Early December rains brought some relief to farmers battling drought across Alabama; however, low prices, lack of winter grazing and long-term effects of drought are creating lingering concerns for cattlemen.
Drought turned Haynes Farms near Fairview in Cullman County into a dustbowl until December rain muddied the fields. The farm, owned by Darrel Haynes and his sons, Ben and Bart, resembled a Western desert before the rain.
“Nearly all our rain fell slow enough to soak in,” Ben said in early December. “We’ve had little runoff, and our creeks and ponds are still not flowing.”
The Haynes began feeding hay mid-October, a month earlier than normal, and bought about 500 bales from as far as Coffee County to fill the deficit.
“We’ve never bought hay in my life,” Ben said. “We did carry over a couple hundred bales from last winter, but our hay production stopped the end of May.”
South Alabama farmers are struggling as well. To supplement and postpone feeding hay, Monroe County’s Tim Tucker turned cows onto harvested cotton fields.
“Experts say an acre of cotton residue is about a month’s feed for a dry cow (a cow without a calf),” Tucker said. “We found it to be true. Our cows got just about all they needed.”
Tucker planted 350 acres of ryegrass and 150 acres of oats and rye Sept. 28. Fifty-four days later, green shoots emerged when the rain finally came.
“I’m hoping we’ll have some to graze by Feb. 1,” Tucker said.
Drought hasn’t forced the Haynes to sell cattle, and Tucker sold only calves. Alabama Farmers Federation’s Nate Jaeger said drought forced some farmers to sell, though prices are depressed.
“The extended drought forced cattle farmers to face tough decisions about culling cattle, buying hay, contemplating alternative feeds and marketing calves differently,” said Jaeger, the Federation’s Beef Division director.
Jaeger recommends farmers attend the Federation’s Commodity Organizational Meeting Feb. 7, where topics include managing cattle during drought.
The state’s winter wheat crop also took a beating from drought. Many farmers didn’t plant wheat because of the drought, which affects spring planting decisions and lowers farm income.
Ben said the drought is far from over. Poor milking and breeding abilities in spring could lead to fewer calves born, lower conception rates and reduced farm income.
“The insidious part of any drought, but especially this one, is what we’ll wake up to come spring,” Ben said. “It could take us literally years to recover.”