Published on 02/19/96

Georgia Cattlemen Face Winter Hay Shortage

Some Georgia cattlemen face a critical shortage this winter. Scarce hay supplies cause problems now and far into the future.

"There is definitely a hay shortage in Georgia this winter," said Robert Stewart, an animal scientist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "And other problems associated with the extreme cold weather have made the situation even worse for many cattle producers."

Stewart said 1995 produced normal hay yields in Georgia, which should have been enough to carry the state's beef cattle through a normal winter.

"But the weather this winter has been far from average," he said.

In cold weather, cattle rely on feed to keep them warm. Digestion produces much of the body heat that keeps them warm.

Like humans, cattle like to feel full, especially when it's cold. Stewart said a cow needs about 25 pounds of dry feed every day to maintain her weight.

Hay is the main feed for Georgia cattle. It makes up 70 percent to 100 percent of a cow's diet.

Other feed sources include cotton seed, peanut hulls, commercial feed, broiler litter, corn, oats and grazing. These are added to hay and provide fiber, protein, energy and micronutrients.

If cattle farmers run out of hay, they must look to other sources to balance their feed plan.

Quality Georgia hay will sell for about $40 per ton at harvest. With short supplies, though, it's bringing $60 to $90 per ton now. So many farmers have turned to their winter grazing to keep their cows fed and happy.

But a frigid December slowed the growth of winter grazing crops like oats and rye.

"That forced many cattlemen to start feeding hay until the weather warmed up enough for winter grazing crops to grow," Stewart said.

Continued cold has kept winter grazing crops from growing as they should. And farmers who started feeding hay early have had to keep feeding hay.

Until the weather warms to 45 degrees at night, winter grazing can't grow. Most grazing crops won't come out of dormancy for another 30 to 45 days in north Georgia and 60 to 90 days in south Georgia.

"That's a long time to keep feeding hay," Stewart said.

He tells farmers to apply nitrogen to encourage their winter grazing crops to grow. Those who haven't applied nitrogen in the past 60 days should consider topdressing one pound of nitrogen for each remaining expected grazing day per acre.

When the crop grows to eight inches tall, Stewart said, farmers can safely start limited grazing. But he warns them against overgrazing.

"That could significantly increase regrowth time and put farmers back into the same situation," he said.

When farmers face feed shortages, their normal reaction is to sell some of their cattle. That may be a good final option, Stewart said. But farmers should look for other feed strategies first.

Cattle prices are low now. If farmers sell their cows they could drive prices even lower. "That just makes it harder for producers to financially justify high feed costs," he said.

Pregnant or lactating cows need more feed to maintain their body weight and fill their calves' nutritional needs. Poor nutrition now can mean low weaning weights for calves this fall.

It can mean low conception rates this season for cows and heifers, too. And that can result in fewer calves born in 1997.

Cattle famers shouldn't panic. But knowing how feed problems now can affect cattle production over the next two years is important.

"The most urgent requirement for cattle farmers is to fill up those cows," he said. "Even at inflated prices, good-quality hay is still the most economical feed source for cattle.

"Georgia farmers in the pinch," he said, "will just need to ration it carefully with other feed sources to make it last."