Mike Rankin

I’m not Depression Era old, but I’ve been around for a while — call it aged, Medicare eligible, experienced, or whatever you like.

Back in my grade school days, we had nuclear attack drills whereby my classmates and I learned the correct method to dive under our desks and cover our heads. Presumably, this would protect us as the three-story brick school building and all of the fourth graders, who were located above us, came crashing down.

In the event there was enough warning, though I’m not sure if the principal had his own aircraft radar tracking system or not, we also were instructed on exiting the classroom in an orderly fashion to take up residence in the fallout shelter, which doubled as the boiler room.

It was the height of the Cold War, although none of us snotty-nosed kids really grasped the true gravity of the situation in those years that immediately followed the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, we were taught by our parents that it was a good thing to beat Russia in the Olympics.

This brings us to COVID-19. Pandemic training has been more of a baptism by fire than a desk-diving experience. Next time, and hopefully there isn’t one, we’ll do better. We’re all trying to figure this thing out as we go, unless you happen to have a virologist in the family. Unfortunately, all of this learning is coming with a steep human and economic toll.

There is no production, marketing, and retail business that is nimble enough not to be affected. Diving under desks won’t provide even perceived protection; however, purchasing toilet paper by the semi load seems to ease the anxiety level. It’s the “We’ll wipe it out one way or another” approach.

You’ve already read and seen enough about personal hygiene and social distancing. All of Dr. Fauci’s rules apply on the farm, as they do in a city apartment. But I’m not going there. Rather, let’s look at how this COVID-19 situation might impact forage producers, which it most certainly will.

First, let’s review where forage production sits in the big scheme of things. It goes something like this: forage–livestock/exporter–processor–wholesaler/retailer–consumer.

Forage production sits at the front end of the food chain, and plants will continue to grow regardless of what happens down the chain. As of this writing, what’s happening down the chain is not characterized by good news at any level. Dairy farmers have been plagued with low milk prices for the past four years as a result of world dairy stockpiles and trade wars. This was supposed to be a big bounce-back year. Now, many are dumping milk down the drain or onto their fields. Milk prices have tanked.

On the beef side, some processing plants temporarily shuttered their doors and market prices have headed south. How long this will last is anybody’s guess, but there will be carnage, even with government payouts.

Back to forage. Unlike our brethren who grow fresh fruits and vegetables, harvested forage crops have one important redeeming characteristic — a long storage life without loss in quality. This, of course, assumes the crop is stored properly, pandemic year or not. With storage options, most commercial hay operations should be able to weather this storm if a drop in demand occurs because of depressed markets and/or lower cattle numbers. I don’t anticipate people will be burning haystacks because of a market price lapse.

For beef and dairy producers, forage must still be chopped, baled, or grazed. Forage quality will be more important than ever to help offset purchased feed costs during these down markets. Fortunately, harvesting and grazing forage is easily done with more than adequate social distancing.

Forage production anchors our ruminant food chain. That chain has been severely battered and will likely remain so for a while, but not forever. Our efforts to produce high-yielding, high-quality forage should not change this year, but there certainly will be a new element of farm and ranch safety involved.

This article appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.