Drought forces cattle producers to make tough decisions

Lack of forage, lack of water and rising hay and feed prices are forcing many local farmers and ranchers to sell their livestock.

Ada Evening News


Oklahoma’s ongoing drought is forcing cattle producers to decide whether to sell their cattle or buy expensive hay and feed.

“A lot of the guys are selling,” said Steve Newby, a local cattle owner.  “I’m going to hold out as long as I can, maybe start buying a little feed and hope for a rain.”

Newby said cattle owners are getting about half the hay from their pastures as they usually get.

“We’re about out of grazing grass,” he said.

Before Wednesday’s brief rain, Ada went 49 consecutive days with less than one-quarter inch of rain.

Ada’s rain total on July 18, 2010 was 25.6 inches compared to this year’s total of 11.16 inches on the same date.

“There are a lot of ranchers being forced to liquidate their cows because of lack of forage and lack of water,” said Justin McDaniel of Oklahoma State University Extension Office.

McDaniel said the usual price for hay has at least doubled and feed prices are up, adding to cattle producers’ woes.  They’re also having to travel further and further north to get hay, because of high demand, which adds fuel costs to their worries.

“We’re seeing local sales that are running four or five times the number of cows that they traditionally run this time of year,” McDaniel said.

Fortunately, he said a high demand for cattle has kept sellers from losing too much money over the drought.

“The price of cows is holding pretty firm,” he said.

Replacements for these cattle next year may be more expensive, however.

“If they have to sell their cows, what’s it going to cost to replace those cows in a year?” McDaniel said.  “We’re already dealing with a shortage of cows.”

Jim Parks, another local cattle owner, said he had hay left over from last year and he’s buying some from Colorado.

“I usually sell my calves around the first of the year after I fatten them out,” Parks said.  “I’m going to sell them in another few weeks to a month if it doesn’t rain.”

He also plans on selling some of his less productive cows.

“Maybe she’s got a bad foot.  Maybe she’s got a bad utter.  Maybe she doesn’t breed and have calves as early as the rest of the herd,” he said.  “That’s what you do when times get bad:  Get rid of your worst calves first.”

Ada Jobs Foundation President and CEO Mike Southard said agriculture represents 10.4 percent of Pontotoc County’s employment.

“You’re talking about 3,400 to 3,500 employees that could be affected,” Southard said.

He said the impact of the drought could amount to $70,000 for an average-sized farm.

McDaniel said the financial and emotional impact is hard on people who have put so much work into their livestock.

“It’s tough on people.  I’ve seen grown men just lose it,” he said.  “They’ve worked all their lives on a set of cows, trying to build them up and are forced into selling them about the time when they could capitalize on the hard work that they’ve put into it.  It’s pretty disheartening to see.”

For now, cattle owners are praying for rain.

“It always rains at the end of the drought,” McDaniel said.  “That’s what we’re waiting on.”