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Persisting drought in Arkansas plagues hay farmers

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - Cooler weather has arrived in Arkansas but a severe drought lingers, bringing bad news for the state's hay and cattle producers.

The Climate Prediction Center recently issued a three-month outlook that showed drought persisting or worsening into eastern Arkansas. That means areas that were flooded in the spring now could face drought conditions.

Cattle farmers are already running low on hay. Arkansas hay growers are shipping many bales to desperate livestock owners in Texas and Oklahoma while trying to maintain an adequate amount for cattle producers in their own state.

Some hay farmers are receiving more than 25 requests a day from out-of-state farmers, according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture in Fayetteville.

"There's such a demand that people are getting $65 to $70 for rolls of corn stubble," said Jamey Styles, a hay farmer in Coal Hill, Arkansas.

He said he heard about one person offering a hay grower $100 per hay bale on the spot.

But some agriculture experts are concerned about the quality of some of the hay hitting the market because it may not be full of the nutrients that cattle need.

Some bales may have weedy plant materials because farmers are trying to boost their yields, said Shayne Gadberry, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

"The result in hay quality will be lower," Gadberry said.

Arkansas has been battling the weather all year. The hay problem began this spring when floods saturated pastures. The heat that followed parched the grazing fields.

Some cattle producers had no choice but to sell their cattle at market in order to cut costs and turn a profit when a chance still existed to do so.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack designated all of Arkansas' 75 counties agricultural disaster areas at the request of Governor Mike Beebe.

A study released in August estimated crop damage from spring floods cost farmers $335 million in lost income this year.

Some cattle farmers and hay producers have been so desperate that they cut and bale fields untouched for years. Even then, not all of the hay can be used because of poor forage in the bales.

"Some of these crops are mature at harvest, and as a result they can be quite low on protein and energy content," Gadberry said.

According to the latest crop reports, 51 percent of pasture and range were in fair condition, 36 percent were rated poor or very poor and 13 percent were good or excellent.

The outlook, Gadberry said, is grim for fall and spring grazing unless weather conditions drastically change.

"If we continue this dry pattern, we just don't have the moisture to establish those crops." Gadberry said. "Farmers definitely need a break."

(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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