Bad hay season strains local farmers

By Alan Bulluck

March 27, 2014

While it may not yet look or feel like it, winter has officially drawn to a close and spring has sprung, and that’s a blessing for many horse and livestock owners in Ashe County.

“In past years, we have used around 600 bales (of hay) over the winter, but we’ve blown past that in 2014,” Ann Lisk, owner of Southern Sun Farm Sanctuary, in Glendale Springs, said.

The heavy, summer rains and bitter cold temperatures are to blame for the overall bad hay year.

“It wasn’t the perfect haymaking season for us (Ashe County),” Micah Orfield, Ashe County extension agent for livestock with the N.C. Cooperative Extension, said. “The rain had a lot to do with the hay production this year.”

In 2013, the High Country experienced an early, warm spring.

Lisk said many people expected to cut hay in early June and again in early August. However, rainfall totals for the summer approached near-record levels.

In July, a little over 24 inches of rain fell in Phillips Gap, 15 inches in Warrensville and 14 in West Jefferson, according to

So much rain fell, “a lot of folks never got another crop in,” Lisk said.

“It is extremely rare to get two to three cuttings of hay in the mountains,” Lisk said.

Cows can eat wet hay, but it can cause significant harm to a horse.

“The moisture will create mold inside the bale and can kill a horse,” Lisk said. “It can cause a horse to colic and if left untreated, can lead to death.”

While hay does well in the snow, the colder it is, the more hay horses and livestock need to survive.

According to Orfield, some cattle spend much of the winter “in maintenance” - lactating and getting ready to calve. So the cattle have to keep warm and maintain energy levels, all at the same time.

“We started off the winter pretty good,” Orfield said. “As we get close to the end of winter, that’s when we’ll have to start looking for more hay.”

By the end of February, Lisk had already gone through her entire budget of hay for the winter.

“We brought in tractor trailer loads of hay from as far away as Ohio and upstate New York,” Lisk said. “Many people formed co-ops to share in the trucking expense.”

Still, Lisk said a rainy year is preferable to a dry one.

In March, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator Juan Garcia put livestock producers on notice, urging them to keep thorough records if they were at all effected by adverse winter weather. This included livestock and feed losses, and any additional expenses resulting from the losses to purchased forage or feed stuff.

“The 2014 Farm Bill provides a strong farm safety net to help ranchers during these difficult times,” Garcia stated in a press release. “I urge producers to keep thorough records. We know these disasters have caused serious economic hardships for our livestock producers and we’ll do all we can to assist in their recovery.”

The FSA recommends that owners and producers record all pertinent information or natural consequences, such as:

• Documentation of the number and kind of livestock that have died, supplemented if possible by photographs or video records of ownership and losses.

• Dates of death supported by birth recordings or purchase receipts.

• Costs of transporting livestock to safer grounds or to move animals to new pastures.

• Feed purchases if supplies or grazing pastures are destroyed.

• Crop records, including seed and fertilizer purchases, planting and production records.

• Pictures of on-farm storage facilities that were destroyed by wind or flood waters.

• Evidence of damaged farm land.

Livestock producers in Ashe County who’ve been adversely affected by severe winter weather are urged to visit or the Ashe/Alleghany County office at 134 Government Circle, Suite 101, Jefferson, NC to learn more about FSA programs and loans.

Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @abulluck.