A sweltering July was the hottest month on record for the United States. Add major drought to the mix and the misery in much of farm country is overwhelming.

More than half of Arkansas is now in “exceptional drought” – the worst designation of the U.S. Drought Monitor. While much of the state’s row-crop land has been spared the worst of the drought, the same isn’t true for many ranchers.

How is the heat and drought being dealt with by Arkansas cattlemen? How are they preparing for winter and 2013? How available is hay and how much is costing producers?

Tom Troxel, associate head-Animal Science for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, says these “are extremely difficult times. One thing that’s very important and is often overlooked: for a cattle producer, the cows aren’t just an animal. They really care for them. To go through this time, having to cull cows in this drought is extremely stressful for the producers.

“Too often we forget how stressful such situations are for the producers. I work with cattlemen all the time and it is obvious how much they care for their herds. I have a lot of empathy for them.

“I just wish it would rain and rain.”

Among Troxel’s other comments:

On current conditions in Arkansas cattle country…

“Reports are that our cattle number sales, as far as cows, are up about 5 percent. So, we’re seeing a lot of cattle herds being cut back severely. Some herds are being sold entirely.

“There’s just no pasture to speak of.

“We have had some pop-up showers in the last few days. And southern Arkansas looks better than the northern half. But even with the pop-up showers, the pastures have greened up but we’ve not grown any quantity of grass. So, pastures are extremely short to non-existent.

“There’s almost no hay to be found in the state.”

On hay quality…

“People are baling up anything they can find. That means the nutrient value of much of the hay is extremely poor.

“Another problem with the pop-up showers is with Johnsongrass. We’re seeing a number of cases – maybe one a week -- of prussic acid poisoning. Once Johnsongrass is baled and dried out, it’s okay to feed.

“However, the real concern is with grazing animals.

“Hay quality is a big worry. When you buy hay now it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting.”

On the condition of the state’s cattle…

“We’re seeing cows beginning to get thin. The heat has a lot to do with that. Cows don’t want to eat as much in hot weather.

“Producers need to be aware of the body condition of their cows. As body condition decreases the selling price of the cattle will also decrease. So, when they decide to sell those cows, the cattlemen lose on both ends: they’ll sell a lighter weight cow and the selling price per pound will be less. So they get hit twice with the selling value.

“Cattlemen need to monitor their cows’ body conditions and try to at least maintain those. When those conditions begin to slip, they should seriously consider whether it’s time to sell.”

On the input costs of keeping cattle…

“I know of a cattle producer who bought prairie hay from Oklahoma. When you consider how much he paid for the hay along with how much cows eat, how much they waste hay, he’s looking at a feeding cost of $70 per cow, per month. For 10 cows that’s $700.

“That adds up to a major expense very fast.

“Remember, the 2012 calf crop is gone. People have weaned their calves, sold their calves.

“You’re feeding pregnant cows for the 2013 calf crop. What you’re really banking on is how much the calf will be worth next year. The drought is affecting so much of this country, how much will that calf be worth?

“I don’t have a crystal ball but lean towards believing calves will be worth a lot more next year than they were this year. When you consider how much you can afford to spend for feed today, you have to balance that with what calves will be worth in 2013. That’s the guessing game many cattlemen have to deal with, right now.”

On preparations for winter…

“A lot of producers are showing interest in planting winter annuals. Last year, parts of Arkansas were extremely dry as well.

“We got a lot of rain in November of last year. Those that planted winter annuals in September and October got a lot of grazing out of those winter annuals. That really saved them.

“Producers remember that and we’re seeing a big uptick in plans to plant winter annuals for grazing.

“Cattlemen are optimists. Hopefully, we’ll get ample rains this fall and, with the help of winter annuals, we’ll make a comeback this winter.

“However, the cows have to eat between now and then. Producers are still going to be scrambling for hay or some other feed byproducts.”

On silage and baling row-crop residues…

“There’s a lot of interest in crop residues. A lot of that was fed last year, as well.

“You have to be careful with crop residues, though, because there are chemicals approved for crop production but aren’t approved for grazing.

“Producers wanting to buy baled crop residue need to be aware of that. They need to ask what herbicides or chemicals were used on the crops. Whatever was used must be approved for grazing animals.”

See full drought coverage here.