Its a truism farmers know by heart: Desperate droughts call for desperate measures.
If the north countrys two-month dry streak persists, Jefferson Countys 240 dairy farmers will have to make up for lost corn and hay crops that are now withering up. Concerned that they wont harvest enough forage to feed their herds, farmers are starting earlier than usual to weed out their cull cattle those that arent producing enough milk or are getting too old, said Arthur F. Baderman, agricultural outreach coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.
Signs of increased business due to the drought already are evident at one north country cattle auction.
If they havent (sold cattle) yet, its something they should now be considering, Mr. Baderman said. He said nationwide drought which has scorched fields in the Midwest also has driven up grain prices for north country farmers. Thats why farmers will be hard-pressed to foot the bill to buy expensive grain and corn to make up for their own shortfall.
Selling extra cull cattle now can help solve the dilemma, Mr. Baderman said. Doing so can add extra cash flow to farmers coffers and ensure they dont have too many cows and not enough feed in the winter a bind no farmer wants to be in. Typically farmers sell their cull cattle in October or November, but the drought situation likely will shorten that timeline.
The sooner they get rid of these animals, the more forage theyll have for the remaining herd in the winter, Mr. Baderman said. Farmers always have to get rid of extra animals, but this year theres added pressure because of the drought hay crop and corn yields are down. If we dont get rain in the next month, they wont have enough feed to fill their bunks and silos.
Another reason for farmers to sell their dairy cattle now, Mr. Baderman said, is that beef prices are gradually falling and are expected to continue to drop through the fall. About three weeks ago, dairy cattle in the Northeast were sold to slaughterhouses for about 90 cents to 95 cents per pound of beef; theyre now selling for about 62 cents to 78 cents per pound. Beef cattle, which are more lucrative, are being sold for more than a dollar a pound but also are expected to drop in value.
Mr. Baderman said the price drop for dairy cattle is largely because farmers across the country particularly in the Midwest where the drought is concentrated all want to sell their cattle at once because they dont have enough forage to feed them. He said the oversupply of beef is projected to continue to dial down prices into the fall.
Illustrating that trend, business has significantly increased this summer Northern New York Farmers Marketing Cooperative Inc., a sales barn based in Lowville that sells dairy cattle on behalf of farmers at auctions hosted Mondays and Thursdays.
About 90 percent of the cattle, which come from farms throughout the north country, are sold to large slaughterhouse plants in Pennsylvania. Launched in 1982, the cooperative charges a commission fee to participate in the auction for calves ($5 per head), heifers ($14) and bulls ($16).
At this Mondays auction, four of the companies that bid on cattle were from Pennsylvania and one was from Wisconsin.
Farmers prodded by the drought are actively seeking to sell their cattle now to prepare for what could be a disaster, said Ted A. Simmons, market manager of the sales barn.
Mr. Simmons said he expects more farmers to sell their cull cattle in August if the farms blighted crops get even worse without rain.
Right now, were at the point where its hinging on the rain, and if we dont get it in the next couple of weeks farmers are going to have to take action, he said. Theyre in business to produce milk, but (some farms) are going to have to sell out their cull cattle just to survive. They cant let the cattle starve to death.
Even so, farmers who can afford to wait to sell their cattle could take advantage of rising prices when the beef industry eventually has more demand. Farmers in the Midwest are selling most of their cattle now, Mr. Simmons said, which eventually should create a deficit in the national beef supply.
I think it should turn around in about six months to a year, because most of the cattle that should have been full size at that time have already been slaughtered, Mr. Simmons said. It takes about two years to raise a full-size cow, he said, but farmers across the country now are selling them when theyre only a year old.