“Crazy” is the word champion hay producer Jamey Styles used to describe the 2012 growing season as he prepared to hit the field with his baler.

“We’re three to four weeks ahead,” he said May 2, adding with a laugh that “some people could’ve had tomatoes by now if they’d only known it wasn’t going to freeze.”

Styles, of Johnson County, won the 2011 American Forage and Grassland Bermuda Hay Contest -- essentially the national Bermuda hay championships-- despite record drought and high temperatures that in some places hit 120 degrees. When interviewed, he was hoping to pull a sample that would enable him to repeat last year’s title.

“If we hadn’t gotten some rain in August, last year would’ve been the worst I’d seen,” he said. Even with irrigation on some fields, it was so hot, “it was like I was cooking the grass. I don’t ever want to see that again.”

Lesson not lost

2011 was a year that still haunts Rex Herring, who works in a county that was among the hardest hit by drought. He’s grateful for the early start this year.

“We’re 30 days ahead of the norm,” he said on the last day of April. Herring is the Sevier County Extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. By then, Herring had already helped put up dozens of bales of hay on his father’s Polk County farm. “I’m going to have 200 to 300 rolls in this first cutting.”

The early cutting is a blessing in an area where last year’s drought turned pastures to tinder and forced many producers on scorched farms in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas to sell cattle they could no longer feed. The lesson was not lost.

“We can’t forget the hard times and how much we spent last year to stay in business,” Herring said. “Many spent last year’s calf crop and part of this year’s money to stay in business.

“I’ve got a couple of producers who are putting up hay or forages in a timely manner. Everyone sees the value of doing this.”

Early bounty down south

The early rain and perfect conditions have provided a bounty of cool season ryegrass and clover in southern Arkansas as well.

“Producers in Little River County have put up more hay at this point than they did all of last year,” said Joe Paul Stuart, Little River County Extension staff chairman.

“We are a good two, maybe three weeks ahead of a normal year. Hopefully we will get a good second cutting.”

Stuart said the welcome mat is out for a little more rain. “We’re still not sure what our warm season grasses are going to look like; they are really thin in many places.”

For some, the cutting is coming more than four weeks early. Robert Seay, Benton County Extension staff chair said “harvest timing is such that moisture is still sufficient for nitrogen efficiency. This will enable anyone who has made an early cutting to be able to bale their second cutting about the same a first cutting is taken during normal years – June 1.”

Don Hubbell, director of the Livestock and Forestry Research station in Batesville, Ark., is seeing and hearing the same from cattle producers he’s encountered. “I think producers are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. We’ve had two very dry summers and it is very fresh on everyone’s mind how difficult it has been to find hay of any kind lately.

“We did not have a very cold or long winter, but a lot of hay got sold because of the dry conditions locally last fall and across the country. Hay inventories are low.”

At the Batesville station, “we will start cutting fescue hay this week. … The bermudagrass was set back somewhat by the cool weather about 10 days ago.

“It is just now starting to grow again. It is early to cut, but with the unusual spring, and warm temperatures, we are running about two to three weeks ahead on plant maturity on the fescue.”

To learn more about forage production, contact your county Extension office, or visit www.uaex.edu.