By Linda Greer
NEOSHO, Mo. - Steve Roark said that judging from calls he has received from Kansas and Oklahoma ranchers hoping to buy his hay, many face tough decisions before winter.
Roark said he was blessed with timely rains and a surplus of hay from last year. He sold several hundred small square bales this year; others across the region have not been so fortunate.
"Right now, hay is hard to find," said Roark, who raises 200 beef cattle on Iris Road northwest of Neosho. "And with diesel $3 a gallon, that just adds that much more to the cost for someone to get the hay home."
Steve Nash, owner of Nash Farms, a hay transportation and supply company in Columbus, Kan., said hay production is a fraction of normal. Meanwhile, his tractors burn eight to 10 gallons of diesel per hour, adding $30 per hour to his production costs.
Nash said he is buying hay in western Kansas and Nebraska for $65 per round bale, up from around $20 per bale last year. By the time Nash hauls the hay to Texas, farmers there can expect to pay $100 to $120 per bale for mixed grass and lespedeza hay.
Small square bales of alfalfa are selling for up to $10 per bale, Nash said.
"I don't know how farmers can afford to feed that to their cattle," he added.
Gary Naylor, University of Missouri livestock specialist in Buffalo, said the effect of this year's drought was compounded because crop yields last year were less than average. Hay yields vary within the region, but are 25 to 50 percent less than normal.
"At this point, farmers should be culling unprofitable animals and those that aren't bred back," Naylor said. "Producers need to skim back to the best cows they've got."
Naylor said he has not heard of any entire herds being sold yet, but is sure he will if the drought continues.
Warm-season grasses such as Bermuda and bluestem haven't faired as badly as cool-season grasses, but are still below average.
Ima Moyer, of Moyer Hay and Cattle Co., in Quapaw, Okla., said her grass hay hardly yielded anything this year, while the Bermuda grass is "beautiful." Another Bermuda grass grower, Shannon McDonald, of Pellestrina Farms in Oronogo, said she had to skip two cuttings this year. It's normally cut every 21 days, she said.
Naylor said there is good news, however, for producers experiencing shortages of quality forage who do not want to sell livestock: They can supplement with grain.
"Fortunately, grain prices are not terribly high," Naylor said. "Iowa and Illinois are reporting their third-highest corn crop ever. If those areas have a good crop, we are still in good shape."
If the region does not receive enough rain to produce a good fall crop of hay, though, Missouri will be "in the same boat as Oklahoma and Texas," Naylor said.
Naylor said farmers call his office from throughout central Missouri wondering what the future holds.
"A lot of time we just sit and talk with people and hold their hand," Naylor said. "What else can we do?"
Help on the horizon?
Kim Webber, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Services Agency in Neosho, said there is no word on government assistance for farmers dealing with drought. The last time the area received aid was in 2002, she said.
During severe drought, government livestock programs have paid farmers a set amount per head for animals that qualify. The farmer can use the money for hay, feed, diesel or other expenses.
On Aug. 16, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt directed the Missouri Farm Services Agency to conduct damage assessments on 104 counties including Jasper, Newton, McDonald, Barry and Lawrence. A representative of Blunt's office said the assessments take about two weeks to complete, and will then be forwarded to the federal government to determine which counties are eligible for disaster assistance.
By Linda Greer
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