- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

ABINGDON, Va. (AP) — Dry conditions in Southwest Virginia are forcing farmers to sell their cows because they cannot afford to feed them.

Feeding a cow through the winter in a normal year costs as little as $150 — at $25 per roll of hay. That cow’s calf usually sells the next year for $450 to $500.

But with no hay available locally, the cost of bringing in hay has increased to $70 or more a roll, so the cost to feed and care for the same cow easily could exceed $500 — more than triple the normal cost.

Many farmers are having trouble finding hay to buy even at that price, so they are selling their cows and hoping to buy more in the spring.

Mike Hilt produced only a third of his normal hay crop this year. He lined up late last month at the Tri-State Livestock Market in Abingdon hoping to sell his animals before the price drops.

“Generally, I wouldn’t have sold the calves,” he said. “I would’ve kept them up to December-January, [but] the more of the calves I can sell now, the more cows I can keep.”

After 35 years in the cattle business, Albert Ford, of Washington County, may be finished.

“Everybody’s selling their cows,” he said. “I’m selling all mine. I’ve got a lot of friends that are doing the same thing I’m doing.”

Like many area farmers, Mr. Ford got less than half of the usual amount from his first cutting of hay and no second cutting.

“You can’t get feed in this area,” he said. “It’s so high it’s worth more than your cows.”

A severe drought in Southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee worsened over the summer — now ranging from extreme or exceptional, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

As of Friday, the region’s rain deficit was more than 16 inches for the year, according to the National Weather Service.

“We’re about 6,000 head ahead this year,” said Rob Barrett, manager of the Tri-State Livestock Market. “I’ve never seen this many cows and bulls come on the market in the fall season.”

Mr. Barrett said he will have to sell half of his herd unless he can find a way to feed it.

“Come spring, it’s hard to tell what a good cow and a calf will cost,” he said. “I’ve got my cow herd just about where I want it, and it’s taken me seven or eight years to do that. Now I’ll have to start again.”

The drought also has resulted in a water shortage in some areas, especially in Tennessee, where county officials are paying volunteer fire departments to haul water from local utilities at a cost of $50 per 1,000-gallon load.

Farmers pay a reduced rate for the water. But with each cow needing 25 to 50 gallons of water daily, the cost can add up quickly.

“You can last without the grass for a while, but when the water runs out, you’ve got to do something, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” said Kenny Plowman, a Smyth County cattle buyer.

Those waiting in line at the livestock market said the prices for beef cattle are down 5 to 10 cents a pound, but the horse prices have hit bottom.

Dairy farmers are not feeling the pinch as much because they can use the corn they grow to feed their cattle, said Randy Lester of Lester Brothers Dairy, in Glade Spring.

“It’s hurt everybody, you know, but we can probably get by, break even and hope for a better year next year,” he said.

Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture, said she knows of no plans by state or federal agencies to bring hay to farmers.

“We’ve tried it in the past with mixed success,” she said. “We’ve haven’t really thought about it this year because, for one thing, it’s hard to find.”

Donald Kieffer, executive director of the National Hay Association, said cattlemen will have to look west of the Mississippi for hay, and it’s going to be expensive.

It costs about $1,500 in transportation costs to bring a tractor-trailer load of hay from Oklahoma to the region, but Mr. Kieffer said it will not get cheaper, especially if the Midwest is hit with a hard winter.

“If we have a severe winter, there’s a lot of hay that’s out West that might stay out West,” he said. “If somebody thinks the price will get cheaper in January, don’t bet on it.”

His advice?

“I’d sell the cows and move to Florida, how does that sound?” he said.

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