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Devin Bradley opens a gate amid dry ground at James Burton's farm on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in LaFayette, Ga. As the region's drought has worsened, Burton says he has used all of his stores of hay to feed his cattle and is now having to buy hay to keep his herd fed.

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Rain too little, too late for this season but raises hope among region's farmers

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FORECAST

After midnight Tuesday: About nine-tenths of an inch to an inch-and-a-quarter of rain expected by daybreak.

Tuesday morning: Rain tapers off with a high of 74 and the sky clears.

Tuesday night: Increasing clouds, mild with rain returning overnight.

Wednesday: Rains continue for first half of the day with another chance of a thunderstorm and a high of 64. Rainfall Wednesday could total to one inch to one-and-a-third inches of rain.

Source: WRCB-TV Channel 3

With the tri-state area's rainfall deficit this year already at more than 20 inches, this week's rain is almost insultingly insufficient, essentially turning some of the region's grassless pastures into giant mud pies.

But the rain will help some, and agriculture experts across the region said farmers are trying to rebound as best they can, some planting fall crops such as winter wheat, buying hay from all over the South to feed livestock or sell livestock to keep from having to feed them.

As of 3 p.m. Monday, the last time Chattanooga had gotten 1 inch of rain in a 24-hour period was 242 days ago, according to WRCB Chief Meteorologist Paul Barys.

"That's remarkable," Barys said.

But by the end of this weekend, the Chattanooga region could get as much as 2-3 inches of rain as a couple of weather systems move through.

"That puts a little bitty indentation in it," Barys said of the rain deficit. "You don't break a drought overnight."

Barys said it takes several months of normal or better rainfall to overcome a drought and its damage.

Severe agricultural effects — stock ponds drying up, winter feed being used to keep cattle alive since fall — were widespread across the South and Southeast, where dry and drought conditions expanded significantly in November, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report released Nov. 22.

Georgia's state climatologist describes agricultural impacts from dry soils in central Georgia that have been very detrimental for peanut and cattle farmers, the report states.

In Alabama, ponds have been drying up in and around Lowndes County, and cattlemen were hauling water and using winter hay to feed cattle since late summer, according to the Drought Monitor's report. As of Nov. 22, Oneonta, Ala., in the northeastern part of the state, had gone 94 consecutive days without measurable precipitation.

The incoming rains are welcome, but they trigger decisions on the part of farmers.

That makes this year a particular gamble, because most farmers already are in the red for 2016, according to Grundy County, Tenn., University of Tennessee extension agent Creig Kimbro.

"Right now, all our crops have suffered," Kimbro said. One farmer who visited Kimbro's office Monday morning had lost 80 percent of his sweet corn crop, and nursery operators on the driest parts of the Cumberland Plateau can't dig their plants out of the drought-hardened ground, Kimbro said.

Farmers in Grundy and Marion counties are complaining of wells going dry, which forces them to look to municipal water sources as a back-up plan, he said.

"That's not good either," Kimbro said. Water utilities in most of Marion and Grundy are already conserving water, he said, and the remaining choice is to haul water in from other sources — another expensive proposition.

Recent predictions of rain are pushing farmers to decide when and how they'll invest, officials said.

Hamilton County University of Tennessee agricultural extension agent Tom Stebbins said some industry officials suggest farmers change fall grass planting to more heat-tolerant varieties, such as switchgrass.

"That's the information we're getting from some of our specialists," Stebbins said. He said farmers also will have to consider what they'll do about weeds — weeds are more tolerant to drought than crops such as fescue, alfalfa or wheat.

For homeowners Stebbins suggests watering trees and shrubs rather than lawns.

"This might be the time to spend $50 in water to at least give a tree a good drink," he said. The investment now could prevent a tree-cutting solution that could cost as much as $1,000 if the tree dies later, he said.

Beyond the region, all the Alabama and Georgia counties contiguous to those in the Chattanooga region also were listed under disaster designations, while among Southeast Tennessee counties near Chattanooga, Loudon, Van Buren and Warren counties didn't get a designation. All the counties in the southwestern corner of North Carolina also were given disaster designations.

Walker County, Ga., has been at the center of the lingering drought since the U.S. Drought Monitor first laid the bull's-eye over the tristate area earlier this year. By June, most farmers in Walker and next door in Jackson County, Ala., were among those feeding their cattle hay they had intended to reserve.

Walker County extension agent Norman Edwards said Walker and some of the surrounding counties are getting shipments of hay from hundreds of miles away.

"We've had trucks come in from all over the place — Kentucky and Florida, Mississippi, Northern Tennessee and South Georgia," Edwards said.

Meanwhile, crop farmers are readying their land for planting but keeping a wary eye toward the sky. This year, most crop farmers "were really hit hard this summer. Some were able to salvage a few crops, but others never got a crop up out of the ground," Edwards said last week.

"There are some folks getting ready to plant, but the fields are totally brown," he said. "Normally, it's green even into November."

Walker County farmer James Burton said the drought has been a punishing ordeal for most of the region's farmers.

"It's hurt us in every way," he said.

Beef prices have plummeted, and the decision to plant or not to plant is a risky wager, Burton said.

"I'm just waiting on enough rain to put in some winter wheat," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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