattlemen won't have enough hay to feed through the winter months. The nearest hay to be found, at any price, is in Oklahoma and Texas. In many cases, too much rain has created problems in getting in fields to cut hay and to allow it to dry properly.

If hay doesn't become available to many producers in North Carolina, Plyler says they will have no option but to to sell off their animals. Otherwise, they risk getting into an animal rights issue because they won't have feed available to keep the animals alive and healthy

Troxler says the western part of North Carolina is particularly hard hit by the drought. Hay is one of few options many farmers have in that area of the state. There is already great competition for land development and many of the growers who sell off their cattle because of the drought simply won't go back into farming, Troxler contends.

North Carolina State Animal Scientist Matt Poore says there are some options for alternative feed for livestock — that being corn and soybean stalks in fields abandoned because of the extreme drought. These crops can be baled and with some advance planning can be highly effective livestock feeds.

The drought in the Carolinas is compounded by drought conditions in neighboring states, which don't have extra hay to share and are competing for available hay. In addition, bringing in hay from out-of-state has some inherent risks — fire ants for one. In some cases hay shipments will have to be monitored to reduce the risk of bringing in fire ants and noxious weeds from quarantined areas.

Drought also brings on the increased risk of high nitrate levels in hay. Farmers will have to have hay tested in many cases to avoid poisoning cattle and creating an even bigger problem.

Commissioner Weathers urges livestock owners, especially horse owners, to call their vet before feeding animals hay they've never fed before. Feeding hay that animals are not accustomed to could sometimes cause problems and can possibly cause a horse to colic.

When using cornstalks for livestock rations, Poore says producers will need to add protein and energy supplements. Soybean hay has high nutritional value and can be added to baled corn stalks to produce a balanced ration for cattle.

In many cases livestock producers will be willing to come to areas that have corn and soybean crops abandoned due to the drought and harvest the crop residues for hay. Troxler says farmers helping farmers can be a win/win situation, providing much needed hay for livestock and providing some income for row crop farmers who have lost their crop to the drought.

”We have a large agriculture processing industry in North Carolina and a number of by-products produced have high protein value and are accepted as feed by cattle. It becomes an educational program to find the right by-product to fit the energy and protein needs of the herd,” Poore adds.

In North Carolina, farmers planted nearly 40 percent more acres of corn in 2007 versus 2006. However, the drought has devastated the corn crop there and final harvest estimates are slightly below 2006 crop, despite the extra acreage.

Federal disaster status may allow farmers to collect crop insurance and still bale drought damaged corn for livestock feed, according to Troxler.

North Carolina also produces about 1.5 million acres of soybeans. Though more drought tolerant than corn, the bean crop from Virginia to South Carolina has been affected by the drought and extreme heat. Even with irrigation, growers are reporting severe crop damage — in many cases from long periods of extreme heat more so than lack of moisture. Many areas in the upper south went through periods of 7-12 consecutive days with high temperatures in triple digits.

Livestock producers throughout the region are being urged to plant winter cover crops, such as oats, wheat, rye or other winter forage crops. Both Troxler and Weathers stress the hay shortage is likely to affect the livestock industry until new hay crops can be planted and harvested.

“To overcome this drought and subsequent hay crisis will take a lot of cooperation and a lot of creativity,” Troxler concludes.

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