SHELBY, N.C. — With 10,000 cattle, Cleveland County is the eighth largest beef producer in North Carolina -- to feed all those cows, farmers rely on thousands of acres of pasture and those pastures rely on a steady supply of rain.
This fall, that rain didn’t come until late November, and even then it wasn’t nearly enough. Parts of North Carolina entered extreme drought for the first time in more than five years, prompting the USDA to offer aid to cattle farmers for the first time since 2016.
Cleveland, Gaston, and many other counties west are eligible for the Livestock Forage Disaster Assistance Program. Some South Carolina counties are also eligible, including Chester and York counties.
The aid is meant to help farmers recoup some of the cost of cutting their grazing season short and tapping their winter stockpiles of hay months early.
For Matt Bell, a farmer in the Shelby area, that meant breaking out the hay in October, rather than late November or early December. He said he knows of others who needed it even earlier.
“Just really between the lack of water and the temperatures we had, the second half of the year was not ideal,” he said. “Grass quit growing, our fall crops were half a crop at best.”
Bell said area farmers were fortunate to get great conditions for a hay harvest in the spring, but due to the drought, they couldn’t grow much this fall. That means when the stockpile they’ve saved up for the winter runs out, farmers will have to start buying hay.
“You’re looking at $50 to $60 a roll, and you feed several rolls a day that cuts into the profit real quick,” he said.
Robbie Henderson, the president of the Cleveland County Cattleman’s Association, said food costs aren’t the only challenges farmers are facing. He said farmers already run on thin profit margins and with high fuel and equipment prices for much of the year, the drought was just an added stressor.
“It’s just gotten really expensive and people that farm have to really love it because it’s either in you or not,” he said.
Henderson said the USDA aid, which amounts to about $104 per weaned cow for farmers following federal acreage guidelines, could be a big help for farmers who are struggling to see a future in the cattle business. The average age of cattle farmers has been rising, and the harder it is to maintain a farm, the less likely he believes younger farmers will carry on the mantle of their family farms.
“This gives them a chance or some help so that they may decide to continue on for awhile,” he said.
There is good weather news on the horizon. The North Carolina State Climate office predicts December will see above-average precipitation, and in an El Niño year, the southeast should see a wet winter.
For farmers, Henderson said it’s too late to help the grass grow, but he’s hedging his hopes on a good spring.
“It’ll help the water table,” he said. “It’ll help the creeks and the streams and the ponds but as far as the grass, it’s not going to do us much good at this point.”
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