Drought affecting dairy farmers

Monday, July 23, 2007

A severe drought, a late frost in April and high gas prices are causing some local dairy and cattle farmers to liquidate some of the cattle heads.

Jason and Jonas Gillespie, brothers and partners of Gilmac Farm in Chapel Hill, said the severe drought is greatly affecting the hay crop this year, which is just one third of their normal hay production.

"We have had 3/10 of an inch of rain in the last two weeks," Jason said. "We're already using our winter hay crop and normally we grow enough hay for our own use, but have already had to order hay from Kansas."   

The Gillespie brothers, who began dairy operations on the Gilmac Farm in 1997, said the current drought conditions are the worst they have seen, but they remain optimistic since the year is not over.

"Depending how much rain we get before the next frost, we might sell a few more cows. We can grow hay until the winter frost so it's not that bad yet," Jason said. "Normally we sell about 15 heifers a year, but we have already sold 20 this year. Fuel affects everything, from fertilizer to feed to medicine for the animals."

The Gilmac Farm houses about 100 Jersey cows, 80 of which are milked six gallons a day per cow. The increased milk prices are actually benefiting the Gilmac Farm and Jason said the price increase is not due to gas prices or the drought conditions.

"The supply and demand for milk has risen on an international level," Jason said. "There is a shortage of powdered milk so the higher milk prices are actually helping us."

Their father, Bill Gillespie, recently sold five Black Angus heifers to a new cattle breeder in Lewisburg named Chris Maga.

Maga and his wife, who is a horse trainer, relocated from Santa Barbara, Calif. and purchased a farm on Hobo Shaw Road two months ago from Ralph Lowrance.

"I needed some stock to start out with and our grass is pretty good," Maga said, explaining that the purchase also helped him get started with his cattle.

Bill Gillespie sold the heifers to alleviate the cost of feeding them, but he remains optimistic about the future. He said depending on what the weather does, he might sell a few more this fall.

"I always hope for a better year," he said.

Rick Skillington, director of the Marshall County UT Agricultural Extension office, said due to the extreme to severe drought in Marshall County, most of the local dairy farmers are using their winter hay crop and the hay production this year is just 40 percent of the average production.

"The rain that we are getting is spotty. Some parts have had more rain, allowing the grass to grow, but other parts are as dry as they were 30 days ago," Skillington said He added that only a Gulf Coast hurricane, that many are hoping for in late August or early September, will provide area-wide relief to the cracked and dry ground.

"If there is a good soaking this fall, then it will still be a good year for the grass and hay," Skillington said. "If we don't get that, then a lot of people will be liquidating their herds.