Lack of hay is the latest of farmers' problems

The drought-induced shortage means mass sale of livestock

July 28, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Ralph Naill made two trips from his Frederick County farm to the Westminster Livestock Auction yesterday: once to buy straw -- at 12 times the price he paid two weeks earlier -- and later to sell three or four head of beef cattle he can't afford to feed in the driest summer he's seen in his 53 years.

Other farmers were crowding their cattle into the stockyard yesterday, hoping to cut their losses by selling animals that are eating away at their income.

"The market is going to be flooded with cattle in the next few weeks," said Naill's daughter, Tammy Naill-Waddell, who helped him load bales onto a flatbed trailer while her 6-month-old son, Timothy, shifted around in his stroller.

Cattle, sheep and other grazing animals have devoured what little grass Maryland pastures offered this year. Farmers are tapping into their winter stores, and hay prices are starting to rise.

Large round bales went for about $30 yesterday at the morning hay sale, held every Tuesday. Last week, large hay bales were $23. The last time Naill bought bales, they were $15.

He did buy straw, though, paying $1.25 a bale. Two weeks ago, it cost him 10 cents a bale.

Other farmers showed up hours early yesterday to bring cattle to the auction, anticipating the rush. This year's drought is one of the worst on record for central Maryland, the result of a dry autumn and winter that left little moisture in the soil in the spring. For the past 90 days, Maryland counties have recorded rainfall 4 to 8 inches lower than normal, with Carroll and Howard counties the furthest behind, according to data from the Mid-Atlantic River Forecast Center.

Some small measures, such as an emergency request by the Carroll County office of the federal Department of Agriculture, could help. The local Farm Service Agency office has asked federal officials to lift restrictions and allow hay to be harvested from land in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Agency offices in Frederick plan to make the same request, and offices in Garrett and Allegany counties are considering it as well, said Connie Byler-Hsu, a program specialist with the Farm Service Agency's Maryland office.

The Conservation Reserve Program pays landowners rent to put highly erodible or environmentally sensitive land out of production for a specified period. The farmer plants a grass cover to hold down the soil. The program has provisions for "emergency haying and grazing" if a county's normal rainfall is down by at least 40 percent and if officials at the county, state and federal levels approve the decision.

Carroll's rainfall is 62 percent lower than normal, said Kelly Hereth, who directs that county's Farm Service Agency.

"We have permanent damage already," Hereth said. Early estimates are that farmers will take a 35 to 40 percent loss in their yields, she said.

Hereth applied for emergency haying after she got calls from two farmers wanting to know whether they could harvest the hay on their conserved land. One wanted to feed it to his dairy herd, while the other wanted to donate it to a neighboring farmer.

But those requests may not be approved, said Bebe Shortall, another specialist in that office. Even if fellow officials at the Maryland office endorse the request, officials in Washington could deny it.

Those conservation restrictions are strict, she said. Because lifting them affects the market, federal officials don't take such decisions lightly.

"The conversation I had this morning with the division that handles these requests was not very encouraging," Shortall said.

She said several Maryland farmers couldn't get the restrictions lifted for them to donate hay to drought-stricken Texas, Oklahoma and Florida last year.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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