August 17, 2005 | By: Aimee Nielson
LEXINGTON, Ky.

In northern Fayette County, Todd Clark is watching the sky and hoping for any sign of rain. His tobacco, hay and feeder cattle operation could greatly benefit from some moisture. 

“In the spring it was looking like a fairly normal year and at that point we were all optimistic,” he said. “As the summer wore on, it seems like the rain would come at the last second and save us for a few more weeks. But at this point, tobacco is topped and the rains have quit. The hay was good early but it’s gotten worse. We’ve not lost any (hay) this year but we are at a point where the rain is not giving us any more hay to bale. I’m concerned there won’t be a final cutting.”

As of Aug. 15 the bluegrass climate zone was still deep into the severe drought category and needed nearly 8 inches of rain to end hydrologic drought according the latest Palmer Drought Severity Index report.

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Forage Specialist Ray Smith said Clark’s situation is not unique this year as most producers have had to adjust to the dry weather Mother Nature has decided to prolong.

“We’re looking at a situation now that without more moisture, most people have low productivity on their pastures and their hay is pretty much finished unless there’s more moisture,” he said. “We’re getting late enough that, even with a good rain right now, it’s questionable there would be another hay cut. It could make a difference in pastures, though, because we’ve still got a lot of growing time.”

Clark said the drought hasn’t really hurt the cattle portion of his enterprise; it’s just caused him to make some adjustments in the way he does things.

“We’ve had to pay attention to the number of cattle on the property,” he said. “It’s actually worked out well for me because there hasn’t been enough hay to justify cutting, so we’re able to let the cattle start to graze the hay fields.”

Smith said it’s advantageous for producers to allow their cattle to graze, so long as they don’t overgraze.

“The main thing is they make sure they manage pastures so they aren’t grazing into the ground,” he said. “There’s a real temptation when you have a certain number of animals on a certain amount of land that you want to make use of everything that’s out there, but you also want that pasture to respond when it does rain.”

Smith said even feeding a little bit of hay right now is better than grazing to the ground. When there’s a bit of growth left, about 2 or 3 inches, the plant has more reserves to make a comeback when it does rain and it may come back a couple weeks sooner after a rain, he said. 

“If you want to get grass growing for the fall or start stockpiling grass for November and December, now is the time,” Smith continued. “We tell people to put out nitrogen for that. It’s a little hard to put out fertilizer right now when you don’t see any rain in the forecast, but it is the time to be thinking about it. We do have some showers coming now, the temperature has cooled just a bit and that’s something to consider to get growth late into the fall.”

Clark said that the drought so far hasn’t really affected his water supply, mainly because he’s on city water. However, if the city does decide to start restricting water use, it could be a problem.

“My place is on city water,” he said. “On the other places I rent, we irrigate out of ponds and basically have used all that is available. It could be interesting (if Lexington restricts water use). At one point, we had a couple hundred animals drinking from the city water, which is not a huge number, but I think last month we used 107,000 gallons of water on the farm between tobacco use and cattle. So water is key to what we are doing.”

Smith said that even though the state needs a lot of precipitation to end the drought, farmers are not as bad off as they have been in previous dry years.

“We’ve had good forage production over the last year and over the winter,” he said. “Pastures that were in good shape before it got dry are still in good shape now and they will respond. We haven’t had several years of dry weather in a row that really takes pastures down. Having said that, the hay supply from this year’s crop is low, so if you don’t think you’ll have enough for the winter, now would be a good time to load up and be prepared for that.”

Smith and Clark hope the state doesn’t have to deal with much more dry weather and both agree that even a little rain could help.

“Every week we don’t get rain, there’s less and less chance that we’re going to get any significant growth for the fall and grazing late in the winter,” Smith admitted. “If we don’t get rain in the next couple of weeks, it probably takes out any chance of making a fall hay cut. Even an inch of rain right now would make a difference, particularly if we have a cooling trend. With the high temperatures and the low humidity we’ve had, moisture that has fallen has left quickly. A little rain would help. A long soaking rain would make a big difference.”

For drought resources, visit the UK College of Agriculture’s Drought Information Page listed under “Hot Topics” at http://www.ca.uky.edu/. There are also many resources for National Preparedness Month showing Kentuckians how to be prepared for drought and many other disasters at http://wwwagx.ca.uky.edu/eden.

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Contact: Ray Smith 859-257-3358