By Brad Haire
University of Georgia
"It's a very precarious situation right now," said Curt Lacy, a livestock economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "I don't see how we will not have to liquidate cows due to the lack of hay supplies we have in the state going into this winter."
During the warm summer, cattle typically get enough nourishment when they graze pasture grass. In good, wet summers, the grass grows more than the cattle can eat. That extra grass is cut, baled and stored to feed cattle as hay in the winter, when pastures don't grow.
But this wasn't a good, wet summer. It was a hot, extremely dry one, Lacy said, that baked pastures and cut hay production across the state.
Lacy recently completed an economic analysis and feed outlook for Georgia's cattle industry that he has presented at meetings across the state. Cattlemen know the situation is tough, he said. The numbers show it.
When summer weather is good, cattlemen can collect as much as 2 million tons of hay and have plenty for winter feed. This year, due to the drought, they'll harvest between 600,000 and 1 million tons, enough to feed Georgia's estimated 580,000 beef cattle for 60 to 100 days.
"It's going to be tight," he said.
On average, one cow can eat 30 pounds of hay per day in the winter.
Hay supplies will be tight across the Southeast, too, Lacy said. The drought hit Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas as hard as Georgia or worse this summer. Hay prices keep climbing, too. A ton costs $82 now, 70 percent more than a decade ago.
Cattlemen plant cold-tolerant forages such as oats and rye for cattle to eat along with the hay in winter. But La Niña conditions have developed along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. This event typically brings a warmer, drier fall and winter to Gulf Coast states. This would hurt the growth of these forages.
Some regions got more rain than others this summer, said Johnny Rossi, a UGA Cooperative Extension livestock specialist. Cattlemen in wetter areas will have enough hay, but just enough. Others are buying feed additives, such as brewers' grains, cotton gin trash and crop residue, to try and extend their hay supplies. Some are already selling off cows.
If cattlemen must sell cows, Lacy said, it's a good time to do it. Prices are good right now at 40 cents to 45 cents per pound.
Cattlemen could end up selling 5 percent to 10 percent of Georgia's beef cow herd in the coming months. They typically maintain their cow herds and sell only the calves produced each year.
(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)