Published on 10/07/99

Dry Fall Looms Over Grain, Livestock Farmers

With the current drought expected to last through spring 2000, Georgia small grains and livestock farmers are facing tough decisions.

"Fall is typically the driest three months of the year," said David Stooksbury, state climatologist and professor of engineering with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Consequently, he said, "we're coming off a summer drought into a normally dry period that, historically, won't get us out of drought."

Farmers looking to plant small grains for sale or to feed livestock are somewhat used to these conditions. But this year, as dry as it's been, they're having to decide not just what grains to plant, but in some cases, whether planting will be worth it.

Dewey Lee, a CAES Extension Service agronomist, said the late-September and early- October rains were helpful to some farmers.

J. Cannon, UGA CAES
CONTINUING DROUGHT CUTTING HAY PRODUCTION Drought conditions that have persisted for more than a year has livestock farmers concerned about their hay supplies for the coming winter. But alternative feeds such as crop residues in corn and cotton fields, can allow fields that have gotten rain in late Sept. and early Oct. to produce some forage. This south Georgia field, while better than some, isn't as thick with bales as specialists would like to see. That leaves the farmer hoping for rain to boost production.

"Those rains were excellent for farmers overseeding pastures for winter grazing," he said. "Planting for small grain production, however, won't start until late October in north Georgia and early November in south Georgia."

Lee said if small-grain growers get equally timely rains, even a little rain can be enough for a "fair crop" of wheat, rye or oats if managed carefully.

"If farmers can wait until a rain to plant, small grains can get established," Lee said. "The crop itself won't grow or produce grain until it gets more rain, but at least then it'll be ready when the rain comes."

With grain prices plummeting, farmers are thinking twice before investing in any crop.

"But as we look into the future, the potential is there for a profit -- like most years -- with careful management and marketing," he said.

Small-grain decisions are affecting Georgia cattle farmers, too, said Robert Stewart, a CAES livestock scientist. Many pastures and hay fields have suffered from the drought. Some farmers, Stewart said, are two or three hay cuttings behind normal.

To cut costs and improve efficiency, he said, farmers are culling the three O's: old cows, open (not pregnant) cows and ornery cows.

In the long run, as farmers sell their cows that aren't making money, they're also decreasing the supply for later. "That means if cattlemen can find ways to keep their cows healthy through this winter," Stewart said, "they're likely to get more for them at the sale next year."

Find more information about drought conditions in Georgia at Drought '99.

  • Feeding Cattle During Drought Conditions
  • Crop Insurance Implications of Drought
  • Economic Impacts of a Drought on the Southwest Georgia Regional Economy

That incentive has cattlemen looking for alternate feed sources including crop residues left after harvest in cotton and corn fields.

Residues offer a double advantage to cattle farmers. "It's essentially free feed," Stewart said. "An acre of crop residue can support a cow for 30 days."

That month also gives newly planted small grains a chance to get established before cattle begin grazing.

If the cows go on overseeded pasture or just-emerged small grains, as they eat, they'll tear the plants up by the roots, Stewart said. "Farmers would just be shooting themselves in the foot if they don't wait for the pasture or grain to establish."

Lee and Stewart offer management options for farmers who get a little rain. And Stooksbury said that's just what they're likely to get.

"Nothing short of a tropical weather system stalling over Georgia will get us the 9-plus inches of rain we need to break the drought," he said. "Fall weather and La Nina are working against us on this one."