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High Plains Journal, KS 08-18-06 Drought causes change in management By Jennifer Bremer Hay bales have filled feeders since mid-July and cows are grazing an alfalfa field, neither of which would happen on Craig Conover's farm during a year with normal rainfall. Conover and other cattle producers are feeding hay, distiller's grains or corn silage; grazing corn fields or alfalfa fields to accommodate the nutritional needs the cows would normally get in green pastures. The pastures are burnt up on his farm in northwest Iowa, the creek has dried up and cows are being supplemented with purchased hay, since he hasn't produced enough this year to feed his cows through the winter. "I'm already feeding hay that I wouldn't normally feed until late in the fall because there is no grass left in the pastures," says Conover, a Monona County, Iowa producer, who has 40 registered Angus cows and 20 replacement heifers. Rain has been minimal in his area 30 miles east of the Missouri River in the Loess Hills. The period from May 22 to July 31 measured about 0.7 inches of rain and then on Aug. 1, 0.35 inches of rain fell. "We are over here in a very unique area called the Loess Hills. The hills were formed by windblown soil and have very few rocks present," he says. "The soil is mostly clay, so moisture should be present most of the time, but not this year." He estimates that they are about 10 inches behind on rainfall this year, which he thinks is also due to a mild winter, with very little snowfall. Farmers rely on the snowfall to give the ground moisture and fill water sources like ponds and streams. One for the records According to the Sioux City, Iowa, weather forecasters, this year has been the driest in that area since 1936. In a normal year, Conover would produce the 400 tons of roughage that he would need to winter his cattle. This year he has approximately 200 tons of round bales on hand. A third of his hay inventory has been purchased from a hay dealer in northeast Nebraska. "Instead of making a second cutting of hay, I just turned the cows out on the hay field so they could have some nutrition from the green alfalfa plants," says Conover. Producers in some counties across the Midwest can take advantage of fields that are in the Conservation Reserve Program and have had those acres released for emergency haying and grazing due to the drought. Conover doesn't have any acres in CRP, so he must seek other means of nutrition. Iowa State University Extension forage specialist Steve Barnhart says many grass and legume-grass pastures are overgrazed or have gone dormant; whether or not rain has fallen. "Stressed pastures will respond to fertilizers, especially nitrogen, in the fall when adequate soil moisture and cooler autumn temperatures return," says Barnhart. Barnhart says that even if autumn regrowth improves, it may be critical to consider a light grazing management to allow forage plants to regain their vigor following unusually harsh summer conditions. "Continued supplemental feeding of hay or grain on pasture or in a dry-lot will lessen the dependence on the pasture and speed grass recovery," he says. Last fall, Conover decided he would kill out his old alfalfa stand and plant a new crop this spring. However, the drought led to a poor kill of the old crop. Some of the old seeding came up and the new seeding has only grown a couple inches tall. He did make one cutting of hay off of the field, which yielded way below normal and he doesn't expect another crop. Farmground also suffers Conover also raises about 10 acres of corn, which he harvests to feed his heifers. This year the corn crop doesn't look like it will yield much. "You have to go about five rows in to even see an ear. The plants are stunted and most are turning yellow or brown because of lack of moisture," he says. Other fields in the area stand about three feet tall, and did not pollinate. Conover has not decided what to do with his corn crop yet. Barnhart says that many producers are considering an alternative to combining or picking their corn since it may be damaged due to the drought. These alternatives include cutting corn silage or grazing standing corn. He says to be cautious if making those decisions. "The strongest take-home lesson for livestock producers with drought-damaged corn is to not be too hasty to get in the corn field. As long as the corn plant is still alive it will be accumulating some additional dry matter," he adds. According to Barnhart each developmental stage of corn growth will add several tons per acre of dry matter to the potential harvested product. If rains come to the area soon and the corn has pollinated, he says not to lose hope on the crop because it may still produce a decent yield. He cautions producers who are considering cutting corn silage to not cut it too early. "Just because the corn looks dry, doesn't mean the stalks are dry," says Barnhart. "Using a moisture test is a must when cutting silage." Daryl Strohbehn, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist says there are two main options to stretch hay supplies during a drought year. "Either provide supplemental feed or reduce the need for the feed by selling cows that are open, old, or have poor dispositions," he says. He also suggests weaning the calves early to reduce the nutritional needs of the cow. Then the cow can be given several different options for nutrition. Alternative feeds offer nutrition "Iowa and the Midwest have a great alternative feed product with all the ethanol plants that have been built in the past few years," adds Strohbehn. "Wet and dry distiller's grains, wet distiller's solubles and corn gluten feed are a more economical alternative to buying more expensive hay." Conover says he has been trying to buy some corn products from local elevators that have been damaged from moisture or fire. "I have a lot of neighbors that raise corn, but they already have their crop committed," he says. "I am willing to buy some damaged corn if the nutritional value can be salvaged." He is also considering buying some distiller's grains from an ethanol plant in nearby Galva. Changing the pasture grasses to more warm weather plants is something that Conover would like to do in the future to avoid problems in drought years like this year. Conover is also a livestock auctioneer and says that he has a few more sales this fall due to producers reducing their herds because of the drought in Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas. "I recently talked to an auctioneer friend in South Dakota that said they are having twice the number of cattle at the sale barns because of the drought. People are selling a little of everything--yearlings, calves and cows. "We are fortunate that consumers are still buying beef and there continues to be a good market for our end product," he says. "At least our cattle are worth something if we do have to make a selling decision."
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