An old truism goes something like this: Make hay while the sun is shining.

It sort of means the same thing as “strike while the iron is hot.”

Well, sunshine and hot we got. But, if it doesn’t rain soon, the ranchers of Henderson County will be facing pastures that look more like the iron and less like hay.

“The condition is getting serious with no rain,” said Henderson County Extension Agent Rick Hirsch. “A dry spring really puts us into a negative situation going into the summer. It’s hard to play catch-up in June, July and August.”

Just how dry have things been? According to records kept by the Athens Daily Review since 1958, last month was the third-driest May in the past 48 years. Only 1.2 inches of rain were measured at the paper.

And this is coming off the drought year 2005, which saw the least amount of rain fall on Athens since 1963, just 27.6 inches.

Conditions have farmers and ranchers thinking about Plan B, and in some cases Plan C.

“Everything from how we graze to weed control to culling our cows, all those things come into play now,” said Hirsch, “and they become more important the longer we go with no rain.”

The problem is the loss of hay, which is usually an economical source of cattle feed for ranchers. But without rain, the grass doesn’t grow, the hay doesn’t get baled, and dollars burn up in scorched pastures. The effect hits Henderson County hard, because most producers here are cow-calf operations working with a small margin of error.

“Hay production is a major part of the ag income sector, a major part of beef cattle feeding,” said Hirsch.

In an average year, he said, about 90,000 acres of hay are harvested in Henderson County. Last year, about half that was baled.

“Hay production this year is again not looking good,” Hirsch said. “Our first cutting was way off. We’re behind already.”

The consequences of two consecutive years of drought aren’t hard to forecast.

“It’ll be hard for a lot of producers to be profitable,” said Hirsch. “The cost of fertilizer, the cost of fuel, the cost of weed control — all of the things that good into good hay production — all of the inputs keep going up. We can ill afford to have another dry year.”

Of course, a good rainfall could turn the whole situation around.

“The big question is ‘when?’ When do we get our next rain?” Hirsch said. “That’s going to determine a lot. The year is still salvageable.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the county is going to get a soaker any time soon.

Joe Harris, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said Tuesday he’d been evaluating the Henderson County area and “it doesn’t look good.”

“I don’t see much potential for a drought breaker until some tropical system comes up, maybe later in the summer,” he said.

Harris said he didn’t see any significant prospect for rain in the area in the next 20 days.

In the meantime, the agricultural community in Henderson County will look to the skies and hope, and pray, Harris’ forecast is all wet.

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