Drought has cut a devastating swath across the U.S., slowing hay growth to a near standstill, burning up pastures and severely stunting cornfields.
As of mid-July, producers are culling beef cattle as hay prices rise and little or no feed is available, forage industry experts report. Commercial hay growers and corn growers, as well as dairy producers who grow their own feed, are deciding whether to leave fields be and wait for rain or mow, chop or graze them for forage.
Some wonder if they’ll have enough forage through winter.
Below are snapshots from several states, telling of growing-season challenges and how farmers and ranchers are dealing with them:
“For most of the state, this is the worst drought of anybody’s memory,” says John Jennings, University of Arkansas Extension forage specialist. The majority of Arkansas is under exceptional or extreme drought conditions.
Only the southeastern part of the state has had rain, Jennings adds. “Everybody else is struggling for any kind of pasture at all and desperately trying to find hay.”
Dryland hay yields were low last year across the state – and even less this year. Spring hay yield was down by 50-60% of normal, with no second cutting in the offing. The small number of growers with hay under irrigation have long lists of customers waiting for product.
“So people are looking at using crop residue and anything else they can get – or shipped-in hay from other states.”
Many beef herds have been culled heavily; some were completely liquidated, he says. “I think we have the weather that Oklahoma and Texas had last year.”
“Our alfalfa yields are all down – non-irrigated and irrigated,” says Barb Kinnan, Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (N.A.M.A.) executive director.
Only 14% of Nebraska alfalfa is rated good to excellent compared to 83% in 2011, according to National Ag Statistics Service numbers in mid-July. Pasture and range conditions are rated 7% good to excellent.
“It’s hot and dry,” Kinnan says. “A few areas have gotten some rains, but I drove north through the center of the state. There was some dryland alfalfa that they got one cutting off and it was done. And this was in mid-June. The grass pastures, the sandhills, looked more like it was mid- to late August.”
Many N.A.M.A. members are struggling, she says. “Everything is suffering. We had 20 days straight of triple-digit numbers. We usually don’t hit the triple digits until mid- to late July and August. But we had those in June.”
Hay prices have ranged from $200 to 250/ton “for pretty much anything,” Kinnan says. “I’ve even heard of $150-180/ton for round bales of bromegrass.”
“We’re just burning up out here; we’re down anywhere from 20% to 30% on first-cutting yield,” says Donn Randall, crop and forage program manager with the Wyoming Business Council’s agribusiness division. “All of our counties in the state of Wyoming, except for Teton, were declared disaster counties.”
Alfalfa and other forages came out of dormancy so early this spring, they were nipped by frost and set back, he says. The normal spring snowstorms didn’t happen and irrigation water needed in April wasn’t turned on until May. “Then we got some really hot weather, and it just screwed things up.”
By the end of June, Randall was handling calls from horse owners all over the U.S., looking for hay. In mid-July, he reports, one ranch sold more than 750 steers that would normally go to market in August or September. “They ran out of grass. I’ve heard stories where steers, at 600 lbs, were out on pasture maybe seven weeks and gained only 5 lbs.”
The past few years, Texas cattle have been migrated to states including Randall’s to graze available grass. “Now our beef producers are doing the same thing. They’re moving them to North Dakota.”
Wildfires, like in many other drought-hit areas, are a concern, he says. Many people are on “fire-suppression mode.”
“So, we’re in a drought, hay yield is so much lower and the demand is going to be there,” Randall says.
Much of Texas has been getting timely rains, although areas are “still in pretty bad drought,” says Larry Redmon, Texas AgriLife Extension forage specialist. “Even with the rainfall that we have had, it just takes awhile for some of these grasses to recover. Their root systems were decimated. It’s been almost like starting with a new establishment this spring.”
Beef breeding-cow numbers are “at the bottom right now. We sold more breeding cows last year than any other year in history,” he says. Producers have been encouraged not to restock their herds.
“You have to think in terms of, not only the pocketbook, but also the environment. Even if you have money to buy hay and can afford to feed animals, they’re still grazing those pastures down to the soil surface. Then you get a rainfall event, you don’t capture the water, it runs off and takes hundreds of years of topsoil with it. It takes organic matter, nutrients and bacteria into waterways.”
Redmon and university specialists in other states warn of the potential for prussic acid and nitrate poisonings in cattle from drought-stressed forages, including bermudagrass and sorghum-sudan crosses.
A “perfect-storm” set of circumstances led to 15 head of Texas cattle dying from what looked to be prussic acid in June after grazing drought-stressed bermudagrass. See “Prussic-Acid Cattle Deaths Isolated, Experts Say.”
Some southern Wisconsin producers are debating whether to mow and bale stunted, droughty corn or chop the immature crop and deal with seepage problems, says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage specialist.
Hay growers in the same area of the state have lost one cutting and may lose a second of the four to five cuttings they usually expect.
“It’s pretty bad down here,” says the Madison-based specialist. “This is probably going to be one of the worst in our recorded history, right after the drought of 1933. And we’ve got one of our warmest years on record. We normally break 90º about nine days a year and we’ve already been above 90º 24 days this year.”
Optimistic they’ll get rain soon, forage producers are already buying small grains to plant by mid-August on newly vacated corn land.
“Oats would be the first recommendation but I’m hearing that we don’t have a very big supply of seed. In the absence of oats, we would probably go to triticale or rye or wheat or barley, in about that order,” Undersander says. Corn may be another choice; if planted in early August, it will yield about the same as oats.
But before planting small grains, producers should be warned to check replant restrictions on herbicides used on the corn, he says. Then check nitrogen (N) levels – usually 60-70 lbs/acre of N are needed to get a decent yield.
The majority of the state is abnormally dry, completely opposite of the previous year’s stormy, wet conditions, says Dave Swartz, Penn State Extension senior dairy educator.
“Most of the corn is under significant stress. Most places have decent pollination of corn, but certainly we won’t have the tonnage for corn silage. As far as the hay crop goes, we had a good first cutting of alfalfa and a good first cutting of grass hay.” Since then, hay yields dropped due to lack of moisture.
Nothing much is left in pastures because the hot days put cool-season grasses quickly into dormancy, Swartz adds.
Producers are planning to harvest corn for silage early and plant forage oats or sorghum. “There is a tremendous interest in planting triticale in the fall so they can have a fairly high tonnage of forage next spring,” he says.
“The vast majority of our state is still in a very severe drought despite a few afternoon showers of late,” says Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage specialist.
Pastures are completely worn out; beef producers are culling herds and feeding hay, he adds. Spring did yield a good crop of winter annuals and at least one cutting of bermuda-grass was harvested in some areas.
“But many are still struggling to make the first hay cutting. Many have had to turn their cattle out on their hay acres.”
“We are much better off than much of the U.S, but conditions are deteriorating rapidly” because of a lack of rain in July, says J.W. Schroeder, North Dakota State University Extension dairy specialist.
“As I drove around portions of the state, I saw some very good crops, but the leaves of the corn were sticking straight up, looking for rain,” he says.
“I see a lot of hay in yards as well, but there’s going to be a reluctance to let much of that go for sale if we don’t get a second crop. Third crop looks doubtful at this point.”
Contingency feeding plans, he adds, are in the making, with some crops not making grain. “A few are putting hotwire fencing around those fields that will not make harvest – so they are grazing to get something out of the investment and extend the grazing period.”
If making use of alternate forages, dairy producers in particular should have them tested for nutrient value and target high-quality forages to milking herds, Schroeder advises.
“Many are going to try to reduce the expensive components. Before they go too far, they have to look at the impact of alternate and lower-quality feeds on milk production. Availability and quality are going to be a significant challenge; I’m afraid that lower production may become the norm for this year.”