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Spring weather a real haymaker

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Rain, heat combine to deliver bumper crop of hay

By Ben Carlson

April showers bring more than May flowers.

They bring hay, too, and this year plenty of it.

Following a pair of drought-ridden seasons that left farmers scrambling and paying high prices for the dietary staple, the spring cut this year delivered a veritable bumper crop of the grass they need to keep their animals fed through the winter.

Lawrenceburg farmer John Chilton, who sells the hay he bales on fields he owns in Salvisa, said he’s pleased with this year’s crop.

“It’s quite a bit better and closer to average,” Chilton said as he prepared to begin baling hay Monday afternoon. “It’s a whole lot better than last year when it was almost non-existent.”

“The last two years were so dry that farmers were forced to cut anything and everything,” said Tommy Yankey, Anderson County’s Extension agent for agriculture. “They needed the hay, even from marginal ground.”

This year, though, Yankey said a strong growing season means farmers are likely to realize nearly double the amount of hay when compared to the previous two years.

“Hay yields were off last year 40 to 50 percent,” Yankey said. “This year, the yield is close to normal, in the range of 3.6 to 3.8 tons per acre. Last year most farmers got 2 tons at best.”

The total yield will be dependent on the fall cut of hay, which usually yields less than the spring cut.

If all goes well, Yankey estimates that Anderson’s 22,000 acres of hay fields will yield in excess of 77,000 tons of hay.

What that means to farmers is that they won’t have to look elsewhere to feed their stock this winter.

That, Yankey said, makes raising cattle and other hay-dependent animals at least somewhat more profitable.

“The profit margin is slim anyway,” he said. “When you have to purchase hay, it’s a losing proposition.”

Yankey said along with driving hours from home to buy hay over the past two years, farmers were paying a hefty price.

“The last two years I know a number of farmers who were paying $70 per roll,” Yankey said, referring to the 1,200 pound to 1,500 pound rolls of hay seen dotting fields across the area.

That gets expensive quickly for farmers raising dairy and beef cattle because the average cow will eat 3 percent of its own body weight every day in feed.

“On a typical cow, you need about 43 pounds of stored feed per day,” Yankey said, which equals about an average bale of hay.

The strong growing season has helped drive down the cost of buying the hay, as have lower fuel and fertilizer costs compared to what farmers were paying a year ago.

Those savings are only marginal, Yankey said, because it’s still expensive for farmers to cut, rack and bale the hay.

“Some folks who buy hay might think that with this abundance, they shouldn’t have to pay so much, but it still costs an average of $42 to $60 ton by the time you fertilize, use your tractor, your bailer and everything else.”

Another upside is that grazing pastures will have a chance to recover following year years of hard use.

“This spring has let the pastures recover,” Yankey said. “They have been grazed into the ground the past two years. Farmers couldn’t help it.”

Yankey said the only real downside this year is that the heavy rains this spring forced some farmers to wait to harvest.

“It’s tough to get it cured with all the rain we’ve had,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of windows to put up quality hay. When farmers have to wait too long, it decreases the nutritional value and it’s not as high in crude protein or energy.

That problem can be offset, Yankey said, by farmers adding concentrates to their hay when they use it for feed.

E-mail Ben Carlson at bcarlson@theandersonnews.com.