Dry weather forces many to feed hay earlier than normal Like row crops, beef cattle have suffered from too much heat and not enough moisture this year. Unlike crop prices, beef cattle prices have been good.

Tom Troxel, beef cattle specialist for the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas, says because of the dry weather and lack of forage, some beef cattle producers have been feeding hay since August.

"We recently got a good general rain across the state, but one rain doesn't break a drought," says Troxel. "It takes weeks and weeks of below-average rainfall to create a drought, and it's going to take weeks and weeks of above average rainfall to recover from the drought.

"Arkansas has been dry a long time - three years in a row. Subsoil moisture has to be replaced, and ponds have to be replenished."

Troxel says there's very little forage left for cattle to graze. "In the absence of grass, they've been consuming perilla mint, which is toxic to cattle and horses. They wouldn't be eating it if there was forage in the pasture, but perilla mint may be the only thing that's green."

The specialist notes that perilla mint often grows in the shade around the edges of barns. Even during a drought, there may be enough dew dropping from the tops of barns to keep the weed moist.

Because of the lack of forage, and to avoid having to feed hay, many producers have sold cattle early at lighter weights, according to Troxel.

"On the good side, we've had good cattle prices since last fall. A lot of producers sold cattle last spring because the prices were so good."

Troxel says the effects of the drought may carry over into next year. "Cows that are losing body condition after they calve will take longer to rebreed. We were dry in January, February and March, which are the months most of our spring-calving cows should have calved.

"Hopefully, they rebred."

Troxel urges cattle producers to have their cows pregnancy tested. "It costs a lot of money to feed a cow over the winter months, so it better be one that's going to produce a calf next spring."

He says even though hay production got a boost from the May and June rains, hay supplies may run short by late January and early February. "You want to put your money for supplemental feeding into cows that are going to produce calves."

Troxel says Arkansas producers have sold about 46,000 fewer head of cattle this year than at the same time last year. "I think that's a reflection of the below average rainfall for the last three years. People have slowly liquidated their herds, and they haven't rebuilt them."

That may soon change. "I think prices will continue to be strong this fall because cattle will be in short supply," says Troxel. "Plus, the price of corn is very low.

"My guess is, if we have a good wet winter, we may see some people rebuilding their herds next spring. Replacement heifers may bring a premium."