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Ranchers seek alternatives to expensive winter hay

WICHITA (AP) -- There's no grass for grazing on Debbie and Duane Blythe's ranch in Kansas' parched Flint Hills. Instead, their cattle nibble on the leafy tops of turnips the couple planted after harvesting their winter wheat.

The Blythes are among thousands of farmers looking for alternative ways to feed their animals this winter after one of the worst droughts in the nation's history dried up grasslands in much of the country. The drought also cut hay production, making it harder and more expensive for farmers to buy supplemental feed.

Many farmers and ranchers already have sold off animals they couldn't afford to feed, and they're now having to get creative in coming up with ways to feed those they have left.

Turnips are nutritious, even if they seem like an odd choice for cattle feed, Debbie Blythe said.

She and her husband usually grow almost all of the hay they need to feed 500 head of cows and calves on their ranch near White City. This year, however, they got only about two-thirds of the hay they normally would. To make up the difference, they planted turnips and chopped failed crops of corn and milo from their fields and those of their neighbors to make silage, a fermented feed that their cows "love to eat like candy," she said.

They also cut the stalks left over after their wheat harvest for straw that they'll mix with higher quality feeds or supplements.

"Our cattle have been learning to eat things that they have not had to eat before," Debbie Blythe said.

This year's drought covered two-thirds of the continental U.S. at one point. While about a third is still in a severe drought, conditions overall are easing.

The harsh summer, however, cut into forage production across a far bigger area than even the year before, said Steve Hessman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's office in Dodge City. The 2011 drought mostly affected ranchers in Texas, Oklahoma and southern Kansas, he said, but they could buy hay from states farther north, such as Nebraska.

This year, Nebraska was among the states hardest hit by drought. Three-fourths of it remains in the worst of five drought stages listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

That means little, if any, hay is being shipped south, but it's the high prices that are really forcing farmers to seek alternatives for their cattle, Hessman said.

Hay cost even more a year ago, but that's another reason why farmers are holding off on buying now. They remember last year's mild winter and don't want to be caught with a lot of extra, expensive hay on hand come spring.