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Knoxville, Tenn. — Early onset of dry weather is causing concern among East Tennessee beef cattle producers, a University of Tennessee forage specialist said Tuesday.

Dr. Gary Bates said loss of cattle forage grass from last year’s dry weather plus an early dry spell this year has many producers worried.

“I saw stands of grass this spring where 20-50 percent of the grass was killed by dry weather last year,” Bates said. “If pastures dry up this year and farmers have to feed baled hay to their cows in the summer, we could really run into a hay shortage and problems this winter.”

Bates said forage shortages affect cattle nutrition and can reduce next year’s calf crop. An extreme shortage could force farmers to sell cattle they cannot feed, creating a market glut and serious economic loss for producers.

“It’s a delayed effect,” Bates said. “You don’t see the dramatic problems right now — they show up next year.”

The National Weather Service in Morristown reports rainfall close to normal for the year near Knox County, but unusually hot, dry weather so far this month may change that.

Upper East Tennessee, including the Tri-Cities area, already faces a 3.68-inch deficit for 1999.

“We are not in a critical or emergency situation right now, but we are approaching that,” Bates said. “At this point, a couple of inches of slow rain this month would probably alleviate many of our concerns. But if we don’t get any more rain this month we will have problems, and July is normally a dry month.”

Bates said more farmers are alternating traditional fescue with summer grasses such as Bermuda that are more drought tolerant.

“Many producers in Tennessee are switching to Bermuda grass for forage in summer,” Bates said. “That is one of the things farmers are doing to try to adapt to harsh summer conditions.

If you can get cattle off the fescue in summer, it helps the grass survive drought and they may not lose that stand of grass.”

Tennessee’s beef industry generates more than $400 million in sales receipts yearly.