A Dry Run For Alabama Farmers
The ground on Stacey Farms in Conecuh County crunches beneath Chip Stacey’s feet as he walks through a soybean field that should be filled with lush green plants. His pastures and hayfields aren’t much better. An unusually dry spring was preceded by a dry winter. Add temperatures that have hovered in the mid-to-upper 90s for several weeks, and you’ve got a drought on your hands, Stacey said.”I’m a fourth-generation farmer, and we know there’s going to be dry weather,” said an optimistic Stacey, who is chairman of the Conecuh County Young Farmers Committee. “But we’ve just got to keep our heads up and keep looking forward. Mother Nature will bring us a rain when she thinks we’re due one.”Farmers in many areas of the state are facing similar dry conditions. The National Drought Mitigation Center’s (NDMC) drought monitor map shows south Alabama is in a moderate drought. The NDMC’s standard precipitation index lists the entire southern half of Alabama as “severely dry” since the end of April to mid-June. Areas in eastern and northeastern Alabama are listed as abnormally dry.Stacey said his farm is probably six to eight inches below normal rainfall. He farms with his father Skip Stacey north of Evergreen where they grow wheat, soybeans and corn. They also raise cattle and have a commercial hay business.Stacey said he’s lost an estimated 60 percent of his wheat crop, gathering as little as eight bushels per acre and up to 25 bushels per acre in the best fields. That’s compared to an average of 50-60 bushels in a normal year. The soybeans he planted behind the wheat are faring even worse, with only about a 10 percent stand in most fields. He said he’d keep a close eye on the weather and replant when it looks like rain is eminent.State Farm Service Agency Director Danny Crawford said his office collected damage assessment reports from 48 counties in Alabama that have a 30 percent loss (or more) of a major crop.
As a result, all but one Alabama county — Lamar — became eligible for federal drought assistance just before the long Fourth of July weekend. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns designated those 48 counties as primary natural disaster areas, and 18 other counties qualified because they adjoin those counties. The designation makes farmers in those counties eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the Farm Service Agency.
In addition, six Alabama counties — Pike, Bullock, Covington, Elmore, Geneva and Montgomery — were approved for emergency grazing of federal Conservation Reserve Program land because of the drought. Normally, CRP land, which is highly erodible property taken out of agriculture production, can’t be grazed or cut for hay.The announcement means that farmers in those six counties who are under contract with the USDA to maintain the land can use it for grazing and allow others to use it for grazing if they choose, but can’t sublease it. Since that time, all Alabama counties have given clearance to offer CRP land for haying or grazing.”While producers appreciate the release of CRP acreage for emergency haying and grazing, this only provides limited relief,” said Federation Beef, Dairy and Hay & Forage Director Perry Mobley. “If the drought persists, more long-term options such as feed or hay assistance may need to be considered,” Mobley said. “Producers should save receipts for feed and hay purchases related to the drought in case assistance becomes available.”The Staceys’ hay and cattle operations could be the hardest hit by the dry weather.”We began feeding hay in late April, and we’ve already fed all the hay we had from last year plus half of the first cutting from this year,” Stacey said. “We have some fields that have lost two cuttings of hay this year.”Normally, the Staceys harvest 900-1,200 large rolls of hay to feed their 400 cows and calves through the winter. “We’ll miss the income from our hay business, that’s for sure,” Stacey said. “At this point, we’re just hoping to cut enough hay to feed our own cows. If we don’t make enough hay, then we’ll have to buy more expensive feed like corn. Plus, this short grass has cut milk production in our mama cows this summer so our calves will be lighter this fall when they’re weaned.”Hay is in such short supply that the Staceys have been cutting fields that are only inches tall. “Farming is always susceptible to the weather, but this year dry weather came earlier than normal and was far more severe in some areas,” said Alabama Farmers Federation Commodity Department Director Jimmy Carlisle. “In some areas, it was so dry farmers didn’t have an opportunity to plant a crop because there wasn’t enough moisture in the soil.”One such farmer is Steve Dunn, president of the Geneva County Farmers Federation. He had expected to plant 100 acres of corn and 100 acres of peanuts. But an unusually dry spring changed his plans, which he said turned out to be a wise move. In all, his farm has a rainfall deficit of about 17-20 inches.”A lot of the (unirrigated) corn that was planted down here is burned up — it doesn’t even have an ear on it,” Dunn said. “Peanuts still have time to make if they can get some rain, but some of the peanuts that were planted late haven’t received much rainfall since they were put in the ground and the stands are spotty.”Dunn said he’s been concentrating on keeping his cows and calves fed. “Our pastures and hayfields are in bad shape,” Dunn said. “I’ve turned the cows in on three of the hayfields, and we’re trying to cut the rest of them. But in the fields we’re cutting, it’s only going to average probably a (large) bale to the acre, and this is our first cutting. We should be in the middle of our second cutting this time of year.”Mobley said a dry summer can eventually improve Alabama’s cattle herds.”Farmers will tend to cull their less-productive cows in times like these,” Mobley said. “Brood cows depend on grass to produce milk for their calves. Those cows are grazing on short grass right now, so they’re not producing as much milk.”Since most Alabama cattlemen have cow-calf operations, where calves are weaned and sold in the fall, income will likely be less since calves will weigh less, Mobley said.Reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service indicate Alabama’s largest row crop, cotton, is suffering too. Some experts predict the crop is a month behind normal development.