Published on 05/17/07

Georgia farmers struggle to feed herds in drought

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Georgia cattlemen are having a hard time feeding their herds because the state's extended drought has dried up pastures and seriously cut hay production.

"The pastures are as pitiful, and the situation is as sorry as I have ever seen for this time of year," said Bob Rawlins, who has raised cattle in Ben Hill, Wilcox and Turner counties in south-central Georgia for 30 years. "There's just nothing out there."

Pasture damage varies across the state. In most places, 70 percent to 80 percent is in poor to very poor condition, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. In south-central Georgia, 90 percent of the pastures are poor to very poor.

Rawlins' beef cows, like others, usually get plenty of pasture grass for adequate nourishment in late spring. But so far, he's fed his cows stored corn silage, which likely will run out in a few weeks.

Rawlins' situation is similar to others' across the state, says Johnny Rossi, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension livestock specialist.

During winter, when grass doesn't grow, farmers feed cattle grass hay cut during warmer times. But they went into last winter with low hay stocks, due to a prolonged dry spell last spring and summer. In good years, they usually still have 25 percent of that hay when grazing starts in the spring.

But not this spring.

"There's just not much hay left out there," Rossi said. "And what's left is of poor quality, some even three years old."

The hay is $120 to $140 per ton, too, he said, or 40 percent more than typical for late spring.

It costs a cattleman about 35 cents a day to feed a cow on good pasture. It costs four times that to feed it with just hay.

Cattlemen now want to buy oats and wheat straw to feed cattle, Rossi said, which is uncommon. The straw is about 30 percent less nutritional than hay.

"The situation is getting pretty critical," Rossi said.

Georgia's cattle industry mostly consists of cow-calf farms. Cattlemen sustain cow herds, which produce calves. They typically keep the calves until they weigh around 500 pounds. Then they sell them to feedlots in the Midwest.

But due to the drought, some producers have decided to wean calves early and sell them lighter, around 300 pounds, said Curt Lacy, a UGA Extension livestock economist.

Prices are fair, but not as good as in recent years, he said. A 500-pound calf last year brought close to $1.25 per pound. It's now $1.05 per pound. A 300-pound calf that brought $1.50 per pound a year ago now brings $1.30 per pound.

Although lighter calves get more per pound, farmers get a better return on their investment with heavier calves.

Cattlemen usually cut hay in early June and get two or three more cuttings through summer to store and use as needed. But no hay will be cut this June in Georgia. That will cut into the potential stocks for this winter.

Pasture grass recovers quickly with good rainfall. "But even if it started raining today and continued with consistent showers," Rossi said, "we wouldn't see any hay production for at least a month."

"When you look at it, it's depressing," Rawlins said. "But you keep hanging in there and hoping things will change sooner rather than later."

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.