By DAN CRAFT
Springdale Morning News via Associated Press
ROGERS, Ark. (AP) -- John Taylor cut just 24 bales last month off the same 90 acres near Elkins that produced 350 bales earlier this year.
"That's what drought does to you," Taylor said. "Usually, I'd sell some of my extra hay, but this year, I'm keeping it all. It'll be close, but I think I've got enough to get through if the winter's not as bad as last year."
That puts him in a better spot than many cattle ranchers in the region, said Jim Singleton, chairman of the Benton County Quality Forage program.
"The quality is decent, but the quantity just isn't there," Singleton said. "All the predictions are that there will be good gains on cattle if you can hold them until next spring, but you can only keep what you can feed. Only one or two farmers out of about 200 I've talked to feel they comfortably have enough hay."
The hay shortage has prompted dozens of local farmers to plant winter rye grass to provide grazing forage through early January.
"We planted about 300 acres with some help from the Natural Resource Conservation Service program," said Ronnie Magee of Decatur. "We had to do it because our hay production was off about 40 percent this year. The annual rye grass we planted is up and looking pretty good." Magee has about 400 head of cattle to feed through the winter.
Greg Watkins, spokesman with the conservation service, said the federal incentive has been around a couple of years and is a recommended conservation practice, but the recent hay shortage has given the program more attention.
Farmers were able to apply for a cost-sharing initiative that helped defray the cost of planting annual rye grass pasture atop dormant Bermuda fi elds.
Watkins said farmers who took part averaged about $120 per acre in stipends to defray the cost of seed, lime, fertilizer and equipment rental for sowing the seed. He said the programs aim to cut farmer expenses 50 percent to 75 percent.
"It does cost farmers to apply the seed, but I don't think it's any more expensive than buying hay, that's if you could find any for sale," Magee said.
"I believe it's going to pay off for us if we don't have another extreme winter and spring. We will probably have to start feeding our hay reserves sometime in January."
Many cattlemen sold livestock heavily earlier this year when beef prices hit record highs, and those who thinned their herds are generally glad they did so, said Johnny Gunsaulis, extension agent for Washington County.
"The overall head-count is down, which eases the need for hay somewhat, but each cattleman is running their own calculations, and a lot of them are nervous," Gunsaulis said. "It's not desperation yet, but most are feeling short."
Heavy spring rain reduced many first-cut yields by half or more, while dry summer weather limited the second cut, Singleton said.
"The quality isn't bad, but the quantity just isn't there," Singleton said. "Those who haven't already bought hay are going to feel it the most, because instead of $35 to $50 a bale, depending on quality, they're going to pay more like $60 or $70 per round, if they can find any at all. At those prices, it's going to be hard to make a profit on the back end."
Other factors are complicating the situation, Gunsaulis said. Oklahoma and Texas caught the worst of the summer drought, so buying hay from those regions isn't an option. The price of corn, an important supplemental feed, has remained high, and exceptionally cold temperatures last winter in Northwest Arkansas used up most of last year's hay supply.
Taylor has already used up his carryover.
"My pastures were so dry that I started feeding some hay in August. Everything I had from last season is already gone," he said.
This year's quality seemed to vary from excellent to fair, depending on the fi eld, Taylor said.
"I can't say why, because it's the same grass, the same fertilizer, all of that," he said. "There's no good way to explain that part."
He's keeping his herd of 100 cows, plus calves, based on a longer-term outlook.
"It takes quite a few years to build a quality herd with good bloodlines. If I sold now and went to the sale barn next spring to buy more, who knows what I'd get," he said. "A lot of people did sell, but in my opinion, it's worth sacrificing and being tight for a year or two to keep my herd quality high in the long run."
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.