Top Alabama ag stories in 2016

The following article is provided by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Drought hurts Alabama farms
Lack of rain in 2016 was the biggest story for Alabama farmers. From April to early December, many areas of the state received an inch of rain or less, leading farmers to sell cattle earlier than usual while searching for hay to feed their remaining herds through winter.

To help farmers, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries created its Hay Listing Webpage, and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System developed The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also responded by extending the “normal grazing period” for Alabama farmers, which is used for the department’s Livestock Forage Program.

While livestock farmers felt the biggest impact from dry weather, the drought also impacted corn production. According to the USDA, the average corn yield in 2016 was 122 bushels per acre, down from 147 bushels per acre in 2015.

Pine plantings were delayed for forestland owners, and a statewide burn ban meant landowners were unable to perform prescribed burns.

While farms have received more rain since December, 96 percent of the state is still experiencing drought. Exceptional drought, the driest conditions, persist in all or parts of Bibb, Blount, Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee, Chilton, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, DeKalb, Etowah, Jefferson, Lee, Randolph, Shelby, St. Clair, Talladega, Tallapoosa, Tuscaloosa and Walker counties.

FAA Rule clears the air for ag use of drones
In August, farmers were cleared to use Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones, which could revolutionize farming by helping monitor crop and livestock conditions.

The change was made possible by a rule from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). UAS flights are restricted to daylight hours, and the machine must stay in sight of the operator during flight. They cannot be flown within five miles of airports and must stay at or under 400 feet in the air. UAS operators must register their machines online, pass a written exam at an FAA-approved testing center and pass a TSA background check.

An FAA news release stated the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create 100,000 jobs in the next 10 years.

Fighting feral hog infiltration
Feral hogs continue to wreak havoc on Alabama farms, but law enforcement and government agencies are helping farmers fight back.

In November, a two-year investigation by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries led to 16 arrests for transporting, releasing or possessing live feral hogs. Thirteen of the offenders were Alabama residents. The offense is a class B misdemeanor with a $2,500 fine and possible jail time up to 180 days.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is accepting applications for its Wild Pig Damage Management Program in Alabama. Through January 20, Alabama landowners may apply for financial assistance to monitor and manage feral swine on their properties.

It’s estimated feral hogs cause $1.5 billion in annual agricultural damages nationwide. The rooting mammals have been sighted in most of Alabama’s 67 counties. Sows begin breeding at six months old and produce up to four litters of four to 12 piglets per year. Wild pig rooting damages native plant communities that provide habitat and food sources for indigenous wildlife species. Additionally, wild hogs degrade water quality and pose a serious disease threat to humans and livestock.

Improved catfish inspections at risk
After a seven-year battle to improve food safety inspections of imported catfish, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officially assumed inspection responsibilities from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April 2016. However, some national leaders are pushing to move inspections back to the FDA, though the USDA has a better record of finding and returning tainted fish.

In its first seven months of inspections, the USDA stopped five shipments of Vietnamese fish contaminated with banned chemicals. By contrast, only two shipments with known carcinogens were discovered in the last two years the FDA conducted inspections.

The U.S. Senate approved a resolution to move catfish inspections back to the FDA in May. Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions voted against the measure. The U.S. House of Representatives did not take up the resolution in the last Congress, but a new bill could be filed in 2017.

Catfish production employs over 5,800 Alabamians and annually contributes $158.2 million to the state’s economy.