KELLY P. KISSEL
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Arkansas hay farmers once hopeful they could make three cuttings in 2013 are now worried that a developing drought will stunt growth in their fields and leave them facing a shortfall when fall and winter arrive.
The state has already produced more hay in 2013 than it did in all of 2012, but ideal conditions in the spring had farmers believing they could cut hay at Memorial Day, Independence Day and before Labor Day.
"We just don't have the growth," John Jennings, a forage specialist at the University of Arkansas' Cooperative Extension Service, said Thursday. "There is no forage that will grow without water."
Much of Arkansas' spring was wet and relatively cool, but Jennings said that, at Conway, farms went 38 days without rain before scattered showers Wednesday.
"We got all that rain in May and early June. That made for a spring cutting for most folks," said Jennings, a professor of animal science.
But weather patterns changed, leaving Arkansas dry. John Robinson, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service at North Little Rock, said Arkansas should see above-average temperatures into September, with precipitation near normal - which isn't great for hay production. Last week, 13 percent of Arkansas was in some stage of drought but the number jumped to nearly 75 percent this week. Last year at this time, all of the state was in a drought.
Moisture from scattered showers Wednesday and Thursday will likely evaporate within a few days, and a cold front will bring in drier air.
"The main point here is that we are going to have to be getting some fronts down here and get some real rain," Robinson said. "People need help."
Tropical storms are an option, but Arkansas typically doesn't see rain from hurricane leftovers until late August and September, as happened last year when the remnants of Hurricane Isaac brought 3 inches of rain to much of the state.
"When the hurricane came through, we got rain and cool temperatures and fields that weren't abused in the summer rebounded pretty quick," Jennings said. Fields that had been overgrazed amid a hay shortage didn't produce as well.
Most Arkansas farmers grow hay for their own use, though some sell their excess for typically around $40 a bale. Hay had to be brought in from the Southeast last year, at around $85 a bale once shipping costs of $35-$40 per bale were added in.