If it weren’t for the drought, armyworms, grasshoppers, toxic forage and limited availability of expensive hay, 2012 would be a pretty good year to be an Arkansas cattle producer.
Jim Hopkins at Evening Shade has 250 cows at his 1,200-acre Sharp County ranch, which includes about 200 acres of bottomland along the Strawberry River.
Hopkins normally grows two crops of hay on that land by the river. The first one was beset by a surprise infestation of armyworms that emerged after the long, warm spring. He was able to beat them back with herbicide.
Normally, after the first harvest, a dose of fertilizer will help the hay spring back for a second crop. That’s the one his cows are eating now. In an ordinary summer, the herd would be on Hopkins’ other 1,000 acres, eating grass on his hills.
Hopkins sold 30 head earlier than he planned, and ranchers are finding a buyer’s market, with so many cows going on the block because owners don’t have enough feed. And it won’t be easy to replenish the herd.
“When you try to buy them back, the price will be up again,” he said. You buy high and sell cheap,” said Hopkins, who had to spray his second hay crop after grasshoppers found it to their liking.
Joe Moore, Sharp County extension chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said producers with hungry cattle have to be wary of a number of traps. A rancher in Sharp County lost three head after the cows ate Johnson grass, which becomes toxic during a drought.
“Wild cherry trees contain cyanide in the leaves. Storms come through, if one is struck by lightning or is blown down, hungry cows can eat those leaves and die,” Moore said.
“It can be sticky when environmental conditions change. Farming always has its little quirks,” he said.
Moore said he hasn’t heard of any cattle starving to death. But ranchers who have been relying on ponds are running into trouble because the ponds have been drying up.
As for Johnson grass, part of the problem is that it will be the only green plant in the pasture.
Hopkins said he intends to plant rye grass to help get his herd through the winter. He said fescue is another variety that thrives in cooler weather that could keep his cattle fed through the winter.
He said hay is selling for $60 or more per bale in places, an astronomical price by hay standards.
Tom Troxel, a cattle expert with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said hay normally sells for $20 to $25 per bale.
Since local hay is already obligated, hay from other states is expensive due to transport costs and the simple law of supply and demand.
Parts of north Arkansas are off-limits so hay producers from the state’s south, as well as much hay from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas due to the fire ant problem. Hay that’s grown in areas where fire ants have colonized can’t be legally sold in areas, such as Sharp County, where the pests haven’t colonized.
“We sure don’t want to bring fire ants in a non-quarantined area,” Moore said.
Troxel said cattle producers have deep emotional ties to their operations, which makes the drought even more difficult to weather.
“These cows mean a lot to these producers. For them to have to sell cattle during a distressed period, that’s hard for them to do. I don’t think a lot of people realize how difficult that is, to start selling your herd during a distressed time,” he said.
Matt Flynt, who raises cattle in Lonoke County, said he has culled his herd and is feeding his cattle with a combination of hay and what grass his farm has left.
Finding the hay is becoming more difficult, he said.
“There’s a lot of people looking to buy hay. There’s just hardly any out there,” he said.
Rain over the past week was welcome, but Flynt said it would take several more weeks like the one just passed to get the ground moist enough for the grass to flourish again.
“It would have to be a multiple event over several weeks,” Flynt said.
Flynt said beef prices were ticking upward before the drought after years of declining demand.
“Just when you think you’re going to get good money for your product, something always happens. You think you’re finally going to get a break and something happens,” Flynt said.
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