NEOSHO, MO. Add the high price of hay to the burden on cattle producers coping with prolonged drought in parts of Kansas, Missouri and points south.
With hay production below normal and motor fuel prices soaring, ranchers are paying far more for the feed than they did a year ago.
Hay farmer Steve Roark, who also raises 200 beef cattle near Neosho in southwest Missouri, said the calls he had received from ranchers in Kansas and Oklahoma hoping to buy his hay suggested that many faced tough decisions before winter.
Timely rains and a surplus of hay from last year have allowed Roark to sell several hundred small square bales this year.
"Right now, hay is hard to find," Roark said. "And with diesel $3 a gallon, that just adds that much more to the cost for someone to get the hay home."
At Nash Farms, a hay transportation and supply company in Columbus, owner Steve Nash said hay production is a fraction of normal. Meanwhile, his tractors burn eight to 10 gallons of diesel per hour, adding $30 per hour to his production costs.
Nash said he was buying hay in western Kansas and Nebraska for $65 per round bale, up from around $20 per bale last year. By the time Nash hauls the hay to Texas, ranchers there can expect to pay $100 to $120 per bale for mixed grass and lespedeza hay.
Small square bales of alfalfa are selling for up to $10 per bale, Nash said.
"I don't know how farmers can afford to feed that to their cattle," he added.
Gary Naylor, University of Missouri livestock specialist in Buffalo, said the effect of this year's drought was compounded because crop yields last year were less than average. Hay yields vary within the region, but are 25 percent to 50 percent less than normal.
"At this point, farmers should be culling unprofitable animals and those that aren't bred back," Naylor said.
Naylor said he had not heard of any entire herds being sold yet, but was sure he would if the drought continued.
Warm-season grasses such as Bermuda and bluestem haven't fared as badly as cool-season grasses, but are still below average.
Ima Moyer, of Moyer Hay and Cattle Co., in Quapaw, Okla., said her grass hay hardly yielded anything this year, while the Bermuda grass is "beautiful."
But another Bermuda grass grower, Shannon McDonald, of Pellestrina Farms in Oronogo, Mo., said she had to skip two cuttings this year. Hay is normally cut every 21 days, she said.