DROUGHT HITS CATTLE INDUSTRY
MONTGOMERY Chriss Carroll doesn't need a meteorologist to tell him there's a drought in south Alabama. Not counting the brief showers that feel last weekend, it's been nine weeks since there was a substantial rain for some areas of the Wiregrass, including his farm in Dale County.
Carroll, who has 175 brood cows, also knows that even with a welcome rain it will take weeks for his cattle and pasture to recover. His pasture is brown and crunchy beneath his feet.
"We've been feeding our cows for about four weeks now," he said. "Usually they're in grass that's almost knee deep. There's none of that around here this year."
"Our hay crop is really hurting this year, too," he said. "By now we usually have 500-600 rolls of hay put up for the winter. Right now we have about 50."
John Dorrill, executive director of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said only about 25 percent of the Wiregrass received rain over the weekend, and in areas where the rain did fall the land was so dry it soaked right up.
"Conditions in southeast Alabama are getting critical," Dorrill said. "The dry weather is affecting more than just the cattle industry, too. The corn crop in that area of the state already has been devastated. The peanut crop also is beginning to suffer, and it's crucial that farmers in that area receive rain within the next few days."
Carroll is using alternative feed sources including peanut hulls, corn and other grains to get him through the dry spell. What hay he does make, he said he'll need next winter.
Herman Jones, his son, Jimmy, and his grandson, Brandon, are in a similar situation on their farm in rural Dale County. They've been feeding their herd of 300 cows for several weeks. Alternative feed sources have kept their herds in good shape so far, but the cost is high and labor intensive.
"I figure it's costing us about $100 a day to feed our cows," Jimmy Jones said. "We planted millet a few weeks ago, and it should be waist high by now. Instead, it's barely broke ground. I figure we've lost an entire cutting of hay to the drought too."
Herman Jones has been in the cattle and poultry business for about 30 years. He said this is the worst drought he's ever experienced.
So far the drought doesn't seem to have caused cattle prices to drop significantly, however drought conditions in Texas and the mid-west are influencing prices nationwide, said Raleigh Wilkerson, beef director for the Alabama Farmers Federation.
According to Ed Jones who operates South Alabama Livestock, a cattle sale barn near Brundidge, cattlemen haven't hit the panic button yet, but thoughts of selling out before conditions grow worse and the market plummets has been discussed.
"We did sell out two small herds for two producers today," Mr. Jones said following his weekly sale last Thursday. "If we don't get some (substantial) rain within the next couple of weeks, I look for the sales to really pick up around the Fourth of July."
Wilkerson said cattlemen have several options, including alternative feed sources such as the ones used by the Joneses and Carroll. In some drought-stricken areas of south Alabama, farmers can request permission for emergency grazing on land in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program. However, CRP land used for grazing will result in a 25 percent reduction in payments to landowners in the program, he said.
"It's hard to put a price tag on how much this drought has cost the cattle industry," Wilkerson said. "But it has cost our state's cattlemen millions of dollars. Hay is likely to be in short supply next winter, and the drought has significantly damaged the corn crop, subsequently affecting feed prices. Heat stress and poor grazing will affect weaning weights on calves, which in some cases could be as much as 100 pounds lighter than normal. That translates into a significant loss when you consider most farmers in our state have a cow-calf operation where the profits are based on the sale of calves at weaning."