Local farmers battling hay shortage

By Staff
Mike Self, FCT Sports Editor
A hay shortage caused by last summer's drought is prompting Alabama farmers and ranchers to sell off cattle they can't feed and likely will drive some farmers out of business, agriculture experts said Monday.
"It's a very serious situation," local cattleman Orland Britnell said. "I just came back from the Cattleman's Convention in Huntsville, and that's definitely one of the issues we talked about. All that dry weather we had last summer has placed a real hardship on a lot of local farmers."
The shortage also is hurting those who raise horses as a business or for pleasure, because hay is an important part of horse diets.
The drought also has meant that pastures of grass typically used for grazing are dry, so farmers had to use what little hay they had even earlier than usual.
"Demand and price go hand in hand," Britnell said. "The demand for hay is up right now, and the price is way up. The price of hay right now is higher than I can ever remember, and it's not very available. You just can't find any right now."
The Alabama Cattlemen's Association estimates that there are 1.3 million cows in the state – each worth an average of $750 – and that $469 million a year is made from their sale. The cattle industry as a whole in the state is valued at about $2 billion a year, according to the association. The state's hay crop last year was valued at $117 million. Hay is an important part of cow and horse diets, providing nutrients and roughage they can't get elsewhere.
Britnell said the recent precipitation in the area hasn't helped the problem much.
"The rain we've been getting here lately has been wonderful, but it hasn't helped any grass to grow," he said. "It's just been too cold. The weather is starting to moderate a little, and hopefully the grass will start to grow and we can use some fertilizer to get things going a little bit."
Cindy McCall, a professor in the animal sciences department at Auburn University and an equine specialist for the state extension service, said horses need the roughage they get from hay to help them maintain good bacteria, which break down food and give them energy.
The fiber horses get from hay also keeps their digestive tracts working properly, preventing colic. Alternative feeds, made from plants such as alfalfa, just aren't as effective.
Horses also are a fairly large industry in the state.
According to the Alabama Horse Council, there are nearly 100,000 horses in Alabama, and the industry directly produces $573 million in goods and services annually. Ron Sparks, Alabama commissioner of agriculture and industries, last month warned that the cattle industry was in trouble and said the state had no luck in trying to find hay anywhere in the South.

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