A hay shortage in the state could force local farmers to thin their herds, pay higher hay prices or find another food source for livestock, a local farmer and a United States Department of Agriculture official reported Monday.

USDA Farm Service Agency officials in Raleigh County plan to request help from the federal government to offset a local hay shortage.

"We are requesting some assistance, but that's not come about, yet," said USDA Farm Service Agency Raleigh County Executive Director Keith Richmond on Monday. "It takes awhile for that to fall into place.

"If, and it's a big if, it comes about, it would be financial assistance to go purchase the hay," he explained.

Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for all 55 West Virginia counties on Friday due to severe drought conditions.

Crab Orchard farmer Sam Croy said Monday that the drought left regional farmers without pasture lands for their larger livestock like cows and horses to graze, forcing them to feed the animals this year's hay that was cut in late spring.

"Everybody's getting this revelation right now (that) we're in a drought," said Croy, who also owns Croy Farm and Tractor Sales in Sophia. "But we haven't had any rain since July."

Monday's rainfall came too late to help with this year's hay production.

"People are already feeding hay because the pastures have dried up," Croy added. "When that hay land dries up, the pasture land dries up as well.

"People are feeding earlier than they already would."

Usually, Croy explained, farmers get a first cut of hay from May to mid-July, followed by at least a second cut and sometimes a third cut of hay each calendar year.

"The governor's keenly aware of it because he's a large farmer himself," Croy said.

Croy explained that farmers who are making hay behave in the opposite way of a homeowner who is mowing grass. A homeowner does not want the grass to go to seed.

"Going to seed" is when a plant reaches a mature stage and produces flowers to make seeds. At that stage, growth slows or stops.

"The reason your yard grows is because you're mowing it," Croy said. "It wants to go to seed. The more often you mow it, the more often you have to mow it.

"Hay is just the opposite. You let hay go to seed, which is where the nutrition is — in the seed head. Hay is used to feed animals."

Farmers grow hay in the warm months and save hay to feed to animals during the winter months, when the pasture lands are not producing pasture for grazing.

This year in southern West Virginia, Croy said, the pasture lands dried, and so did the hay fields. Farmers got a first cut of hay and fed it to the livestock when their pasture lands were dry. Now, there is no second cut, which will deplete hay supplies even more.

"People will be feeding hay sooner than later, which creates a bit of a shortage in itself, because most producers don't start feeding hay until the onset of bad weather, which should be, by the calendar month, a month or six weeks away," Croy explained. "But customers are already using hay to feed because the common denominator is no pasture."

The farmer said this year's hay shortage follows a hay shortage that happened last year because of too much rain.

"There's going to be the same kind of shortage we experienced last year, just for a different reason," he said. "Last year, it was too wet to put up. This year, it's too dry."

Richmond agreed with Croy's assessment and said a Monday rain was "probably too little, too late" to help haymakers in southern West Virginia.

"The first cutting was probably an average year (of crop), so you depend on at least two, sometimes three cuttings with it," Richmond explained. "With it just being the one cutting, they're probably not running short right now, but they're having to feed out their hay stocks early, and that's probably going to throw them short toward the end of the year."

Richmond said many farmers plan for a hay shortage and hold some hay in reserve. But the anticipated shortage this year, coming so closely behind the 2018 shortage, has depleted hay reserves. He anticipates that hay prices will rise.

"There's probably not too much of a reserve out there, and they'll have to go other places to try to find feed or reduce their livestock down to what they can manage to feed," he said. "It's supply and demand.

"The hay prices will be going up. Either you can go ahead and pay that higher price and make it through, or you can thin your herd to where you don't have to feed so many.

"It's going to be intensive management, is what's it's going to take to make it through with the hay stocks we've got right now."

He said that while the county waits on help from Washington, D.C., a hay list is available in the county USDA Farm Agency office. The list shows hay that is for sale around the state. 

Some farmers will purchase hay online or go out of state to find hay, he added, while others may rely on grain to feed large livestock.

At his Crab Orchard store, Croy said the hay shortage is likely to lead to some farmers being unable to care for their herds.

"My major concern is the people with limited resources and the animals in their care," Croy said. "You're going to read some stories of animals that are neglected, not so much because of choice but just because of the situation people are in.

"We need to be aware of that and try to be sensitive to their needs, as well as our own." 

Croy, who grows hay in Crab Orchard and buys it from people he does business with in his machinery shop, said he does not bring hay in from long distances but shops with his neighbors.

A local dealer, he said that he plans to keep hay prices at his shop reasonable during the hay shortage.

"It's an opportunity for us to be good stewards and friends to the people," he said. "I sell hay, but I don't exploit people.

"The customer base has supported me for years, and I would be remiss if I tried to take advantage of them in a difficult time."

Croy said the hay shortage is like any other challenge.

"Disasters bring out the best of people and the worst of people," said Croy. "I think it gives us an opportunity to be good West Virginians."

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