While drought conditions in Texas continue at some level in many areas across the state, cattle producers are finding more and better quality hay is available than in recent times.
In fact, if early hay cutting reports are any indication, it could be an exceptionally good year for baled hay, especially in the eastern half of Texas.
"This year is a lot better than in 2011," says Don Beavers, a rancher near Bryan-College Station. "People were bringing in hay from North and South Dakota. We haven't had any difficulty this year."
With the first hay harvest of the season underway across large areas of East, Central, and Coastal Texas, the availability of hay is equal to the current demand, and quality is better than it has been in many years.
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"At this time of the year this is probably the nicest June we've had this century,"
reports Randy Britten, a Coastal Bermuda producer in Brazos County.
Britten, who has been producing Coastal Bermuda since 1970, says recently cut hay is almost ready for baling, but he warns buyers may want to stock up on hay bales while it is available.
"Nobody knows what the weather will be like later this summer," he said.
Britten, Beavers and others attribute the good crop of grasses and abundant early cutting this year on late season rains last year and substantial rains so far in 2014. While East Texas fared better in the drought in recent years than most places across the state, 2011 was “a disaster.”
The drought and blistering triple-digit heat in Texas left pastures and grazing lands brown and crispy, forcing ranchers to cull their herds to a bare minimum. While most de-stocked by as much as 50 percent, others cut even further with a few selling off all their stock, resulting in the smallest U.S. herd since the 1950s, a development that forced beef prices higher.
Texas is top beef producer
Texas leads the nation in cattle production and was the hardest hit after the worst single drought year of record. But the multiyear drought that continues to a lesser extent has been offset somewhat by improved conditions in the eastern half of the state.
While no one is ready to say the drought years have ended, officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association say many producers have started a slow regrowth of their herds with hopes of building back to pre-drought levels in the next few years.
Availability of hay, especially in a dry year, is a step in the right direction.
At the peak of the drought in late 2011, industry experts say hauling hay from other states, while an important “band-aid” to help growers survive a year without rain, didn't come without a hefty price tag. For one, out-of-state hay prices were extremely high, as much as $300 a bale or more in some cases. But others problems associated with the practice created unexpected problems.
Weed scientists say weeds not native to Texas were brought into the state along with the hay, and the possibility of bringing in new types of pests was also a concern.
The Noble Foundation was warning stockmen during the peak of the drought that the import of large quantities of out-of-state hay carried the risk of invasive and potentially noxious weeds gaining a foothold in Texas. Many of these plants could cause problems, but some weeds deserving particular attention are the diffuse and spotted knapweeds (Centaurea diffusa and Centaurea stoebe), and leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula).
Noble scientists warned producers that such weeds, once established, could quickly crowd out desirable forages and native plants and were vigorous competitors for water.
Hay growers in East Texas hope to get more cuttings this year than the one currently being harvested, but as summer temperatures flare, they admit the quality and quantity of hay will depend on whether rains continue, and how much falls.