REGION — Despite recent rainfall, Franklin and Androscoggin counties have remained in drought.gov’s abnormally dry conditions category for three consecutive weeks. Livestock farmers and hay producers are crossing their fingers that Maine doesn’t cross into the more dry thresholds this season as they still feel the effects of last fall’s severe drought conditions.

According to drought.gov, 55.7% of Maine is currently in the abnormally dry condition with 100% of Franklin and Androscoggin counties in this classification for three consecutive weeks. Screenshot from drought.gov

“We’re still on the tail end of last year’s weather so hay is pretty expensive,”  John Wright of Sparkplug Farm in Leeds said in a phone interview.

Wright’s 30 to 40 grass-fed cattle herd switched to feeding on hay a month early last September due to a dry pasture. He also produces his own hay, partnering with Aaron Buckley of Buckley Farms in Leeds. They usually get three cuttings out of a season which extends from late spring to early fall.

Last year, the two cattle farmers were unable to harvest a third cutting which Buckley said acted as a double-edged sword since the animals switched to dry feed so early. Buckley has about 250 Angus and Red Devon cows and needs about 600 square bales to get through a year. The third cutting usually produces about 150 bales, Buckley said.

“I knew I was going to be short [hay] in November and we started trying to find some in the end of November to December,” Buckley said in a phone interview.

It wasn’t until January that Buckley secured hay from another supplier since dry conditions had affected haymakers across the state.

“I think that last year’s drought was so widespread…usually you can find hay somewhere in Maine but it was just like the whole state was dry even if we weren’t in a severe drought, so it seems like everyone has kind of gone through all of their inventory,” Wright said, who also struggled to source hay to get through the season.

Widespread drought conditions affected hay production last year, especially the third cutting which takes place in early fall. Many livestock farmers had to source outside of the state for feed to get through the winter and early fall. Screenshot from drought.gov

Buckley ended up looking for out of state suppliers, purchasing bales from South Dakota and from a person in Vermont who was bringing hay down from Québec Province.

Bruce Tracy of Maple Hill Farm in Farmington hays about 225 acres and was able to do three cuttings last year. He attributed his successful season to the fact that a lot of his fields contain clay soil which has higher moisture retention. There is a silver lining to a dry season as Tracy explained that these rain-deprived conditions are ideal for drying hay.

“If you don’t have any rain, you can go an extra day or leave it [grass] out and get it the next day to make sure it’s dry,” he said in a phone interview. 

Tracy has been supplying livestock farmers, locals with horses and the Farmington Farmers Union with square and round bales of hay.

“I don’t have as many [livestock] as I used to have, that’s another reason that I could sell hay because I don’t have the numbers I used to have,” Tracy said.

The Farmington Farmers Union is selling square bales for $8 which is a $3 increase according to Store Manager Jordan Wayne. The prices of round bales have also increased from $45 to $70. Wayne said that corn, grain and soybean feed prices have also increased.

Tracy said that he’s seen haymakers in the state selling square bales for $14 and round bales for up to $100 with short supply and high demand driving up prices.

Looking forward, Tracy was optimistic about first cut which he’ll harvest in about two to three weeks, but less wind and more rain certainly wouldn’t hurt.

“It’ll be alright if we get a little more rain and warmer days,” Tracy said about early spring conditions.

For Buckley who has a substantial herd, preparation for another potential drought season will be essential to avoiding feed shortages and high prices in the coming year.

“I’m probably going to be a little more aggressive in trying to find some feed earlier, whether I make it myself or from some neighboring acreage or just go ahead and buy some ahead of time,” Buckley said. “And I’m gonna be more aggressive in culling some animals. If the writing is on the wall that feed is going to be short, I’m going to be more aggressive at tending my herd down this fall.”  

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