By ROXANA HEGEMAN Associated Press
WICHITA -- Cool temperatures this spring in Kansas have delayed the growth of pasture grasses and the first cutting of alfalfa fields, keeping cattle ranchers from turning out their herds out for grazing and putting pressure on tight hay supplies.
Development of all forage grasses is running almost three weeks behind normal, said Steve Hessman, hay market reporter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's office in Dodge City. Cool-season grasses like fescues have not grown much, and warm-season varieties such as the bluestem grasses of the Flint Hills are just now beginning to green up some.
That means the grass in pastures has not grown enough for ranchers to turn their cattle out to graze as usual, Hessman said.
Aggravating the tight hay supplies is a hard freeze that hit Kansas earlier this month, nipping alfalfa fields. Normally growers start cutting alfalfa fields in southern Kansas by late April or early May, he said. This year it could be late May before alfalfa fields regrow enough to cut.
Steve Dewey said he had an inch of snow Tuesday at his cattle and hay farm near Cimarron in southwest Kansas. He said that on his phone are pictures taken in April last year showing his dog Kate, a Jack Russell terrier, running through an alfalfa field that was so tall you couldn't hardly see the dog. That compares to this year, when the alfalfa in his field is so short that he wryly said you couldn't hide the dog even if she was digging holes.
"It is an extreme difference," Dewey said.
He figures it will be the end of May before he starts swathing hay this season.
Scott Habiger, a cattle rancher and hay grower in Kinsley, was able to stockpile enough hay that he isn't running out of it for his herd. But Habiger, who also buys and sells hay, has been getting about eight to nine calls a week lately from other cattle producers who have run out of hay -- especially in western Kansas and eastern Colorado.
"They are down to just living from load to load," Habiger said. "A lot of people you talk to are about ready to start selling cows because they can't afford to keep buying hay."
While much of eastern Kansas has gotten good snowfall or heavy rains this spring, western Kansas rangeland has not received much precipitation this year.
"Our problem is pastures are so grazed down from last year's drought, even if we get normal rainfall it is going to take a year or so to recover," Habiger said.
That hard freeze that hit Kansas earlier this month also damaged winter wheat crops in parts of southwest and west-central Kansas, said Jim Shroyer, Extension wheat specialist with Kansas State University. Some winter wheat fields were freeze damaged so badly that they look like somebody had sprayed Roundup to kill it.
Warm temperatures earlier this spring were interspersed with untimely freezes, snow and heavy rains in parts of Kansas that have wreaked havoc with crops.
"It is setting back the forages, and it has even held up the corn planting," Hessman said. "In areas of the state dry enough to plant corn, growers have hesitated because soil temperatures are cooler than they wanted."
Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported Monday that corn planting in Kansas was 5 percent complete, well behind the 30 percent completed last year at this time and the 20 percent average.
The state's winter wheat crop was also maturing more slowly with just 43 percent reaching the jointed stage. Last year at this time, 96 percent had already jointed. The average for this time of the year is 63 percent jointed.
Much of Kansas is under another hard freeze warning for Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Temperatures are forecast to be in the low 20s -- low enough to do some "serious damage" to the state's winter wheat crop, Shroyer said.
"We will know a little more in a few days," he said. "As of today, we are not out of the woods."