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Lack of water, hay makes farmers' jobs difficult, but help could be on the way

Brice Stephenson looks over his herd of beef cows Monday in York. Because of the drought, hay production is down. Stephenson realized he wasn't going to have enough hay to feed his 30 cows through the winter, so he sold 20 of them. Many local farmers are resorting to serious measures in order to remain profitable.
Brice Stephenson looks over his herd of beef cows Monday in York. Because of the drought, hay production is down. Stephenson realized he wasn't going to have enough hay to feed his 30 cows through the winter, so he sold 20 of them. Many local farmers are resorting to serious measures in order to remain profitable.

For most South Carolina residents, the drought has meant burnt lawns and wilted flowers.

For farmers, though, it means loss and more hard work. It also means drastic measures must be taken to make it through the fall and winter, including selling their livestock.

As water levels continue to drop and creeks run dry across York County, many farmers are having to haul in water for their thirsty cows. On average, farmers say each cow needs about 30 gallons of water a day.

Chris Douglas of Sharon uses a 1,000 gallon tank on the back of a dump truck to provide water to his cows because two of his ponds have dried up.

"It's very depressing, from the standpoint of having to look at everything you work hard for just absolutely burn up," Douglas said.

But some help for farmers such as Douglas may be on its way.

Federal officials have said York County is eligible for assistance to provide water for livestock through the Emergency Conservation Program. Although funding has not been approved -- and might not be -- the York County Farm Service Agency is taking applications through Oct. 26 in hopes that it will, Anita Bryant of the FSA said.

If approved, the program would pay 50 percent of the cost to drill a well and 75 percent of the cost of putting in a pipeline and watering trough, Bryant said. Only farms that keep livestock for food or fiber will be eligible for the assistance.

The FSA had similar problems during the drought of 2001 and 2002, Bryant said. During that time, the organization gave assistance to install 120 new wells.

"Farmers, as they've been coming in, have been saying it's worse now than it was then," she said.

While the assistance might help with water, farmers are still faced with the problem of providing food for their livestock.

Area pastures are nearing a 100 percent loss, and hay fields are in much the same condition, Bryant said.

Douglas has about 70 cows and sold the calves he ordinarily would have kept to replace older cows to avoid feeding them.

Brice Stephenson of York realized in August he wasn't going to have enough hay to feed his 30 cows through the winter, so he sold 20 of them.

"I hate to do it because I had some good cows, but sometimes you got to do what you got to do," he said. "I would have run out (of hay) by Thanksgiving."

Stephenson, who grows his own hay, hopes he won't have to buy more to get through the winter.

"I'm hoping we get a little shower of rain, and maybe my pastures will come out some," he said.

An early frost that damaged plants, combined with the drought, has made the feed losses particularly extensive this year, said Joe Guthrie, livestock manager at the Clemson Extension Office.

"This is as bad or worse than many people have seen," Guthrie said.

The heat also took a toll on the size of calves this summer. Cattle that ordinarily would have been grazing spent much of their day in the shade, Douglas said.

"We could realistically say it's cut the calf crop by 20 percent," he said. "The only salvation we've had is the meat market has been very good, so we've been able to get a good price for what we've had to sell."

Fall frost will soon be here and destroy what's left of the summer grasses, Douglas said.

"It's not a very pleasant picture looking into winter right now," he said. "Obviously, most people don't relate to it. They relate to a drought as an inconvenience to their garden or to their yard, but from a farmer's standpoint, it's cutting into his livelihood drastically."

The problem isn't going to be solved overnight, Guthrie said.

"It's probably going to take six months to get things turned around from where they are right now," he said. "We got where we are right now slowly, and the only way to recover is slowly."

Until that happens, farmers say they're going to do all they can to survive.

"It's just tough," Douglas said. "But we'll battle through it."

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