JACKSONVILLE — Cows will eat just about anything, according to Wendell Wilson, and the 140 that normally graze the pasture on his farm recently changed diets.
“We’ve hauled in peanut hulls from south Georgia,” Wilson said by phone Wednesday, “around 45,000 to 50,000 pounds per load.”
Wilson declined to say how much such a load might cost. His cows dine on it now because, under the withering heat and aridity of a drought that engulfs much of the Southeast and all of Alabama, the grass his cows would normally chew is brittle and dead. His pastures, Wilson says, have been grazed “down to nothing.” That means he’s started the beasts on stockpiled hay — far earlier than the farmer would have in a normal year. That means Wilson, along with many other farmers in northern Alabama, faces a difficult winter.
“Nobody’s going to have enough hay,” he said.
In October, all of Alabama finished a long slide into drought that first showed in April. The lack of rain has dried creeks and ponds and encouraged widespread wildfires.
This week, the drought pushed Gov. Robert Bentley to issue a statewide ban on outdoor fire. Violating the ban is punishable with jail time.
State climatologist John Christy says perhaps hardest hit have been cattle farmers like Wilson, though.
“Their pastures die when there is two months of drought,” Christy observed in his October climate report. “They face the dilemma of deciding whether to sell livestock in a saturated market or importing hay to get them through the winter.”
Selling isn’t an option for Wilson, who says cattle prices are depressed right now: “It would be a terrible loss.”
Same for Donna Jo Curtis, a lifelong Limestone County cattle farmer who’s served as president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association.
“We’re just going to have to bite the bullet and feed for the time being,” Curtis, who keeps 170 cows, said Wednesday. “We’ll just have to see month to month how things go.”
Other farmers, though, have decided to whittle down herds, which has depressed the price for beef cattle. That likely won’t affect retail prices for steak, says Alexandria farmer Doug Trantham, but it means a “double whammy” for any farmer who sells.
He or she will pay taxes on the sale, which will bring less than it normally would, and will likely need to replace any animal sold later — possibly at full price.
Drought conditions destroyed hay crops that would’ve been stockpiled to feed cattle, which means farmers like Wilson have gotten creative — thus the peanut hulls.
Trantham’s cows, meanwhile, sup on cotton gin “trash,” the fibers left over from processing. Trantham supplements the filler with protein and other nutrients.
“There’s not local hay to be bought,” Trantham said Wednesday. Looking to Tennessee or south Alabama has proven to be expensive — hauling a load of hay, which might feed Trantham’s 200 cows for just two days, might cost as much as $1,300.
Farmers have some extra help in finding hay, though. The Cattlemen’s Association, together with the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries, has established an online listing — those who have the commodity to sell can advertise on the department’s website.
Listings on the site appear from Alabama’s southern counties, and from Mississippi, Kansas and Kentucky — too far and too expensive a trip for Trantham.
Finding food is a problem, but another big issue for the farmers is water — ponds and creeks that cows once drank from have evaporated.
And in keeping with the forecast seen so often in recent months, meteorologists with the National Weather Service predict no rain in coming days.
“It’s more of the same,” Gerald Satterwhite, speaking from the service’s office in Calera, said Wednesday. “The most noticeable change is some cooler air moving in.”