High Plains Journal, KS
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."