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Drought has slimming effect on cows, profits

(ran PC edition)

Beef and dairy cows shed pounds as grass dries up in the arid conditions. The lack of rain also hurts golf course owners and landscapers.

Up to 200 pounds underweight, the cattle and their malnourished calves scour fields flecked with brown stubble, lumbering into swamps in search of grass.

J.B. Starkey Jr.'s cows are starving.

Months into a record-breaking drought, the Pasco County rancher has run out of hay to feed his cattle, with no lush green grass in sight. Other farmers have sold off livestock, unable to feed the entire herd. Many are spending thousands of dollars and scrambling to buy a dwindling supply of hay.

If it sounds like a natural disaster, that's the way it feels to Hernando and Pasco county businesses _ from farmers to landscapers to golf course owners _ whose pocketbooks shrivel with the passing of each cloudless day.

"The cattle are losing weight. They're in starvation mode. They're not going to die or anything," Starkey said. "But with the dry winter and then this spring, it has just been devastating to the pasture."

Ranchers usually feed hay to grazing cattle and horses through the winter but cut back in the spring once the grass starts to grow. But with only 4.08 inches of rain instead of the normal 11 inches falling from January through April in this part of Florida, farms look more like sandy beaches than green fields of waving, foot-high grass.

"We saved a little bit (of hay) for when we wean the calves this summer," said Starkey, who owns more than 1,000 head of cattle and 3,400 acres on Anclote River Ranch in Odessa. "Other than that, there's nothing left."

With hay too expensive and in short supply, the cattle are on their own until it rains and more grass grows, he said. Some cows are already down about 100 to 200 pounds from their typical weight of 1,000 pounds, Starkey said. And some calves are 50 pounds underweight.

The cows will eventually gain the weight back, but not before costing ranchers their bread and butter.

"It's going to affect next year's calf crop because if cows are not in good condition, they are not going to breed next year," Starkey said.

More immediately, he said, he and other ranchers stand to lose thousands of dollars because calves are not likely to gain their weight back by the time they are sold in the fall.

"If they weigh less, you make less," said Randy Barthle of Barthle Brothers' Ranch northwest of Dade City in Pasco County.

The loss of money on one underweight calf could run from $50 to $75 a head, Barthle said.

The Barthle ranch has been selling five loads of calves a year at 85 to 100 calves per load. If all of those calves were underweight, the loss could range from $21,250 to $37,500.

The Barthles, set back by a dry winter that stunted the growth of rye grass, are trying to stretch their hay supply to feed the cattle. But their stock of 1.5-million pounds of hay made from grass last summer is nearly gone.

"We started giving them a little bit less and little bit less. I'd say in another three weeks we'll be finished," Barthle said.

So far, though, they've been able to avoid buying hay, which could cost about $1,800 a week, he said.

"You run into expenses that you might be a couple of years catching up," he said.

Gary Keyes of Hernando County has already been set back.

The co-manager of Milk-A-Way Inc., a 450-acre dairy farm outside Brooksville with 500 cows, said his business is losing $3,000 a month due to unexpected hay expenses. The money comes out of profits and future improvements to the farm or the purchase of additional cows.

Though Milk-A-Way buys hay throughout the year to supplement the cows' nutrient-rich diet, it usually cuts back by mid-April. That's because workers can then replace hay with chopped-up grass mixed in with the feed.

But there's little grass to be found.

"It's really not growing at all. Even the weeds aren't growing," Keyes said. "We need an inch or two (of rain) a week to get caught up here in the next few weeks."

But the forecast calls for more dry weather, said David Rittenberry, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Common summer thundershowers are not expected until the first week of June, if then.

For now, farmers and ranchers are scrambling to find hay.

Martin Brown, who cuts hay on his Sumter County farm and also hauls it from North Florida and Georgia, says he has received twice as many calls as usual for hay this year.

"Some of them are desperate. And if it doesn't start raining . . . it's going to be a lot more desperate," Brown said.

A regular hay supplier for ranchers and farmers in Citrus and Hernando counties, Brown has recently been fielding calls from Hillsborough, Pasco, Volusia and Sarasota counties. He's also making a lot more trips north.

"We were probably hauling a load a week last year," Brown said. "We're probably hauling three loads a week this year." A load holds 22 rolls of hay. One roll holds up to 1,000 pounds of hay and costs about $33.

"If we don't get rain on the pastures, we're going to be feeding hay until July, and that's very unusual," Brown said. "If it gets bad enough, people are going to start selling their animals."

James Adkins has already sold half his herd within the past month. Adkins, who raises cattle and sells hay on his family's 200-acre farm outside Brooksville, reduced his stock to 20 head from 40. It's the first time in two decades of business that he has had to sell some of his livestock to keep the rest alive.

"(The drought) is about to kill me," he said.

Ranchers and dairy farmers are not the only business people with severe hardships from the drought.

Golf courses face thousands, if not millions, of dollars in damage if it doesn't rain soon.

"If the drought goes into June or July . . . our fairway grass, our roughs, all our grass on our facility outside of greens and tees will die, or 70 percent of it will die," said Stan Cooke, vice president and director of golf at World Woods, north of Brooksville. Water restrictions allow golf courses to spray greens and tees three days a week and all other areas one day a week.

"With that we're probably looking at a minimum of a couple million dollars in terms of not just the cost of the grass, but the labor of getting it out there and the fertilizer," Cooke added.

Aside from golf courses, some lawn maintenance and landscaping companies have seen business dry up in the drought.

ITM Tropicare Inc., based in Spring Hill, has had a drop of about 30 percent in its lawn plugging or replacement service from this time last year, though that makes up only 20 percent of its business, said president Tim Hughes. He expects that business to pick up again as soon as the rains start.

Not all businesses are hurting, though. Friendly Car Wash in Spring Hill has seen a deluge in business this year, up 30 percent from the same time a year ago, said owner Bryan Fischer.

"People don't get their cars washed when it's raining," he said. "A drought for a car wash operator is the best thing you could have. And a drought with love bugs is the best two things you could have."

Nick Paff, president of Paff Landscape Inc., which has clients in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Marion counties, said sales and repairs of sprinkler systems are up 20 percent from last year. He's also busy with new lawns and landscaping, which receive a slight exemption from watering restrictions.

But the drought holds mixed blessings for Gary T. Coole, owner of Heavenly Creations Landscaping in Spring Hill.

Some of the wax myrtle trees he grows on 7 acres are starting to die from lack of water. His lawn-cutting business is down 75 percent compared to last year, and his landscaping work has fallen 45 percent.

However, as soon as the rains begin, business will likely surge, with demand for both new landscaping and repair work for plants and grass that died.

"We hope to be playing catch-up financially, but where we'd normally do the catch-up will actually cost me a little bit more in my profits," Coole said. "Once we start getting rain, it will be so busy I'll have to hire additional help to keep up with demand."

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