Rains have perked up Georgia's drought-parched pastures over the past few weeks. And cattlemen, who scrambled to sustain their herds this summer, are now storing up for the lean winter months.
High heat and little rain in late spring and summer took a toll on Georgia pastures, says Johnny Rossi, a beef management specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Georgia cattlemen, depending on their location in the state, like to start grazing their herds in April or May when pastures of bermudagrass, bahiagrass or fescue shake off the cold and begin to green up. They usually start cutting pastures in June to store as hay to feed cattle in winter when pastures are dormant. They cut about three to four times throughout the summer.
A drought like Geogia experienced this past summer can throw things off.
“We just didn't get the rain we needed to get pastures off to a good start or make a good hay crop this year,” Rossi says.
In June, a third to one-half of Georgia's pastures were rated in poor to very poor condition, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. And it only got worse in most places as the summer progressed.
Half of the hay crop was in poor to very poor condition in late June, when cattlemen first started to cut hay. They usually harvest about a ton per acre. But this June they only got about half that if anything, Rossi says.
The hay cattlemen were cutting or buying wasn't being stored. It was being fed to cattle that couldn't get enough grass from dry pastures.
“They had no carryover,” says Rossi. “And they needed a buffer this year.”
According to a study done by the CAES Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, hay, forage and pasture losses will total about $330 million this year due to drought.
Cattlemen had to dig deeper to pay for hay this summer, says Curt Lacy, a livestock economist with UGA Cooperative Extension. The increased demand plus higher fertilizer costs caused by spikes in fuel prices all contributed to higher hay prices.
Two years ago, a ton of hay cost about $65. It was around $80 per ton last year.
Cattlemen have paid $100 to $110 per ton this year, he says.
But things are looking better. Hay yields and pastures are improving, and cattlemen are storing hay now. One cow needs about two tons of hay to keep it fed between November and April each year. An acre of managed pasture that would yield five tons to seven tons in a good summer will likely only produce about three tons to four tons this summer, Rossi says.
Cattle prices are good now, too. Some cattlemen may choose to sell, or cull, their herd size to cut feed costs, Lacy says. But cattlemen fear too many cattle at market can drive prices down. It's a fine line deciding to sell or spend the extra money to keep them fed and healthy.
Cattlemen don't need to skimp on feeding their cows, Rossi says. If they do, it could lead to thin cows and low pregnancy rates.
Georgia cattlemen likely will plant more cold-tolerant forages like oats, rye, ryegrass and some wheat for cows to graze this winter.
“It could get ugly next spring, when there's a good chance the hay will be used up,” Rossi says. “Most cattlemen now are hoping the hay they can find now will hold out and that we have a mild winter in Georgia.”
To learn about marketing and management strategies during drought, cattlemen can contact their local Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1, or go to the Web site www.georgiadrought.org.