UACES Facebook Drought prompting Arkansas ranchers to sell cattle
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July 15, 2022

Drought prompting Arkansas ranchers to sell cattle

“We’re on the edge of a disaster.” -- Kevin Lawson

By Mary Hightower
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Fast facts

  • National cattle slaughter rates highest since 1996
  • Ranchers advised to rotate grazing
  • Hay for sale hard to find

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LITTLE ROCK — As triple-digit temperatures and weeks without rain suck the life out of pastures and hay meadows, Arkansas’ cattle producers are having to sell part or all of their herds.

Kevin Lawson, who directs extension activities in the 25-county Ozark District, an area heavy in cattle, doesn’t mince words about what he has seen.   

“We’re on the edge of a disaster,” he said this week.

The U.S. has seen its share of drought this year. During the spring, Arizona, New Mexico, as well as west Texas and western Oklahoma were hard hit. As summer brings the heat, the Mid-South is drying out too.

Some spots in Arkansas haven’t seen anything more than a sprinkle since the beginning of June. The lack of rain is showing up in both the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s weekly crop report — which shows 43 percent of pastures in poor or very poor condition — and the U.S. Drought Monitor, whose July 11 report shows all of Arkansas being in drought. The most intense drought areas are in the north and southwestern parts of the state.

Burned up pasture near Lynn, Arkansas.

DRIED OUT — Drought has turned this pasture near Lynn, Arkansas, from green to brown. (Division of Agriculture photo by Bryce Baldridge)

“We’re holding steady right now,” said Michael Lee, who runs Flying C Ranch, a cow-calf operation in Faulkner County. “The grass is struggling. If it doesn’t rain pretty significantly in the next week or two, there will probably be a lot of cows that will have to be sold here on the farm.”

One for the books

Herb Ginn, Crawford County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said Thursday that while some hay growers are working on their second cutting, “it leaves a lot to be desired.

“This is one for the books, though we hadn’t yet broken the high temperature record in Fort Smith,” Ginn said. “The forecast for next week is 101 and 102, so that ought to pretty well finish us off as far as hay is concerned.”

Zach Gardner, Faulkner County extension agent, said a hayfield being used for an integrated pest management demonstration last year produced 242 round bales in its first cutting. This year, that number is down to 151 bales.

“People are trying to find hay and no one is wanting to sell hay. Even those who might have carryover from last year, and those who have irrigated hay, are still not selling it,” Gardner said. “There is no hay to buy.”

Gardner said no one in his county has resorted to feeding hay yet. “They’re aggressively rotating cattle to different fields, but it’s not going to be much longer before we don’t get any rain.”

Desperate times

“Desperate times call for desperate measures and if things continue as they are, some producers may be forced to sell their cattle. They can’t feed them,” Ginn said.

“In Faulkner County, there’s a lot of cattle going to the sale barn. People are reducing herd sizes,” Gardner said.

James Mitchell, extension livestock economist for the Division of Agriculture, pointed to the national figures on cattle slaughter.

“From January to June, total beef cow slaughter is at its highest level since 1996,” he said. “If you look at the number of head slaughtered as a percentage of the January 1 inventory, that’s 5.3 percent of available cows in the U.S. That would be confirmation that we’re seeing people sell off their herd, are culling, or are digging deeper into their herds to cull more cattle.

“Drought is pressing some hard decisions for people,” Mitchell said.

The higher numbers of cattle being processed doesn’t necessarily translate into lower prices.

“If we’re slaughtering this many cows in a year, that would suggest a large supply of beef cows and that those prices should be lower,” he said. “If you look at auction prices for slaughter cows, we’ve had a very strong slaughter market. Prices are 5-8 percent above a year ago at this time.”

Mitchell said the situation is being driven by strong consumer demand.

“One of the biggest stories is that through inflation, customers aren’t substituting away from beef,” he said. “They’re substituting from a higher-end steak to something more affordable — ground beef.”

As for retail prices, there won’t be an immediate effect.

“If you think about that newborn calf, it takes two years to become a steak on your plate,” Mitchell said. “You’ll see higher prices in a year or two with fewer cattle going to slaughter. There’s a bit of a lag between drought and its effect on prices.”

“The demand is holding steady and I’m optimistic about that,” Lee said. “The demand is still there and the supply for now is still there. The drought will play a big role in supply and demand.”

Lee said it was important for consumers to educate themselves about what goes on in the beef industry.

“At the end of the day, it might affect them at the store,” he said.  

In addition to seeking advice from their county extension office, Mitchell said producers should visit the Farm Service Agency for information about the Livestock Forage Disaster Program for assistance.

 Managing forage in drought

“Temperatures over 100 degrees limit growth of all forages,” said John Jennings, professor and extension forage specialist for the Division of Agriculture. “Some areas have received scattered showers, but pasture recovery will require more than a few rain showers due to the dry soil profile and continued high temperatures.

“For much of the state, pastures are being grazed short and producers are about to start feeding hay,” he said. “In those cases, management strategies must focus on pasture recovery after drought.”

Jennings had the following tactics for managing what forage is left in their fields:

  • ROTATE — Use rotational or controlled access grazing to extend grazing on any remaining forage. In drought-stressed pastures, treat any remaining forage as if it were standing hay and allocate it in strips or paddocks large enough for no more than two to three days grazing.
  • AVOID CONTINUED OVERGRAZING — Drought-stressed pastures will recover more quickly if not overgrazed. Top growth mirrors root growth so continued overgrazing causes weak, short roots which will further slows recovery. Overgrazing causes higher soil temperatures because it removes residue that shades the soil surface.
  • CONSIDER RENTING — Consider the possibility of renting unused pasture from neighboring landowners. Pasture rent can be much less expensive than buying hay and feed.
  • SCOUT RENTED LAND — Scout rented land, new pastures, or ungrazed areas for toxic weeds such as perilla mint and even wilted johnsongrass. Hungry cattle or cattle brought to a new field or farm will often eat plants they would normally avoid. Perilla mint is becoming more common in open fields. Prussic acid poisoning potential is very high for johnsongrass forage less than 18 inches, wilted forage, or for a new flush of growth soon after a rainfall.
  • PROTECT YOUR HAY — Protect purchased hay from weathering during storage.
  • IF YOU HAVE IRRIGATION — Where irrigation is available, plant a summer annual crop such as pearl millet or sorghum/sudan hybrid. Many crop farmers are asking about planting these forages after corn harvest in late July to produce a cash hay crop by fall.

Call your county extension agent for details.

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk. To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit

About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media contact:
Mary Hightower