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Hay supply: Short and spendy

Adjust your cattle operation to survive drought through culling and alternative feeds.

Mindy Ward, Editor, Missouri Ruralist

June 21, 2023

5 Min Read
Tractor loads bails of hay onto flatbed truck
MONEY LOAD: Hay put up already this year is fetching high prices as dry weather persists, leaving many livestock owners wondering if there will be enough to supplement stressed pastures and use as winter feed. Mindy Ward

At a Glance

  • Missouri drought reduced feed sources for cattle.
  • Cull cattle hard to keep stocking rates low on pasture.
  • Sorghum-sudangrass is in short supply as an emergency feed source.

Spotty summer rains brought welcomed moisture to some pastures across Missouri in early June, but will it be enough to eliminate tough decisions farmers must make in terms of feed source and cow numbers?

Early-season drought conditions set in across much of Missouri through the first week of June, creating thin hay stands. Craig Roberts, MU Extension state forage specialist, says livestock producers have two short-term options for dealing with the impending short forage supply:

  1. Cull herds now to lower stocking rates.

  2. Look for emergency supplemental feed.

Across the state, MU Extension agronomists reported thin pasture stands and low yields.

“Most barns are empty. Most fencerows are empty,” says Terry Halleran, an MU Extension agronomist in southwest Missouri. “Farmers are getting nervous.”

Tough growing conditions

In north-central Missouri, Extension agronomist Valerie Tate reports similar conditions.

“Hayfields that usually make 100 bales made 30,” she says. In her area of Linneus, Mo., hay is selling for about $100 per bale. Costs may tick higher as a second cutting of hay is not guaranteed in some regions.

The dry weather started in early spring across the state. Roughly a quarter-inch of rain fell during April at Andy McCorkill’s farm.

“It stayed cool too late, and the fescue just flat didn’t grow a lot of places,” says the MU Extension livestock specialist and cattle producer. “Hay put up so far has been decent quality, but the tonnage has been probably half the average and some only a third.”

In Missouri, May is typically the wettest month of the year. However statewide rainfall was 1.03 inches lower than normal. The lack of moisture triggered drought conditions, and by June 1, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed D3 extreme drought intensity in central Missouri and a small pocket of northeastern Missouri. Most of the top half of the state is already in moderate to severe (D2) drought.

While moisture from recent rains help, it might not be enough to restore depleted hayfields or pastures. So, farmers will need to decide what to do with their cows.

Cull and cull again

Some farmers culled as tight as they can, McCorkill says. “Still there is more room to cull when you are short on forage.”

Cattle producers cannot keep the same stocking rates on depleted pastures. Too many cows will overgraze to the point of the animal actually eating dirt, Roberts points out. Ultimately, it leads to less forage productivity the following spring.

Farmers need to reduce the number of cows on stressed pastures. And the price is right.

“This is a prime opportunity, with the slaughter cow market being as good as what it is, to really take a close look at your cow herd and ship those in our herd that aren't doing their job for you right now,” McCorkill says.

He adds that cattle producers should take the advice of the late MU Extension livestock specialist Eldon Cole, known as the “Four O’s of culling” — old, open, ornery and other.

“We all have them in our cattle herds," McCorkill adds. “Now is the time to let them go. They are no longer a good employee in your operation. They are not doing the work.”

Sorghum-sudangrass supply issue

Nationally, Missouri ranks third in number of cows. As a leading cow-calf state, it relies heavily on pasture grazing in the summer and putting up hay in the winter as its primary feed source. This year’s drought depleted both.

“Farmers need to look for alternative feeds,” McCorkill warns. The go-to forage during a dry season is planting sorghum-sudangrass.

“It grows fast and provides a lot of forage in a short amount of time through the summer months,” McCorkill says. However, this year it is hard to find.

He says livestock producers may need to switch to millet or even crabgrass. “Anything that will put on a lot of tonnage quickly.” These should be planted sooner rather than later.

“As we get later into summer and day length shortens, warm-season plants will slow growth, reducing the benefits of planting,” McCorkill says.

While adding forage helps this summer, livestock owners need to look ahead at winter feed plans as hay may be in short supply and high-priced.

Find alternative feed

McCorkill says there are few options for livestock producers when it comes to alternative feeds.

Corn silage may be back in the feed mix again. “There was an awful lot of corn taken as silage because it didn’t make last year,” McCorkill says. “Farmers have it in the mindset now as to how to make it work.”

With corn prices dipping in recent months coupled with the dry conditions, he expects to see more silage used as winter feed this year.

Some farmers may consider using soybeans as hay. McCorkill notes that soybeans are very difficult to dry-bale and retain leaves, so making baleage is the better option.

“You must check herbicide levels for statements about using the foliage as a forage source prior to making a decision,” he explains. “If you have a poorer-doing field or two of beans, it may be worth considering soybeans as an option.”

Those cattle producers who rely on forage need to assess pastures in late summer and consider a nitrogen application to boost fall grazing stockpiles.

No matter the feed option, a little more rain would help. “At least we are not as hot this year like last year,” McCorkill adds. “What little moisture we’ve seen at least is not taken out of the ground.”

Ready pastures for next season, now

This might be a good year to consider planting summer annuals into “killed strips” in existing cool-season pastures such as tall fescue.

In a 1995 study, MU researchers Tim Reinbott and Dale Blevins sprayed and killed tall fescue in 12-inch bands on 30-inch centers in research plots in Columbia in mid-Missouri and Mount Vernon in southwestern Missouri. After the fescue died, they planted fast-growing annuals such as sorghum-sudangrass or grain sorghum into the killed strips.

Reinbott said this provided quick growth when cool-season grasses waned because of heat and lack of precipitation.

To consider effectiveness without using additional herbicides after the first year, researchers tested strips for three years. The first year produced the most. By the third year, fescue was creeping back into the strips.

“This is a great way of interplanting a warm-season grass into a cool-season grass,” Reinbott said.

The full abstract for “Multiyear Use of Killed Strips for Forage and Grain Sorghum Production in a Tall Fescue Pasture” is published in the Journal of Production Agriculture.

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About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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