For farms, little hay is big concern

Drought-induced shortage means mass sale of livestock

Price of bales skyrockets

Agencies hope strict federal conservation limits will be lifted

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 beasts 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 around $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 and wanting to come first to get space in the stalls. With cattle prod in hand, Bob Burdette of Sugarloaf Mountain in Montgomery County herded a heifer and four bulls out of his blue trailer into the stockyard.

"I can't afford to buy hay for them," Burdette said. "I'll be coming back to sell a lot more."

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 could help, such as an emergency request by the Carroll County office of the federal Department of Agriculture. 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.

When farmers can't get help from the government, Naill said, they help each other.

"Most of these cattle [at the auction yesterday] will end up as stock cattle in the Midwest, where they have rain. They won't all be slaughtered," Naill said.

He said the animals will likely breed and probably will be sold back to Maryland farmers in the future, when the drought ends.

"It's like a swap, kind of like taking care of your buddies," Naill said. "But if we don't get rain soon, there won't be any farmers on the East Coast. I was born and raised here, and this is the worst I've seen since 1953."

That was the year that 7-year-old Ralph Naill saw his father struggle to keep a farm to pass on to him.

"We had to sell the herd and everything we had because we couldn't feed them," Naill said.

His father managed to keep most of his land, though, and Naill and his grown children are trying to buy back as many acres as possible of the farm started by their German ancestors in the 1600s, when they spelled their name Knaill.

This generation of Naills all have jobs outside the farm. Naill-Waddell works at several horse farms, and other relatives are in construction or heating and air conditioning.

In a normal summer, the Naill beef cattle would have enough green grass to keep their multiple stomachs happy all summer.

"Last year, we had 23 cows and 14 horses on a 40-acre farm, and we didn't have to feed them much hay until November," Naill-Waddell said. Before late autumn, two round bales would last the cows two weeks, she said.

But this year, she's putting out two round bales a day to feed 18 cattle.

"They're tearing it up every day," she said.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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