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State Aims to Keep Hay From Being Cattlemen' Last Straw

Posted January 18, 2008

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— The drought is hitting North Carolina’s $250 million cattle industry hard, with a shortage of hay making it difficult to feed livestock.

Many area farmers are heading to Oxford, where hay is arriving by the truckload.

Rennie Wilkins is one of the cattlemen having a hard season this winter. He has 28 mouths to feed at the North Fork Ranch, and it is not an easy assignment.

“If you're going to stay in business, you've got to take the good with the bad,” Wilkins said Friday. Being philosophical about the challenge doesn’t make it easier, however.

With the drought cutting down on North Carolina's hay crop, farmers like Wilkins are always looking for where to get their next shipment.

Many farmers turn to the state. The Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services is bringing in tons of hay from places such as Arkansas and even from Canada.

“With 60 bales of hay left in the barn, we're having to purchase hay anywhere we can,” horse farmer Mike Whittemore said.

Fred Smith, superintendent of the state's Oxford Tobacco Research Station, oversees the shipments that come there. It's one of six centers around the state.

“We have had some phone calls that said they are completely out. They are desperate,” Smith said.

There are six sites statewide. Smith said the state has $3 million to buy the hay in bulk, then sell to farmers at a cheaper rate than they could get if they were shopping for it individually. The Department of Agriculture sells hay for anywhere from $66 to about $90 dollars a bale. The money goes back into buying more hay.

“A person going out here buying this hay (alone), they're paying a whole lot more than they had to. But that's because it's coming out of Canada – transportation costs,” Smith said.

With farmers forking out more cash, some are finding it hard to make ends meet. A lot of farmers are being forced to sell off their livestock at reduced prices simply because they can't afford to feed them.

Wilkins hopes he doesn't get to that point.

“I'm trying to hold on – if I can afford it,” he said.

Wilkins’ feeling is echoed by a lot of farmers across the state as they try to hold onto their prized commodity by loading up on what has become another prized commodity, thanks to the drought.

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