It's not uncommon to talk to Alabama cattlemen this year who have been feeding hay since September. Widespread fall armyworm infestations, followed by historic drought conditions, decimated normally lush forages in this part of the country. Pastures are nothing but brown, and brittle.
Many producers are beginning to turn to commodities -- anything from corn and soy hulls to gin trash -- to maintain body condition going into the winter. Hay is in short supply.
In Birmingham, Alabama, center to the state, Friday marked the 54th day with no rain. The U.S Drought Monitor report, released last week, showed Alabama cattle producers were not alone. Parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi were also under exceptional drought conditions. Alabama's governor issued a drought declaration for every county in the state, with the northern half under a drought emergency, restricting water use. The entire state is under no-burn orders, with wildfires now a common occurrence.
Bill Lipscomb, a fourth generation Alabama cattle producer, operates Three L Ranch in Prattville. He is current president of the Alabama Cattlemen's Association, and has been traveling the state, seeing first-hand the impact drought conditions are having on his industry.
"It appears to me the further north and east you go in our state the worse it is," says Lipscomb. "The biggest problem I'm hearing about from cattlemen right now is the lack of hay in the northern part of the state. If you can find hay to buy, transportation costs are a concern."
He adds it has helped that the governor eased some permit restrictions on transporting wide loads, making it easier to move hay. But he says for folks used to putting up their own hay, this is going to be an expensive winter to get through.
Recent USDA reports show premium quality grass hay in Alabama ranging from $90 to $300 per ton; and good-quality grass hay at $75 per ton. These prices do not include delivery. Premium grass hay is assumed to have over 13% crude protein percent; good grass hay 9% to 13% crude protein.
Lipscomb says he's also hearing of some producers buying large square bales of alfalfa hay out of Oklahoma, explaining the higher protein levels should mean they don't have to feed as much. The USDA report shows good quality alfalfa hay from Oklahoma at $70 to $100 per ton. The quality level should be 18% to 20% crude protein.
Asked if some producers are yet considering herd liquidation, Lipscomb says he has heard some talk of selling out in cases where producers are near retirement. But he stresses the state's Extension service has done a good job of working with producers going into this drought, and he believes most will make it through to the spring.
"Extension has been advising people to sell their low-producing animals. Don't keep open cows or old cows. Look at what is available to your operation in terms of feed through the winter, and only keep that many head. It's good advice, and something we should probably always be looking at," says Lipscomb.
The producer adds the drought is going to have implications that go well into spring 2017.
"A lot of people won't have the moisture to plant winter annuals, things like wheat, oats or rye. So just getting through the winter won't mean there will be plenty of forage. This will have a long term effect."
USDA drought programs and assistance: http://www.usda.gov/…
Hay listings: http://agi.alabama.gov/…
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