Hay shortages drive cattle to sales A hay season like this year's leaves cattle producers with only one thing to cut: cows. Most Mississippi cattle producers who were holding out hope for a decent hay cutting before fall now realize it is time to cull herds before they are left with too many mouths and not enough feed to last the winter.

Blair McKinley, beef cattle specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, estimated that farmers will only have 40 to 50 percent of their normal hay supply come winter. They have 60 to 70 percent of the needed hay now, are feeding hay already, and have little chance of another hay cutting this fall. Some parts of the state have even less hay.

"We will reduce our cow herd numbers to where we can feed them through the winter with existing hay supplies or we will find alternative feed supplies," McKinley said. "The chances of getting another hay cutting this year are very slim. There's not enough grass out there to cut, and not enough time even with rain."

Ryegrass usually is an alternative winter feed, but without significant rain in the next several weeks to put moisture back in the soil, McKinley said even this traditional forage will be unavailable to Mississippi cattle producers until late winter or spring.

Malcolm Broome, Extension forage specialist, said Mississippi producers normally put up enough hay to feed for three months. This year, not only were they unable to put up enough hay, but many had to start feeding in August rather than winter. Even if producers find a supply of purchased hay, prices are such that they won't be able to feed this and still make a profit.

"If your feed supply is getting close to being just adequate, this is the time to cull some problem cows because that will help you in the long run," Broome said. "We don't know what's going to happen in the winter."

McKinley said the two options producers face are to cull herds now or start using alternative feeds.

"There are several cheap, high-quality byproduct feeds available to producers at prices in the $60 to $85 a ton range at the plant," McKinley said. "The most commonly available feeds are dry brewers grain, corn gluten feed and soybean hull pellets."

McKinley said these alternatives can be substituted for up to 75 percent of a cow's regular diet, but he recommended substituting just 50 percent. Cows like these alternative feeds, which while labor intensive to feed, will likely be cheaper than hay this year and provide more nutrition on a per ton basis than hay.

Since most farms are set up for hay feeding, using alternative feeds will require some changes as producers must have feed troughs and a covered place to store the feeds. Most will have to be delivered for a charge, with different products available in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Feed brokers can help producers locate and price these feeds.

The other way to handle the hay shortage is to sell cows. McKinley said herd numbers have decreased nationally and in Mississippi for about four to five years, especially with the recent drought. Cattle prices are good as the numbers are down, so culling herds is a good way to deal with the feed shortage.

The drought that reduced hay quantities has other effects on cattle. McKinley said where ponds have dried up or become stagnant, producers must supply cattle with clean drinking water. They should also check to make sure there are no poisonous plants when turning cattle into new pastures, because cows will eat anything green during a drought.